If there’s one thing those who report on others dislike more than anything, it’s the lens of scrutiny being turned on them. That explains Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward’s reaction to Jeff Himmelman’s new book “Yours in Truth: A Personal Portrait of Ben Bradlee.” While Woodward isn’t the subject of the book, he is the focus of a couple of controversial revelations from it.
This isn’t the first time Woodward has faced criticism. Christopher Hitchens, who once called Woodward “the stenographer to the stars,” was not a fan of what he called Woodward’s “hollow core of ‘access’ journalism,” which involves painting figures in a favorable light in return for interviews with them and information about their lives. And some have questioned Woodward’s use of anonymous sources and unusual tactics (his interviews with former CIA Director William Casey while Casey was in and out of a coma are prime examples of how Woodward has often pushed the bounds of credulity).
One revelation from Himmelman’s book is that Ben Bradlee, the legendary executive editor of The Post, had personal doubts about the accuracy of some of the more dramatic, some might say “theatrical,” aspects of Woodward’s interactions with “Deep Throat” in his and Carl Bernstein’s Watergate coverage. According to Himmelman, Bradlee didn’t — and still doesn’t — doubt the validity of the basic narrative, just the cinematic way in which it was conveyed. Woodward had a very “cloak and dagger” relationship with Deep Throat that famously involved clandestine-esque meetings in parking garages and little signals that indicated meetings would happen. It was the stuff of Hollywood movies.
Again, Bradlee doesn’t question the fundamentals Woodward got from Deep Throat, just the theatrics. And considering that as executive editor Bradlee’s reputation was as much on the line as Woodward’s or Bernstein’s, it’s not surprising that Woodward’s accounts of his meetings with Deep Throat would give Bradlee pause.
But Woodward, much like the subjects of his reporting over his career, doesn’t like to have his motives or actions questioned. As such, he’s taken to attacking the messenger, even though Woodward praised Himmelman in the dedication to his 2000 book “Maestro” for his “standards of accuracy and fairness,” which, he wrote, “are the absolute highest.”
Tellingly, Woodward and his allies aren’t questioning the accuracy of Himmelman’s reporting, they’re questioning his character. They’re calling Himmelman’s book a “betrayal” of Bradlee, even though what was reported came directly from on-the-record interviews with Bradlee and unfettered access to his archives. When you can’t attack with facts, just attack.
As Himmelman put it in a piece in The Daily Beast, “This is the danger of writing about powerful living people. Nobody has alleged that anything I’ve written is untrue; they can’t, so instead they’re trying to impugn me and my motives.”
Why would Woodward and Co. be so defensive about something that seems fairly insignificant? Ego is one answer. Not many people have accused Bob Woodward of suffering from low self-esteem. But another reason is that Himmelman pulls back the curtain to expose some of Woodward’s methods, methods that may scuff up his brand.
In another revelation from the Bradlee archives, it turns out that Woodward and Bernstein had interviewed a member of the Watergate grand jury, which is illegal. More than being illegal, it’s something the two of them have denied throughout their careers, so this report is, to say the least, a stain on their honesty.
To defend themselves against this charge of dishonesty, Woodward and Bernstein reteamed for a response that boils down to, “Yeah, we lied, but so what?”
They write, “Carl did not know she was a member of the Watergate grand jury when he arrived at her home.” Yet, the memo to which they refer clearly states at the top that the woman, whose name is unknown, was a member of the grand jury. So, while Bernstein may not have known he was going to be talking with a grand juror when he arrived at the woman’s house, he certainly did when he left. Yet Woodward and Bernstein have denied this fact for nearly 40 years.
It’s a fact that may or may not be significant, but Woodward and Bernstein’s unequivocal denial of that fact, only admitting it after indisputable proof surfaced, says something about their character.
No discussion of Watergate can be complete without an examination of this fundamental paradox: While the Nixon White House surely operated in the moral and legal shadows, so did some of the men who brought down the Nixon White House. The belief that only one’s enemies, as opposed to one’s fellow travelers, are immoral is the unfortunate basis on which today’s culture wars continue to be fought.
In the grand scheme of things, the ego and less-than-full honesty of Bob Woodward is not the point of Himmelman’s book, but Woodward has managed to make it such. And in his attacks against Himmelman, he’s exposed more about himself, his character and his modus operandi than any of Himmelman’s revelations did. Such is often the case when the reporter becomes the reported.
Derek Hunter is a Washington-based writer and consultant. He can be stalked on Twitter @derekahunter.