The talk of the town of late is a book about Ben Bradlee that’s got Bob Woodward’s knickers, if not caught in a big fat wringer, at least in a twist. Sally Quinn isn’t too happy, either. The book is called Yours in Truth: A Personal Portrait of Ben Bradlee, and the author is Jeff Himmelman. The New York Times referred to it as a “tell-all.” If you felt the earth move here in the past two weeks it was probably caused by the turbulence that has consumed book and author since its publication.
Himmelman, a Washingtonian, has a long professional and personal history with Bradlee, Woodward, and Quinn. He worked for Woodward on his 2001 Alan Greenspan book, Maestro, and co-authored A Different Life, the 2009 memoir of Quinn and Bradlee's son, Quinn Bradlee. The idea for his current book started three years ago, with Sally Quinn, who wanted a sequel to Ben's earlier memoir, A Good Life. The sequel idea became this biography, with the full cooperation of Woodward, Quinn, and Bradlee, the lauded former executive editor of the Washington Post, who is now 91 years old*.
Nobody disputes any of that. Still, Woodward calls the book "bad journalism to the core," and refers to Himmelman as "alarmingly dishonest." A close friend of Bradlee and Quinn said they are "repulsed" by the book. Himmelman says none of them will speak to him. At issue are a few passages. The first has to do with Himmelman reporting that Woodward's Watergate partner, Carl Bernstein, did talk to a grand juror in the case, even though both reporters denied this happened. The more heated issue is a quote in the files from Bradlee's memoir in which he seems to cast doubt on the ways in which Woodward was contacted by his famous source, "Deep Throat." Bradlee is quoted as asking the question, "Did that potted palm incident ever happen?" and saying, "There's a residual fear in my soul that that isn't quite straight."
Woodward, according to Himmelman, asked that those particular Bradlee references to Deep Throat not be used. Himmelman describes a tense meeting with Bradlee and Woodward at Bradlee's dining room table, with Woodward demanding, "Don't use the quotes, Jeff," and saying, "So, you think this is the big story for your book, huh?" Bradlee, on the other hand, says, "I'm okay with it."
While inflammatory, these passages are a small part of a book that is highly readable and at times inspiring, especially for lovers of American journalism. It is loaded with lessons in how to run a newspaper by the Bradlee standard, which include acknowledging "owners are everything," "energy is vital," and that you should "hire people brighter than you are." He also delves deeply into the relationship Bradlee had with Post publisher Katharine Graham, which he calls "one of the most powerful and interesting relationships in the history of American journalism."
Were they in a love affair? "In a chaste sense, yes," he says. The Ben Bradlee in Yours in Truth is not sentimental but still wide open about his life. "I can't tell you how many times he said to me, 'I have nothing to hide,'" Himmelman says.
The author also says the "golden age" of newspapers, which Bradlee symbolizes, is gone. "When I talked to [executive editor] Marcus Brauchli, he showed me his BlackBerry and said now the Post always has to be first in the Twittersphere. It's such a different landscape" from Bradlee's day.
Here's more from our talk with Himmelman about the book and the colorful individuals involved.
What is the status of your friendship with Bradlee, Quinn, and Woodward?
I've been reading about it in the newspaper more than I've been hearing about it in person. There's been no contact since last week. The last person I had contact with was Sally. I had delivered the first copy of the book to them. She was friendly. It was all friendly, and then it kind of ceased.
You have since attempted to reach out, and there's been no response?
What do you think happened?
I can only speculate. I think she decided she didn't like some of the stuff at the end of the book.
You mean about her?
What did it feel like to be called "dishonest" by Bob Woodward?
[laughs] Disappointment. Surprise. Injustice. It doesn't feel great to have someone calling you those things. Nothing in my book was dishonest. He didn't attack the reporting, he just attacked me. Did I know there would be some reaction? Yes. Did I expect it to be that extreme? No.
Or that personal?
Do you think Woodward is thin-skinned?
I think his reaction to all this speaks for itself.
Did you send galleys to Bradlee and Quinn?
No, because it was embargoed. Ben and Sally got it first and in hardcover. I don't think Bob saw a galley.
The New York Times piece mentioned your book in the same sentence as The Devil Wears Prada, which was a vindictive book.
The New York Times piece was journalistically irresponsible. They didn't give me a chance to respond to Bob's quotes.
Were you alone with Bradlee for most of your interviews?
Yes, but Carol [Bradlee's assistant] would come in and out.
Did you record all your conversations with him?
Yes, I had a tape recorder.
Apparently Quinn is upset that you used material from what she considered private events, and that you quoted a letter Bradlee wrote to her but tore up and never sent.
Nobody was under any illusion. Everyone knew I was writing the book. At times, people--friends of theirs--would say something was off the record, and I respected that. There are lots of things I could have reported that would have made everyone's lives a lot more difficult. But that's not what I was doing. I wasn't trying to put out dirt about somebody. That couldn't be further from the truth. It wasn't as if I pulled the torn letter to Sally from beneath his pillow. It was in his files.
Do you feel you betrayed them?
I don't feel that I did. I really, truly don't. Ben was so unequivocal with me. If I could have just one wish, it would be for people to not worry about whether Bob Woodward's feelings were hurt but rather they just read the book and judge it on its own terms. There's a lot of love for Bob in this book, too. There's a lot of love for Sally, too.
Would it help if Bradlee were to come out with a statement saying, "I'm all for this book"?
I don't think he can do that, for all kinds of reasons. There's been so much turbulence. I hope when the dust settles we can pick back up. I love that man.
If this book costs you your friendships with Woodward, Quinn, and Bradlee, if they never spoke to you again, would it be worth it?
The idea that any of this is easy for me is not the case. Do I regret writing the book I wrote? No. Would I write the same book again? Yes.
*This information has been updated from a previous version.