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The Red Flag in the Flowerpot

Bradlee's "Residual Fear"
They would meet, Woodward said, in the middle of the night, at the bottom level of an underground garage. In 2005, Vanity Fair identified former FBI official W. Mark Felt as Deep Throat, but some questions about the story remain.  

So what did Woodward and Bernstein actually learn from Z? They learned who the grand jury was most interested in, that White House Chief of Staff Bob Haldeman and presidential assistant John Ehrlichman had received information from wiretaps, and that White House Counsel John Dean was “very involved.” In early 1973, asked by Senator Sam Ervin for his best and most important leads, Bob put Z’s information on the same level as Deep Throat’s. That’s a pretty high level.

A few weeks later, I went over the memo with Ben in his office. “It doesn’t ring a huge bell,” he said. “I don’t ever remember probing whether they had talked to a grand juror. Maybe because I was scared that they had.”

When I had a conference call with Carl and Bob last week to ask them to comment on Z’s identity, they conceded that she was a grand juror, but insisted that Carl hadn’t known it when he first went to visit her and said they’d disguised her only to protect their source. They said they’d long since forgotten the episode. “This is a footnote to a footnote,” Bob protested. But perhaps the most telling moment had occurred when I reached Carl on his own, earlier that day. Right before we hung up, he had said, wryly, “Maybe they’ll send us to jail after all.”

In April of 2010, Carol, Ben’s secretary, called to tell me that somebody had located a couple of stray Bradlee boxes at the Post’s storage facility. In one of the boxes were two interviews that Ben had done with Barbara Feinman, who was helping him with his memoir, in 1990.

I mean the crime itself was really not a great deal. Had it not been for the Nixon resignation it would be really a blip in history. The Iran-Contra hearing was a much more significant violation of the democratic ethic than anything in Watergate.

Later came a longer section that told me more about what it felt like at the Post during Watergate than anything else I’d read. “None of the re-creations that I’ve seen do justice to the absolute passion this city had for that story,” Ben said. Other editors, lawyers, friends would all call each night to ask, “Jesus, what have we got tomorrow? Jesus, you sure you’re right?”

BB: Dealing with Woodward and Bernstein became—as they became more skilled in subterfuge, as they became more skilled in double meanings and triple meanings and quadruple, it became quite hard to deal with … Their great habit was to come around about 7:30 at night to say they had a helluva story.

BF: Did they do that on purpose?

BB: Of course they did it on purpose. Because they thought the guard would be down and they could slip it into the paper without the usual sort of grilling.

BF: Were they scared of you at all?

BB: They say they were but I’m not sure.

Later in the interview, Ben talked about Bob’s famous secret source, whom he claimed to have met in an underground garage in rendezvous arranged via signals involving flowerpots and newspapers. “You know I have a little problem with Deep Throat,” Ben told Barbara.

Did that potted [plant] incident ever happen? … and meeting in some garage. One meeting in the garage? Fifty meetings in the garage? I don’t know how many meetings in the garage … There’s a residual fear in my soul that that isn’t quite straight.

I read it over a few times to make sure. Did Ben really have doubts about the Deep Throat story, as it had been passed down from newsroom to book to film to history? And if he did, what did that mean? I wrote Bob to set up an interview.

After 45 minutes of prepared questions about Watergate in Bob’s living room, I slid the relevant pages of the transcript of Ben’s interview with Barbara across the table.

Bob read silently for a while. “Where he’s saying, ‘There’s a residual fear in my soul that that isn’t quite straight,’ what’s …” He trailed off. He knew the news as soon as he saw it.

“That’s what I was curious about,” I said.

Seven minutes after he’d started reading, he put the pages down and looked up at me. He was visibly shaken. “I’m not sure what …” he said, all vigor drained from his voice. Then, quietly: “What’s the question?”

“There is no question,” I said uncertainly.

“You know, I can understand,” Bob said after another minute or two. “Look, he’s got to be—you’ve got to understand his strength as a skeptic. And that he would say, ‘There’s a residual fear in my soul that that isn’t quite straight.’ ” He laughed. “I mean, that’s Ben. That’s—it was right, it worked, but ‘there’s a residual fear in my soul that that isn’t quite straight.’ ” I could tell from the repetition of that one phrase that Bob wasn’t quite convincing himself, even as he later told me to “embrace that thought.”