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

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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

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5 Responses

  1. Joe Meyers says:

    I would bet that most of Bradlee’s distress after the book came out was caused by the nasty stuff about his wife, Sally Quinn, much of which does seem gratuitously cruel (particularly, after her kindness and generosity to Himmelman).

  2. Keith Whamond says:

    Based on Himmelman’s piece I read in New York magazine (http://nymag.com/news/features/ben-bradlee-2012-5/), it seems like Bradlee was on board with the usage of “residual fear” quote in the book, at least initially. Not sure how much of this is piece was adapted from the book, but my impression was that Bradlee has done a complete 180 about this between when the book was being written and when it was released.

    At least, that’s what Himmelman says.

  3. JC Harms says:

    Fair enough, although I’m sure that Himmelman knew that he would upset some members of the Washington/Georgetown establishment by publishing some of this material (perhaps he underestimated the firestorm). I think he successfully removed himself from those influences and reported what he found and that’s really the only way to write a credible biography.
    Given that there was often significant overlap between Bradlee’s professional and personal life (those lines were blurred with relationships with JFK and with Quinn)the biography had to include both professional and personal correspndence.
    Bradlee’s relationship with Sally Quinn is an essential component of the overall narrative. Yes, that unsent letter had been torn up, but, as you noted, it was in Bradlee’s files and Bradlee gave Himmelman full, unfettered access to those files.
    Ultimately, I think the real head-scratcher was the reaction by some, including the NY Times, that the book cast Bradlee in “a bad light”. Anyone who has read the book knows that that’s simply not the case. It’s a respectful and admiring (and very well-written) portrait of Bradlee that sheds light on the complexities of his career and his personal relationships.

  4. Joe Meyers says:

    I have no problems with Himmelman digging into the life of the subject of his book. My problem is with his claim of being “friends” with the Bradlees and Woodward and now disingenuously being surprised by their outraged reactions to the book. Himmelman includes a really nasty draft of a letter from Ben to his wife Sally that Ben tore up (but left the ripped pieces of in his files). The letter has nothing to do with history or Ben Bradlee’s professional career. Himmelman had to know that publishing it in the book would sever his “friendship” with Sally Quinn (who he tells us earlier in the book helped him get work and was nothing less than gracious to him on the many times he was a guest in her home).

  5. JC Harms says:

    In your post you claim that “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…” Himmelman did, in fact, uncover clear evidence that a grand juror was interviewed by the Post during Watergate. The “Z” memo proves that and Woodward and Bernstein have now confirmed it (after 40 years of denying it, by they way. It wasn’t until Himmelman’s excerpt of Yours in Truth was published in NY Magazine that Woodstein finally admitted to the breach.) Even though they have recently downplayed Z’s significance, they had initially placed Z’s importance alongside Deep Throat. As a journalist and as an authorized, independent biographer of Bradlee, Himmelman rightly put his obligation to tell the truth ahead of personal allegiances. That’s what good reporters do and, ironically, that was a consistent theme of Bradlee’s that can be found throughout the pages of Yours in Truth. As Bradlee himself concedes when describing his complex relationship with the Kennedy’s “You can’t let friendship interfere with history”. Himmelman should be applauded for his courageous decisions. After all, he is upholding the standards for truth and fairness that Bradlee worked so hard to instill at the Post.