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.
"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.
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.
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."
Ultimately, however, the disclosures surrounding Bernstein's interview of the grand juror, "Informant Z," warrant more attention than the deep residual fear tormenting Ben Bradlee's soul. In theory, they are probably equally significant, because both sets of disclosures go to the heart of the question: What can you believe of what these guys wrote? Some of this has to do with freshness. Surely it is newsworthy to learn that no less a figure than Bradlee, who directed the Post's Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage of Watergate, was as troubled as the Watergate revisionists by the dubiety of Deep Throat. But Woodward's details on Deep Throat -- actually, not mere "details," but important elements of what lawyers would call foundation -- have long been under assault. Author Jim Hougan cast the first critical eye, back in 1984, in his monument of revisionist research Secret Agenda: Watergate, Deep Throat, and the CIA. The party Bradlee joined -- in an uncharacteristically late arrival for the salty dog who regularly downed scotches with Jack Kennedy in the White House -- has been underway for a quarter century.
Bernstein's Z memo, however, was wholly new. The least of its revelations is the exposure of Woodward's and Bernstein's long deception about their dealings with the Watergate grand jury; the aged reporters now maintain that was all to protect their source. The real eye-opener is that color-coded, sentence-by-sentence deconstruction of All the President's Men. Among the previously unpublished treasures in Bradlee's archives was the seven-page memorandum Bernstein typed out to record his interview of Z. That document can now be juxtaposed with the account of the event in All the President's Men, On page 212 of the book, Z was quoted as saying, "My boss calls it a whitewash." From the Bernstein memo (small wonder no copy of it is included with the rest of the Woodward and Bernstein papers at the University of Texas) we learn that Z's full quote was: "My boss called it a whitewash, and he doesn't even have the facts" (emphasis added).
Forget the fact that Bernstein lopped off the second part of the quote, which is damning enough. The worst of it is: Now that we know this woman was a grand juror, and not an employee of the Nixon White House or CRP, who cares what her boss thinks? She could have worked at a pet store for all we know! In context, though, with her having been introduced with the le Carré-esque moniker "Informant Z," identified as a woman who "was in a position to have considerable knowledge of the secret activities of the White House and CRP," Bernstein's chopped-off quote leads the reader to think some wise man of the Nixon administration, Z's sage boss, was troubled by all the criminality there. It's beyond misleading.
This desecration of that holiest of sacred texts raises the question: What about the rest of the book? If we can't believe the assertions about Deep Throat -- and there is much there that is demonstrably untrue, of which the flower pot is only the beginning -- and we can't believe the portrayal of Informant Z, then what can we believe? How might the rest of All the President's Men -- indeed, the entirety of the Woodward-Bernstein canon -- fare under such strict Haldemanian scrutiny? It is, for honest and courageous researchers, a future avenue of enormous scholarly potential.
In The Strong Man: John Mitchell and the Secrets of Watergate, I offered another example: the famous September 29, 1972 Washington Post story in which it was alleged that John Mitchell had controlled a secret GOP fund, endowed with hundreds of thousands of dollars, that was used to sabotage Democrats. It was this story that really ratcheted up the Post's coverage of Watergate and which elicited Mitchell's famous threat -- Bernstein had awakened him, late at night, to secure his comment -- to the anatomy of Post publisher Katharine Graham. In all the Watergate testimony and trials that followed, however, no evidence was ever produced to show that Mitchell controlled such a fund. The Watergate special prosecutors never included anything remotely like it in their indictment of Mitchell.
It's amazing that Woodward, Bernstein, and Bradlee all lived to see this moment, this small but significant piercing of the armor of the Washington Post/Watergate/ATPM narrative. A shocking, wounding heresy by the highest-ranking defector from Woodwardia ever to make it to the other side, and with an assist from Bradlee himself! Heady days!
The advent of ProQuest and the Internet assures that future generations will likely be more open than Woodward and Bernstein's contemporaries to principled revisionism about Watergate and the Nixon presidency. Each new archival discovery -- and Himmelman's sensational work underscores that the field of Nixon Studies is still in its infancy -- will receive the crowd-sourcing treatment, producing a new, if not always intellectually rigorous, kind of hyper-scrutiny.
And the conservative intellectual establishment that didn't exist in the Nixon era -- the establishment he used to sit in the Oval Office and demand that his aides to get busy building, the think tanks, media outlets, and advocacy groups that materialized about a decade too late to defend the president's Silent Majority, the Haynsworth and Carswell nominations to the Supreme Court, John Mitchell's campaign for law and order, Henry Kissinger's conduct of the Vietnam War, and the other controversial aspects of Nixon's right-of-center regime -- these engaged conservatives will be among those pouring over, and publicizing, the never-ending revelations of Watergate. There is every reason to believe their mark will prove more enduring than those made by H.R. Haldeman's highlighters.