Why Bradleegate Matters: Woodward and Bernstein's Deception

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The media focused on Ben Bradlee's doubts about Deep Throat, but the real story is the discrepancies between their original reporting and the established history of Watergate.

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Ben Bradlee, Bob Woodward, and Carl Bernstein, shown at a 2005 screening of All the President's Men, are guardians of the accepted narrative of Watergate (Getty Images)

"Please don't use the presently existing literature as established fact," warned H.R. Haldeman, the former White House chief of staff to Richard Nixon, at a symposium on the Nixon presidency convened at Hofstra University in November 1987. "There's an enormous amount of gross inaccuracies in most of the present views regarding the totality and the specific segments of the Nixon presidency."

A brilliantly efficient chief of staff -- his communications operations marked a quantum leap over his predecessors' and helped shape the modern presidency -- Haldeman wound up disgraced, serving 18 months at Lompoc Federal Prison in his native California for his role in the Watergate cover-up. Few in the saga were more thoroughly vilified. At Lompoc, this devout Christian Scientist and former J. Walter Thompson executive, a man described by historian Richard Reeves as "a pre-computer organizational genius," toiled as a sewage chemist. Haldeman recalled at Hofstra how he used "the unenviable luxury of substantial time on my hands" to devour, in his cell, the established literature on Nixon and Watergate.

Armed with three highlighter pens of different colors, he underlined in red every statement of fact he knew, "of my own personal and absolutely certain knowledge," to be false. The color blue Haldeman used to highlight sentences he knew, with equal certitude, to be true. And yellow was reserved for those claims that even Haldeman, the White House aide who spent the most time in Nixon's Oval Office, could neither verify nor refute. "It was a fascinating exercise," he said -- and with discernible glee, he would tell you the book with the highest percentage of red lines, the lowest truth quotient: 1974's The Palace Guard by Dan Rather and Gary Paul Gates.

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The gauntlet Haldeman threw down to scholars and historians a quarter-century ago was finally picked up last month. With unprecedented authority and devastating consequences, similarly fastidious scrutiny -- color-coding and all -- was belatedly applied to the most influential and celebrated Watergate book of them all: All the President's Men, by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward. This brave feat was performed in New York magazine, in its publication of excerpts from a new biography of legendary Watergate-era Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee. Yours in Truth: A Personal Portrait of Ben Bradlee was written by Jeff Himmelman, a thirty-something writer who had formerly served as a research assistant to both Bradlee and Woodward. And accompanying the article -- wham-o! - there it was: a graphic that deconstructed, line by line, page 212 of All the President's Men and used four different colors to do it. Except in this case, all of the colors highlighted statements Himmelman, knew to be false -- or at least highly misleading.

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A marked-up version of one page of All the President's Men shows how Woodward and Bernstein bent the truth. (New York)

The passage in question recounted Bernstein's furtive December 1972 interview with a Washington, D.C., woman whom Himmelman -- using long-lost documents from Bradlee's own archives -- confirmed to have been a Watergate grand juror. In the passage, however, Bernstein had slyly led readers to believe that this source, whom he dubbed "Informant Z," was an employee of the Nixon White House or its 1972 campaign arm, the Committee to Re-Elect the President (CRP). Moreover, Woodward and Bernstein had spent decades -- decades! -- denying they had received information from any Watergate grand jurors.

Meanwhile, Himmelman also unearthed a 1990 interview with Bradlee in which he expressed profound misgivings about Woodward's whole story of his dealings with his shadowy Watergate source, Deep Throat. "Did that potted [plant] incident ever happen?" Bradlee mused, about the notion that Woodward used to move his flowerpot around on his balcony to signal for meetings with Deep Throat. Likewise, about Woodward's rendezvous in an Arlington, Virginia, parking garage with Deep Throat, Bradlee wondered: "One meeting in the garage? Fifty meetings in the garage? I don't know how many meetings [there were] in the garage." He added: "There's a residual fear in my soul that that isn't quite straight."

Within minutes of their publication online, Himmelman's excerpts touched off a media furor. Twitter was afire and the online community was astonished at the audacity of the younger man's patricide. Book reviews appeared alongside straight news articles reporting on Himmelman's revelations, complete with public statements by Bradlee and Woodward -- often as not, disparaging of Himmelman, a young man who had once practically lived with these people.

Despite the furor, the paucity of living individuals still knowledgeable about Watergate and the sheer number of Himmelman's Watergate bombshells combined to prevent his findings from receiving the kind of engaged critical attention, let alone acclaim, they deserved. Indeed, the vigor with which Woodward fought to prevent these disclosures from surfacing -- a series of tense personal encounters chronicled, in aching detail, by his former protege -- confirms their importance. Thanks to Himmelman, America's most revered journalist -- and by some measures her most successful non-fiction author -- felt the earth move under his feet a bit. And that doesn't happen to Bob Woodward very often.

The stuff about Bradlee naturally generated more buzz. Memories of his portrayal by Jason Robards in the film version of All the President's Men still linger. In his public statements about the Himmelman book, Bradlee sought to tamp down the controversy by arguing, in effect, that Woodward's scorecard in Watergate, the "details" about Deep Throat notwithstanding, was mostly exemplary. The Old Guard must have been on the right side of history because, as Bradlee's wife Sally Quinn noted in her statement: "Nixon resigned."

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James Rosen is Fox News' chief Washington correspondent and author of The Strong Man: John Mitchell and the Secrets of Watergate. His article "Nixon and the Chiefs," about the Joint Chiefs' espionage ring targeting Nixon and Kissinger, appeared in the April 2002 edition of The Atlantic.

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