There's a kerfluffle bubbling in Washington. August feathers have been ruffled with publication of Yours in Truth by Jeff Himmelman, the authorized biographer of Benjamin C. Bradlee, former executive editor of the Washington Post. Himmelman, an acolyte of Bob Woodward, helped the renowned reporter research his book, Maestro. Woodward praised him in print with superlatives.
He then recommended Himmelman to Bradlee to help research a book Bradlee's wife, Sally Quinn, wanted her husband to write. Bradlee, now 90, wasn't all that enthusiastic about writing a second memoir so Ms. Quinn decided that Himmelman should help their son, Quinn Bradlee, write a book about being born with velo-cardio-facial syndrome. Himmelman and his wife began spending a great deal of time with the Bradlees, attending their gala parties and visiting their grand homes.
Once Quinn Bradlee's book (A Different Life: Growing Up Disabled and Other Adventures) was published, Ms. Quinn again lobbied her husband to write a book with Himmelman, and Bradlee agreed to give the writer something that most biographers only dream of: not la-dee-dah party invitations or East Hampton visits to meet movie stars (Alec, Jack, et. al.), but total access to all friends and family and files with absolutely no caveat or editorial control. "I hope we're as good friends when you finish your book as we are now," Bradlee told his Boswell. "Don't feel you have to protect me. Follow your nose."
For the next few years the Bradlees invited the Himmelmans to their New Year's Eve parties in Georgetown, and to small cozy dinners as well as sun-baked week-ends in the country by the side of the pool.
In poring through the correspondence files of the editor, the writer unearthed a long ago letter Bradlee had written to Sally Quinn, but never sent, which indicated that she was pushing hard for marriage. He was resisting because he felt her priorities were his money and the bragging rights of being his wife.
This is where the biographer either sells his soul for the cozy dinners or bails for the truth. Himmelman chose the latter, which means he has kissed good-bye to those New Year's Eve parties in Georgetown and any further meet-and-greets with Alec and Jack in the Hamptons.
The second memo Himmelman found (and published) has brought down the wrath of Bob Woodward and fanned the fumes of Watergate skeptics. In a tape-recorded interview with the researcher helping with his memoirs, Bradlee reveals his doubts about his star reporter and some of the dramatic details surrounding the reporter's secret source, Deep Throat, later revealed to be Mark Felt, associate director of the FBI.
"...[T]here's a residual fear in my soul that that isn't quite straight," said Bradlee in 1990. "I just find the flower in the window difficult to believe and the garage scenes... I mean, I can see that would be a terrific place to meet -- once -- but you know, I just don't know. But I have a feeling that that's a fight still to be fought...."
In All the President's Men Woodward claims he arranged his meetings with Deep Throat by putting a flag in a flower pot on the balcony of his apartment; then they would meet in a dark parking garage. For years people have questioned the spy craft drama, but to have Ben Bradlee, the iconic editor portrayed by Jason Robards in the film, go on the record with his doubts would call into question Woodward's vaunted credibility. He reacted to the revelation like a porcupine throwing its quills.
First came the sit-down interview with Himmelman, followed by intimidating phone calls and emails, and finally a terse 45-minute meeting of the three men at Bradlee's house. "Bob tried everything to get Ben to disavow what he had said, or at least tell me I couldn't use it," recalled the author. "Ben wouldn't do either of those things. After Bob had made his pitch four or five times, Ben said, 'Bob, you've made your point. Quit while you're ahead.'"
Himmelman admitted feeling threatened by Woodward, whom he described as "a powerful man," especially when confronted by something that might stain his image. I can relate because years ago during Watergate I, too, was worked over by Woodward. At the time, I was a contributing editor at Washingtonian magazine and found a membership contract Woodward had signed with the Waterside Health Club for himself and his future wife, Francie Barnard. He could save $100 on the membership fee, if married, so he signed, saying he was married. No big deal because the two did marry a year or so later, but at the time I was intrigued by a big-time reporter exposing high crimes and misdemeanors in the White House cutting a small-time deal. I had the contract and permission from the health club to run it as an illustration in the magazine so I called Barnard and Woodward for comment. She was charming and immediately admitted to the ruse. He was not charming and admitted to nothing. Instead, he berated me for low level journalism.
Within an hour the owner of the magazine received a call from Edward Bennett Williams, the powerful attorney who represented the Washington Post. The item was never published.
As Jeff Himmelman is finding out, there's a price you pay when you "follow your nose" and tell the truth.