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Editor's doubts on Watergate return to haunt old allies

New biography questions Bob Woodward's account of infamous Deep Throat meetings
  • @dusborne

In a burst of nostalgia for more intriguing times when reporters were heroes and president's were crooks (or one turned out to be anyway), Washington finds itself all of a twitter over the movements, or otherwise, of a potted plant on a reporter's balcony 40 years ago.

This is the Watergate affair, suddenly dragged back into the headlines by a suggestion that Ben Bradlee, the legendary executive editor of the Washington Post at the time, has long harboured nagging doubts about some of the reporting by Bob Woodward.

The claim, made in a soon-to-be published biography of Mr Bradlee by Jeff Himmelman that was excerpted this week in New York Magazine, has drawn a swift rebuke from Mr Woodward, who says that if his old boss ever did have qualms he doesn't any more. Mr Bradlee, now 90, has also rushed to his defence.

Mr Himmelman's biography includes portions of a hitherto unpublished interview given by Mr Bradlee in 1990 in which he seems to fret about the details of Mr Woodward's Watergate narrative, notably as concerns his source, then known as "Deep Throat", and an arrangement whereby Woodward would move a potted plant on his balcony to signal when he was ready to meet with him in a nearby parking garage.

"You know I have a little problem with Deep Throat," Mr Bradlee is quoted as telling Barbara Feinman in 1990, who was working on a memoir with him. "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."

The implication that he may have embellished details of his encounters with the source, who revealed himself in 2005 as Mark Felt, an FBI official who has since died, did not sit well with Mr Woodward, who says Mr Himmelman failed to mention a 2010 interview with Mr Bradlee when he seemed to lay aside those doubts.

Mr Woodward, who has gone on to have an illustrious career penning books about the corridors of power in Washington, also suggests any loose ends in the mind of his old editor in 1990 were tied up long ago. "I can understand in 1990, when Ben doesn't know all the details, he's kind of musing and saying, 'Gee, I'm not sure this is all straight because it seems so incredible,'" he told the New York Times. "But all of Watergate was incredible."

He also released parts of what he says Mr Bradlee said in the more recent 2010 interview. Mr Bradlee told Himmelman then: "If you would ask me, do I think that (Woodward) embellished, I would say no."

For his part, Mr Bradlee has issued a statement of support through his wife, Sally Quinn. "No editor, no reader, can hope for more than Bob Woodward's byline on a story that really matters," he said. "I always trusted him, and I always will."