Ben Bradlee bio: the perils of writing a ‘personal portrait’

A person’s views on friendship tend to evolve over the years, but it would seem to be a hard and fast rule that a “friend” does not publish a book that exposes the object of their affection to widespread public ridicule.

Jeff Himmelman’s new “personal portrait” of the legendary Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee — “Yours in Truth” (Random House) — starts off by telling us that the author is a longtime friend (and research assistant) of Watergate star Bob Woodward and it was that relationship that led to a friendship with Bradlee and his wife Sally Quinn.

Himmelman went on to co-author a book by the Bradlees son, Quinn — “A Different Life” — that bolstered his relationship with the Washington, D.C. social and cultural power couple.

It was Sally Quinn who got the ball rolling for Himmelman to do a book on her husband — she saw it as a collection of his work philosophy that would augment the memoir (“A Good Life”) Bradlee wrote several years ago.

Bradlee opened his arms — and his files (and the Washington Post files pertaining to him) — and Himmelman has paid back that generosity with a book that has embarrassed Bradlee and Woodward with the doubts it raises about the official story of the Post’s Watergate exposes. The professional breach has also ended the friendships (if the New York Times story published on the flap a week ago is accurate).

The book’s centerpiece — “Doubt” — is a long account of Himmelman finding material suggesting that the Watergate reporting might have included interviews from members of a grand jury — an illegal act for such a juror — that the Post has always claimed didn’t happen.

The biographer also uncovered a research interview done by Bradlee for his memoir in which he expresses his fears that the “Deep Throat” secret source scenario might have been less than the whole truth on Woodward’s part.

“…there’s a residual fear in my soul that that isn’t quite straight,” Bradlee said of his “doubt” to Barbara Feinman in a portion of his memoir interview that wasn’t used in “A Good Life.”

When Himmelman asked Bradlee about the quote, he said it was accurate, but was no big deal. Editors get nervous about the veracity of their reporters’ research all the time. But when the writer interviewed Woodward it was clear the Watergate journalist was very concerned — that concern eventually escalated into a meltdown that included Himmelman’s heavily hinted assertion that Woodward might have taken the original tape on which Bradlee made the comment (the biographer only had a transcript and when he searched for the tape, it was missing).

Himmelman never found any real evidence that Woodward fudged the “Deep Throat” scenario or that any grand jurors were interviewed by the Post during the Watergate scandal, but he includes all of his adventures in research in a book that is ostensibly a personal biography of a very famous friend. Himmelman is either extremely naive about the thin skin of fellow journalists or knew very well that he was going to publish a friendship-destroying book.

Sadly, the flap over the break-up of Himmelman and his pals obscures the many wonderful aspects of “Yours in Truth,” including outstanding coverage of the Janet Cooke controversy and fascinating insights into the negative impact that the movie of “All the President’s Men” (below) had on the Post staff.

Joe Meyers