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The Red Flag in the Flowerpot

Bradlee's "Residual Fear"
In All the President’s Men, both film and book versions, Bob Woodward signaled to his mysterious source that he’d like to meet by moving a flowerpot with a flag in it on his balcony. When Deep Throat wanted to arrange a meeting, Woodward said, he’d code the message into Woodward’s copy of the New York Times.   

An hour later, as I sat out in the back garden with his wife, Elsa, Bob brought out a bottle of white wine. I mentioned that I’d uncovered some information in Ben’s files that I didn’t know quite how to handle.

Bob’s ears perked up at the mention of a secret, and he flashed a knowing smile. “All biographers are concealers,” he said.

At that point I was still writing a book with Ben, not about him, but I had the first flicker of the realization that writing about your mentor’s mentor is a trickier proposition than it seems.

Over the next year, the job changed. Ben decided he didn’t want to write another book after all, but told me he’d cooperate if I wanted to write about him on my own. He opened his entire life to me, from his archives at the Washington Post to his friends, his colleagues, his dinner table, and his lounge chairs by the pool.

This is not to say that he bared his soul. He didn’t divulge any deep private thoughts, in part because I’m not sure he has any. He just answered my questions. “I’m not hiding anything,” he said to me one winter day in his living room. For a moment I thought he was going to tell me some great secret. Then he said, “I might have bopped a couple of dames that I shouldn’t have, but I think I’ve been pretty honest about that.”

Nothing ever seemed out of bounds, even the big stuff. “I don’t give a fuck what you write about me,” he told me at dinner one night. And when I brought him material that questioned the established narrative of Watergate, he said, “Don’t feel that you have to protect me. Just follow your nose.”

Ben’s Watergate files weren’t the most organized part of his archive, but as a window into the guts of the reporting, they were mesmerizing. One of the more tantalizing items, from the start, was a dense seven-page memo with a set of initials at the top. It was hard to read, a faint copy of a typewritten document, and contained more than 100 data points, seemingly taken down in rapid-fire style by Carl soon after an interview. It was dated December 4, with no year.

By November of 1972, after President Nixon had been reelected, the Watergate story had run cold. Desperate for any kind of lead, Carl and Bob—with permission from Ben—decided to approach the grand jurors in the criminal case. In a long passage in All the President’s Men, Woodward and Bernstein report that they made contact with several grand jurors but didn’t get anywhere with them. This was a dubious enterprise, no matter how you slice it. The Post’s lawyers had tried to advise Ben against it; though approaching a grand juror might not have been legal, it was certainly illegal for a grand juror to violate the confidentiality of the proceedings. “I wouldn’t be too literal-minded about that,” Bob told me later. “I mean, it was a dicey, high-wire thing to do. But that’s what we did. That’s what the whole enterprise was.”

In early December, Judge John Sirica was told by prosecutors that a grand juror had been approached by the Post reporters but had revealed nothing. Incensed, Sirica called Woodward and Bernstein into court two weeks later and warned against any further meddling. “Had they actually obtained information from that grand juror,” he wrote later, “they would have gone to jail.” According to the Post’s lawyers, who negotiated on their behalf, Sirica almost locked them up anyway.

Before the scolding from Sirica, Bernstein visited the apartment of a woman he identified, in the book, as “Z.” She wouldn’t talk to him in person, but she slipped her number under the door. “Your articles have been excellent,” she told him, advising him to read their own reporting carefully. “There is more truth in there than you must have realized,” she said. “Your perseverance has been admirable.” She sounded, Carl thought, “like some kind of mystic.”

A few paragraphs in to that old seven-page memo lay a description of a familiar-sounding source: “CB arrived at her home about 7:45 p.m. identified myself through a closed door and she immediately responded, ‘Your articles have been excellent.’ ” Later, by phone, she told him: “Your persistence has been admirable.”

I scanned the rest of the memo: All of the quotes attributed to Z in the book matched this interview. And there was no doubt, in the memo, how Z knew what she knew: “Of course, I was on the grand jury,” she said plainly.

It was late at night. I was sitting in a remote farmhouse in Rapidan, Virginia, and I could hardly believe what I was reading. For four decades, Carl and Bob have insisted that the grand jurors they contacted had given them no information. For four decades, that story endured, as it was replayed in interviews and reread in library copies of All The President’s Men, and as Woodward and Bernstein and ­Bradlee became a holy trinity of newspaper journalism. But, according to the memo, it didn’t appear to be true: Z was no mystic; she was a grand juror in disguise, and had apparently broken the law by talking. Woodward and Bernstein had always denied it—in 1974, and as recently as 2011.