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The Red Flag in the Flowerpot

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Bob turned to me. I had worked for him; he had given an impromptu toast at my wedding. You know me and the world we live in, he said. People who didn’t like him and didn’t like the Post—the “fuckers out there,” as Ben had called them—were going to seize on these comments. “Don’t give fodder to the fuckers,” Bob said, and once he lit on this phrase he repeated it a couple of times. The quotes from the interview with Barbara were nothing more than outtakes from Ben’s book, he said. Ben hadn’t used them, and so I shouldn’t use them, either.

That argument didn’t make sense, and I said so. Bob told me it was his “strong recommendation” that I not use the quotes, then that it was his “emphatic recommendation.” Then, when that got no truck: “Don’t use the quotes, Jeff.”

He closed by making a direct, personal appeal to Ben. “You’re this legend,” he said. “You’re the editor.” Ben’s doubts were going to mean something to people. Ben did his aw-shucks routine, but he had clearly made the calculation that Nixon’s resignation, and the reporting that had contributed to it, weren’t contingent on whether Deep Throat had watched Bob’s balcony for flowerpot updates. That was on Bob and Carl, not on Ben or on the Post.

At the end of the meeting, when Bob asked for his final opinion, Ben said, “I’m okay with it, and I think I’m going to come out of it fine. So you two work it out.”

When we got up from the table, Bob hugged Ben and then walked out.

Two days after the meeting, I went to Ben’s office to talk it over. “Why has Woodward got his bowels in an uproar?” Ben growled.

“I think it’s very strange, I have to be honest with you,” I said. “But you want to know something strange? This was one of those interviews you did with Barbara, of which there are maybe twelve or thirteen. I just went down and looked in the tapes. Every single one of them is there but this one.”

“What does that mean?” Ben asked.

“I don’t know.”

“Do you think Woodward’s got it?”

“Maybe,” I said. He laughed, and then I laughed. The Watergate parallels were a little much, though we were surely imagining things. “His reaction to this thing was off the charts.”

“Off the charts!” Ben said. “It suggests that he’s really worried. That it might be true.”

Bob and Carl have always said that they knew they were on to something when the campaign staffers they interviewed reacted with such fear when asked about the break-in. Bob’s reaction to Ben’s doubt, the palpable fear, had aroused my suspicions. If they were willing to dress Z up, might they not have hung something extra on Deep Throat too? It was, as Ben would say, an idea that could be thought.

“It’s inconceivable to me,” Ben said, “that in his preparation for all of this, to strengthen his case, he didn’t neaten things up a little—we all do that! … He thinks it is a critical and fatal attack on his integrity, and I don’t think it is.” Then, a moment later: “There’s nothing in it that attacks the verity of his research.”

“Zero.”

“It’s just a little … ”

“A few of the bells and whistles,” I said. “Were all the bells and whistles those exact bells and whistles?”

“Where he had 90 percent, he was going for 100 percent,” Ben said. “And it’s that last lunge that drubs you.”

We talked a while longer, and then I got up to leave. As I made my way to the door, Ben dispatched me with a backslap and an admonition: “Keep the faith.”


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