The Red Flag in the Flowerpot

Ben Bradlee and Bob Woodward at the All the President's Men premiere in 1976.Photo: Ron Galella/Wire Image/Getty Images

One day in early 2007, Bob Woodward poked his head into my office. He and his wife, Elsa, had been out for dinner the night before with Ben Bradlee and his wife, Sally Quinn. Bradlee had written a memoir in 1995, but he had another book left on his contract, and he and Sally were looking for somebody to help them out. “I told them they should hire you,” Bob said.

My office was on the third floor of Bob’s house, down the hall from the framed apology from Nixon’s press secretary that sits at the top of the staircase. I was back working as Bob’s research assistant for a few months, after having more or less lived in his house from 1999 to 2002. Bob had been my first real boss, hiring me when I was 23. I’d been with him on September 11, as he charged toward the Capitol while the plane presumably targeting it was still in the air, and had helped him begin Bush at War, the first of his blockbuster portraits of the Bush presidency that were a late turning point in his legendary career. As a reporter, I was in awe of him. I had also gotten to know Carl Bernstein, who called often and sometimes stayed in the guest bedroom on the other end of the third floor. I still remember the charge I got out of relaying Carl’s phone messages—­Bernstein for Woodward.

Carl was important to Bob, but Ben Brad­lee was something entirely different. Bob revered him, and so I did, too. I had only met Ben once, for a few seconds in Bob’s kitchen, but I had seen All the President’s Men. When Bob said, “I told them they should hire you,” I leaped at the chance.

A few weeks later, I walked down to the Post building on 15th Street. To say that Ben had no idea who I was, or what I was doing there, isn’t quite true. We had ­talked briefly at his home, when Sally laid out a plan for the book and Ben mostly rolled his eyes; and Carol, Ben’s secretary, had also surely prepped him for my arrival that morning. But it was almost true.

“What can I do for you?” he asked.

I recited the things Sally had told me to say—we can take it slow; I can do some preliminary work and see if it turns into anything; if there’s no book there, then we won’t force it—and when I was through, he looked at me blankly.

“I’ve already written one book,” he said. “I’m not in any big rush to write another one.”

I said I understood, and began to put my notebook away.

Then Ben mentioned that he had a bunch of boxes in storage someplace and had no idea what was in them. “Would you like to look at those?” he asked.

“I would love to look at those,” I said.

They came in tranches of four, seven, and nine—brown legal boxes, numbered sequentially and marked “Bradlee.” Courteous custodial workers wheeled them out of the elevator and through the chiming glass doors that mark the entrance to the seventh-floor executive suite of the Washington Post building.

The first box I opened was so filled with onionskin copies of Ben’s correspondence that its sides were bowed. I pulled one of the folders at random and came across a 1977 letter to Katharine Graham, then the Post’s publisher:

Dear Mrs. Graham:

Messrs. Eugene Meyer and Philip L. Graham must be turning over in their graves because of the way you are dragging down what used to be a wonderful newspaper.

In my humble opinion, I think the persons really responsible for the Washington Post’s decline are Benjamin C. Bradlee and Philip L. Geyelin.

Beneath it was Ben’s response:

Dear Mr. Dodderidge:

Your letter to Mrs. Graham reminded me of the story about W. C. Fields sitting with a drink in his hand in his garden one afternoon.

His secretary interrupted him repeatedly to tell him that a strange man wanted to see him and refused to say what he wanted to see him about. Finally Fields told his secretary to give the man “an equivocal answer—tell him to go fuck himself.”

This was going to be fun.

I came in every afternoon to read. I didn’t spend much time with the real Ben at first. For a while, I had no idea whether he knew what I was up to. One early “meeting” ended when I asked him how much thought he had put into his letters and he said, “The number of letters I wrote twice you could put in your ear.” Another ended when he started working on a crossword puzzle while I was in the middle of a sentence.

Adapted from Yours in Truth, by Jeff Himmelman (Random House; May). © 2012 Jeff Himmelman.

Fact-Checking Woodstein
In All The President’s Men and ever since, Woodward and Bernstein have maintained that while they tried to get members of the Watergate grand jury to talk about the proceedings, none did. But in Bradlee’s files, Jeff Himmelman discovered a memo that suggests that one source—a woman they called “Z,” whom Woodward later said had been as important to the storyas Deep Throat—was a grand juror, a fact they disguised in the book. Above, we annotate the relevant passage.

He didn’t have much interest in the stuff I was digging up, either. Whenever I found a letter that I thought was particularly incisive or relevant or funny I would bring it to him in his office. He would hold it up, scan it, and then put it aside with the very clear intention of never looking at it again.

But the reading was reward enough. Ben began one letter to Jesse Jackson, “You are one mean dude,” then proceeded to ream Jackson for trying to influence the Post’s coverage: “If you are writing your letter of July 26 to me to show to some other people, well and good. So be it. But if you are writing that letter to help your cause, the cause of the good people in this world, you are close to being counterproductive. Next time you’re in town, let’s talk about that. Let’s talk about what newspapers are for. One of the things they are not for is simply this: They are not to serve anyone’s special interest.”

In 1976, when the Post published a somewhat slanted account of George ­McGovern’s decision to rent his house to the Syrian ambassador, Ben wrote, “Dear George: I think our story about your house was bullshit, and I’m sorry it ever ran.” On a letter from George Allen, the coach of the Washington Redskins, Ben simply wrote, “File under ‘Assholes.’ ” Carol likes to tell the story about the time her son met with Ben at the Post for advice. After the meeting was over, Ben clapped him on the back and said, for all of the seventh floor to hear, “Keep your pecker up.”

But it wasn’t just his saltiness that got me. The boxes were a kind of archive of Washington history after the war. In one of them, I found an invitation to a birthday party—a generic card, with furry animals aligned along the side. I looked more closely, and I noticed that the party was for John Kennedy Jr., at the White House, to be held November 26, 1963—an invitation to a party that never happened. I had to stop working and just sit with that one for a while.

One day, I found a faded copy of a play called How, Please?, which Ben had written with a colleague at Newsweek in the late fifties. I walked into his office and plunked it down on his desk with a grin.

He looked at the title page, flipped through it, and then looked back over at me.

“Don’t kill me with this,” he said, half-imploring, half-kidding. It was the only time that he tried to stay my hand.

Dear Ben:

On your 80th I want to say some of the things that seem never to get said. For reasons of maleness, and maybe time, I’ve rushed by too much that is important, the really, truly important.

The letter was typewritten on Bob’s personal stationery. He began with his first interview with Ben, in September of 1971: “Everything after the Navy was easy, we agreed,” he wrote. “After the Navy there could be running room.”

So that’s what you gave me first—running room. It was a magnificent gift. I felt it every day, and it came directly from you. There was this huge sense that we were your boys, or girls, or people—the entire newsroom—turned loose. Running room was a matter of pride and obligation. We didn’t understand fully what it was, but we recognized daylight and went for it because that is where you were pointing. Daylight: news, the unexpected and surprising, and the daily folly and occasional generosity of mankind, that endless buffet.

Bob doesn’t normally write like that. When I worked for him, he would sometimes encourage me to “swing from the high vines,” but he was always hesitant to do the same. Most of the time, it was hard to tell how Bob really felt about anything.

The way you and Sally have extended your family to ours in recent years is a cornerstone of our life. I’m feeling older. If the running room is a little less, and the rear end doesn’t move as fast, the old fires of deep appreciation, deeper admiration and the deepest love still burn for you.

“At what point did you become friends?” I asked Bob.

“Well, you know,” he began, “I think you’ve probably got other people …” He trailed off. “Ben and I are close, and we have this history. But he’s not going to call me up and say, ‘Hey, come on down and have a beer.’ I think he does that with [Jim] Lehrer and [Jim] Wooten and Shelby [Coffey] some,” he said, referring to three of Ben’s friends. Then, a bit uncertainly, “Doesn’t he?”

“I don’t really know,” I said. I had spent nearly five months in Ben’s archives, but I still didn’t know the man all that well.

Bob paused, thought for a moment. “I mean, you know, it’s ultimately like another father,” he said. “Like with your father, you feel that you never close the deal.”

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.
Photo: Treatments by Gluekit

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.

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.
Photo: Treatments by Gluekit

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.”

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.”

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.”


“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.”

The Red Flag in the Flowerpot