The Myth of Bob Woodward: Why Is This Man an American Icon?

Bob Woodward at his home in Georgetown. Andrew Cutraro/Redux

For the past week Washington has found itself debating Bob Woodward. The occasion: his very public argument with White House senior official Gene Sperling, in which Woodward left the impression that Sperling had somehow tried to intimidate him—only to see this accusation undermined by the release of an email exchange in which the pair sounded rather conciliatory.

Almost all the commentary about this flap fits neatly under the heading, “What the Hell Happened to Bob Woodward?” But posing that question, as New York magazine did last week, implies a transformation that never occurred. Woodward is the same now as he ever was. His misrepresentation of his interaction with Sperling is only the latest in a long string of questionable journalistic episodes.

To understand how this started, one has to begin near the beginning: Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s book about their Watergate exploits, All the President’s Men. The authors enjoyed titanic-sized credibility when the book appeared in the spring of 1974; not too many reporters could point to having received a public apology attesting to the veracity of their work from a press secretary to the president of the United States. (“I would apologize to the Post, and I would apologize to Mr. Woodward and Mr. Bernstein,” Ron Ziegler had said on May 1, 1973, retracting his earlier criticism of the newspaper’s articles on Watergate.) The natural assumption was that Woodstein’s book would meet that same high standard. Why would their nonfiction for The Washington Post differ from nonfiction written for Simon and Schuster?

Yet there was a vast difference that went all but unnoticed at the time. For the Post they had written about the president’s men; in the book they were writing about themselves and their sources. Simultaneously, they adopted a style that was all the rage at the time—the so-called New Journalism, a technique that employed literary devices normally considered the domain of novels. In the hands of an apostle like Tom Wolfe or Norman Mailer, the result might be categorized as literature. But the critic Dwight MacDonald argued it was actually a bastard form that tried to have it both ways: “exploiting the factual authority of journalism and the atmospheric license of fiction.”

Woodward and Bernstein apparently exploited the liberties of the form to the hilt. “Some of their writing is not true,” Post Watergate editor Barry Sussman told Alan Pakula, director of the eponymous 1976 movie. (Pakula interviewed nearly everyone involved in the Post’s Watergate coverage in 1975, and the late director’s papers were opened in 2003.) “They’re wrong often on detail” about what happened inside the newsroom, Sussman said, and they “sentimentalize” the story. (Sussman had a bitter falling out with the reporters, which has sometimes led to his perspective being discounted.)

One untruth Sussman said he knew of—it had apparently been his idea in the first place—involved the reporters’ effort to interview members of the Watergate grand jury in December 1972. According to the book, “Woodward and Bernstein”—writing about yourself in the third person was a New Journalism signature—“attempted the clumsy charade with about half a dozen members of the grand jury. They returned with no information.” Yet Sussman told Pakula that the reporting duo “did get information from one person” who was a grand juror—and indeed, All the President’s Men, a few paragraphs after denying that Woodstein got anything from any grand juror, proceeded to describe the information they got from the grand juror, whom they code-named “Z.”

Bob Woodward & The False God of Journalists Washignton Post reporters Carl Berstein and Bob Woodward in 1974. Wayne Miller/Magnum

How do we know Z was a grand juror? Because Jeff Himmelman—author of Yours in Truth, a biography of Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee released last year—found Bernstein’s notes from his interview with Z. Woodward and Bernstein’s explanation: that Bernstein did not know she was a grand juror when he talked to her. Yet this was dubious at best, because in All the President’s Men they described how Woodward memorized a list of grand jurors’ names ahead of time.

In short, Sussman told Pakula that All the President’s Men was a “modified, limited hangout” of what actually happened—intentionally borrowing a phrase made notorious by Watergate co-conspirator John Ehrlichman, Nixon’s chief domestic-policy aide.

Other problems with the book have come to light since 2007, when the Woodward and Bernstein papers—which had been sold to the Ransom Center in Austin, Texas, for $5 million in 2003—were opened. (When I interviewed Woodward in 2011, he told me that all of his notes from interviews with Deep Throat—a.k.a. Mark Felt, associate director of the FBI—were included in these papers.) There are a number of inconsistencies between these notes and how the conversations are rendered in All the President’s Men. Phrases not enclosed in quotation marks in the notes are presented within quotes in the book, lending the impression that Felt spoke those exact words. Occasionally, the meaning of what he said is substantially altered. The book also contains information not present in the notes at all.

For example, Woodward’s typewritten notes from an October 9, 1972, meeting with Felt read “[E. Howard] Hunt op[eration] not really to check leaks to news media but to give them out,” and this sentence is not set off by quotes in the notes. But in the book this sentence is put in quotes, and it reads: “That [Hunt] operation was not only to check leaks to the papers but often to manufacture items for the press.”

In addition, none of the Felt notes contain any reference to the so-called Canuck letter, a 1972 letter to the editor of the Manchester Union-Leader. (This letter alleged that then-Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Edmund Muskie had used the term Canuck to refer to constituents of French-Canadian descent around the time of the New Hampshire primary, and Woodstein alleged that the letter typified the “dirty tricks” thought up by the Nixon White House or campaign.) Notwithstanding the fact that there is no mention of the Canuck letter in the contemporaneous notes, in the book Felt is quoted as saying, “It [the Canuck letter] was a White House operation—done inside the gates surrounding the White House and the Executive Office Building.”

holland-fe0110-woodward-embed3 Robert Redford and Bob Woodward. Ron Galella

In 2011, I asked Woodward about the discrepancies between his book and his Felt notes. Regarding his having put words into quotes that weren’t in quotes in the notes, he said, “I may have had a distinct recollection [while we were writing the book, and reviewing the notes] that something was in quotes ... and so I may have put quotes in it.” Regarding instances where information in the notes was altered, or where passages in the book are not reflected in the notes at all, he said, “It’s just like when you testify under oath in a courtroom. You may have some notes, and you may say, ‘The notes say this, but I recall that in addition.’”

Discrepancies between Woodstein’s notes and the book were not limited to conversations with Felt. They also occurred when All the President’s Men described the information conveyed to Bernstein by Judith Hoback, the bookkeeper for the Committee for the Re-Election of the President (CRP). In the book, Hoback is quoted as saying, “But Sally [Harmony, burglar Gordon Liddy’s secretary]—and others—lied.” However, in Bernstein’s typewritten notes from the September 14, 1972, interview—notes which are to be found in the Pakula papers—Hoback never asserts that Harmony (or anyone else at the CRP) flatly “lied.” In a similar vein, Hoback is quoted in the book as saying about Robert Odle, in response to a question about his rumored involvement in the break-in, “Certainly not in knowing anything about the bugging. He’s a glorified office boy, [deputy CRP director Jeb] Magruder’s runner.” In the notes, however, Hoback simply states there is “no reason to think Odle [is] involved”—without adding a pejorative characterization of him. (Of course, it’s worth noting the possibility that there are notes pertaining to Hoback that I have not seen. In 2012, I attempted to contact Bernstein in order to ask him about the Hoback notes, but he did not respond.)

A reference in the book to former attorney general John Mitchell, who had stepped down as CRP director after the break-in, seems to suggest a more serious kind of embroidery. In the book Hoback is quoted as saying: “If you could get John Mitchell, it would be beautiful. But I just don’t have any real evidence that would stand up in court that he knew. Maybe his guys got carried away, the men close to him.”

This same passage in the notes is only different by a few words, but they alter the meaning of the quote in a way that is more charitable to Mitchell: “If you could get [John Mitchell] it would be beautiful. I just don’t have any evidence I belive [sic] he knew. Maybe his guys got carried away, the men close to him.”

Also problematic was Woodstein’s description of Felt’s motive in leaking. The duo fostered the impression that Deep Throat was leaking out of principle: he “was trying to protect the office [of the presidency], to effect a change in its conduct before all was lost,” they wrote in All the President’s Men.

holland-fe0110-woodward-embed4 Ben Bradlee and Bob Woodward during "All the President's Men" 1976 Premiere in Washington, D.C. Ron Galella/WireImage

But was this really the case? There has been ample evidence over the decades that Felt was not leaking out of principle but rather as a tactic, to win the vicious scramble to become FBI director after J. Edgar Hoover’s death. Specifically, Felt was leaking to undermine L. Patrick Gray, who had been appointed acting director after Hoover’s demise. The permanent appointment was still up for grabs, and leaking details of a politically sensitive FBI investigation was sure to prejudice the White House against nominating Gray for the job. This was hardly a secret at the time: shortly after All the President’s Men was published, an August 1974 Washingtonian magazine article fingered Felt as Deep Throat and quoted a top Justice Department official as saying Felt’s motive would have been ambition: “He had enough contact with the press that he might have tried to use his Watergate information to hurt Gray.”

Unless Woodward is obtuse—and no one who knows him thinks that—he should have realized what Felt’s true motive was by no later than 1992, when the bureau opened up its Watergate files and Woodward went in and read them. The FBI investigation had never been truly or seriously stymied, the alleged reason for Felt’s clandestine meetings with Woodward. Indeed, the records showed that the FBI was days, weeks, and even months ahead of the Post’s reporting. Yet to this day Woodward persists in calling Felt a “truth-teller” with complicated motives. (In comments last year to The Daily Beast’s Lloyd Grove after my book about Deep Throat was published, Woodward disputed that the duo’s Watergate reporting had trailed behind the prosecutors’ investigation. He also said that Felt “was troubled. I knew him. I just think this idea that there’s one motive behind somebody’s action doesn’t match up with reality.”)

Perhaps the oddest thing about All the President’s Men was that Woodward and Bernstein emerged with their reputation for discretion and ethical treatment of sources not only intact but enhanced. This, despite the fact that Felt had been treated differently as an anonymous source than he apparently wanted to be.

The rules of their “deep background” arrangement, as described in All the President’s Men, were that Woodward would never identify Felt or his position to anyone. His very existence was to be a secret. Furthermore, Felt was never to be quoted, even as an anonymous source.

Yet nearly all these ground rules—which had been more or less observed in The Washington Post—were broken when Woodstein wrote for Simon and Schuster. Felt’s existence (though not his name) was revealed; he was quoted directly; and he was linked to specific stories and disclosures. Only his agency of employment (the FBI) and his name were left out. Little wonder that Felt instantly became a prime suspect in a Washington parlor game that would persist for decades. All the while Woodward and Bernstein would be hailed by a starstruck press for their fidelity to sources. The only explanation Woodward has ever given for including Felt as an anonymous character in All the President’s Men was the one offered in The Secret Man, his 2005 book about Deep Throat. It “never really crossed my mind to leave out the details of Deep Throat’s role,” Woodward wrote. “It was important.”

After Watergate, it seems to me that two key factors came into play in Woodward’s career, one internal, the other external. The first was Woodward’s extraordinary inner drive and work ethic. He wanted to show that Watergate wasn’t a fluke, a one-off stroke of luck that would never be replicated. One is tempted to call this Woodward’s Orson Welles syndrome: what was he going to do for an encore? Welles, after enjoying similarly spectacular success at an early age with Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons, never again directed films remotely as good. Woodward, I believe, was determined not to suffer a similar fate.

The other powerful fact in his life was the unceasing adulation that came his way from within the journalistic community and without, from the Washington elite down to perfect strangers. Woodward was the white-hatted journalist who brought down a president. It didn’t matter that this was exaggerated—it was the public shorthand. When Woodward himself tried to correct the misimpression, which he often did, his modesty only seemed to make him that much more appealing.

His celebrity and reputation, moreover, were turbocharged by the never-ending mystery over Deep Throat’s identity. Woodward found it extraordinarily tiresome to respond to the same questions year after year. Yet his legend and prominence were inextricable from the hunt for his über-secret Watergate source. No human being could withstand his experiences without getting a swelled head. Fame is usually fleeting, and that’s a good thing; even presidents are brought down a full peg or two after leaving office. That did not happen with Woodward.

Over the years, there would be other questionable Woodward episodes: a 1987 four-minute interview with ailing CIA director William Casey that the Casey family and the CIA said did not unfold as claimed, or warrant Woodward’s bold conclusion; the Valerie Plame affair, in which Woodward derided a special prosecutor’s investigation into the leaking of a CIA officer’s name, without telling the Post or the public that he was in fact the first reporter to receive the leak. (Woodward has stood by his reporting on Casey; regarding the Plame leak, he later apologized for not telling his boss at the Post.)

But perhaps no single episode is more embarrassing for Woodward than how he treated Jeff Himmelman. A Washington native, Himmelman was initially hired to help research Woodward’s 2000 book Maestro—a fawning tribute to Alan Greenspan, the Fed chairman whose flawed laissez-faire ideology would eventually help bring about the most catastrophic economic downturn since the Great Depression. Eventually Himmelman was recruited to help Ben Bradlee satisfy a book contract he had signed but no longer had an interest in completing. The project morphed into a biography of Bradlee with Himmelman as author, Bradlee already having published his memoirs in 1995.

Over time Himmelman gained access to Bradlee’s personal papers. These included documents dating back to the Post’s Watergate investigation, and some unexpurgated interview transcripts of Bradlee that had been conducted for his memoirs. In the former, Himmelman found Bernstein’s notes from his December 1972 interview with “Z.” In the latter, Himmelman came across a 1990 interview in which Bradlee had said, “I have a little problem with Deep Throat,” meaning as he was represented by Woodstein in All the President’s Men. “There’s a residual fear in my soul that that [portrayal] isn’t quite straight,” Bradlee had added, referring to the cinematic depictions of underground garage meetings and flags in flowerpots.

According to Himmelman’s book, Woodward implored, cajoled, and then bullied him, in that order, to try to bury Bradlee’s comments. Barry Sussman had long been on record, of course, as saying that All the President’s Men contained inaccuracies, but it was quite another matter to have Bradlee eating away at Woodward’s foundational myth. Woodward took to smearing Himmelman in the press. He termed the book “alarmingly dishonest” to The New York Times and a “total dishonest distortion” in The Washington Post. On Politico, he compared Himmelman with Nixon.

Woodward and Bernstein’s coverage of Watergate for The Washington Post was justly celebrated. But that should not excuse what came next: They wrote a self-glorifying account of their role, seemingly altered information from their notes, apparently reneged on a pledge to Deep Throat, then later downplayed evidence that Mark Felt was leaking for self-interested reasons. And finally, when a former Woodward lieutenant came across some facts that undermined the narrative that Woodstein had dined out on for decades, Woodward responded to this heresy by attacking the writer’s integrity.

Woodward’s recent flap with Gene Sperling would be trivial, and instantly forgettable, except that it reveals a grotesquely swollen ego fed by 40 years of hero worship. Indeed, last weekend, appearing on CBS’s Face the Nation, Woodward proposed a rather shocking means for resolving his dispute with Sperling: “I am in the business of listening,” he said, “and I’m going to invite him over to my house if he’ll come and hopefully he’ll bring others from the White House, maybe the president himself, and we can—you know, talking really works.” If there was any doubt that Bob Woodward’s ego is out of control, inviting the president to his house should put those doubts to rest.

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