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The Red Flag in the Flowerpot

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Toward the end of our interview, Bob pulled the transcripts toward him and said, “Let me keep this. I’ll put it in my Brad­lee file.” I told him that was no problem.

But when I got home later and listened to the interview, my heart sank. Bob had repeated that one phrase fifteen times in twenty minutes. I had a bad feeling.

Two days later, on a Saturday morning, an e-mail from Bob arrived. It was pleasant but direct: What was the date of ­Barbara’s interview with Ben, and where was the tape of that interview?

On Sunday night, at 10:45, another e-mail came in, this one from Sally. Bob had come over to their house, and he was agitated. He wanted to be there the next morning when I came to look for the tape.

At 8:30 on Monday morning I called over to N Street. Sally picked up and told me what had happened. When she and Ben had gotten home from dinner the night before, there had been an urgent message from Bob on their machine. She called him back, and he ended up coming over and staying for nearly two hours. As soon as he arrived, it was clear that he was deeply worried.

The way Bob saw it, the publication of those quotations from Ben would undermine his own legacy, Ben’s legacy, and the legacy of the Post on Watergate. I asked Sally what to expect when I got there, and she said I should expect for Bob to make a loyalty argument—to him, to Ben, to the paper.

Then she asked if I wanted her to be there for the meeting, and because I didn’t know Ben’s state of mind I told her that I’d be more comfortable if she were in the house somewhere. The only situation I wasn’t sure I could handle, I told her, was if both Bob and Ben were to turn on me together.

One of the maids let me in a little after 9:30 a.m. “Woodward, is that you?” Ben called out when he heard the front door close.

“No, it’s just me,” I said. Ben was finishing his breakfast, and I saw that he had a marked-up copy of the documents I had given to Bob in his right hand.

“So I guess I’ve really stirred the hornet’s nest here with Bob,” I said.

“It sure seems that way,” he said. Then he asked what I thought had upset Bob the most.

This was the moment of truth. I knew that how I answered would shape everything that followed. I told him I was starting to believe that this had struck such a chord with Bob because maybe there was some portion of the Deep Throat story that really wasn’t quite straight. Maybe it was some of the flowerpot and garage stuff. Who knew? There was a lot of Hollywood in that story, but we’d all gone along with some of the more questionable details because everything else about the story turned out to be true.

Ben smiled and shrugged his shoulders. “That’s all I was saying,” he said.

My worry fell away in a great rush. People who know Ben well talk about these moments of telescopic intimacy, where he makes you feel that you’re standing at the center of the world and he’s right there with you. I had never felt it for myself, until now.

When Bob arrived, he didn’t look like he’d slept a lot. We shook hands, but only in the most perfunctory way. Ben sat at the head of the dining-room table, and I sat to Ben’s left, facing Bob. There was no small talk. Bob had brought a thick manila folder with him, which he set down heavily on the table in a way that he meant for us to notice. When Ben asked what it was, Bob said, “Data.” Then he asked Ben what he thought of the whole situation.

“I’ve known this young man for some years now,” Ben said, meaning me, “and I trust his skills and his intent.” Then he looked down at the transcript and said, “Nothing in here really bothers me, but I know there’s something in here that bothers you. What’s in here that bothers you?”

Bob went into his pitch, which he proceeded to repeat over the course of the meeting. He would read the “residual fear” line out loud, and then say he couldn’t figure out how Ben could still have had doubts about his reporting so many years after Nixon resigned. This was the unresolvable crux of the problem, and one they circled for the duration of the meeting: How could Ben have doubted the flowerpots and the garage meetings, when the rest of the reporting had turned out to be true? Bob thought this was inconsistent and hurtful. Ben didn’t. Bob tried everything he could to get Ben to disavow what he had said, or at least tell me I couldn’t use it. Ben wouldn’t do either of those things. “Bob, you’ve made your point,” Ben said after Bob had made his pitch four or five times. “Quit while you’re ahead.”


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