Michael Dobbs

Flower pots and underground parking garages

Flower pots and underground parking garages

And now for something completely different that has nothing to do with Ratko Mladic, war criminals, or Srebrenica! My post today does, however, involve an issue that is familiar to anyone following international war crimes trials, namely historical veracity and the contradictory testimony of different eyewitnesses. So please indulge me.

As a former Washington Post reporter turned historian, I am intrigued by a spat involving two people I greatly respect, Bob Woodward and Ben Bradlee. A new book by a former Woodward researcher named Jeff Himmelman claims that the legendary Post editor once expressed doubts about some minor details in the reporting of his even more legendary Watergate sleuth. To be specific, Bradlee privately questioned Woodward’s account of his meetings with his super-secret source, known as "Deep Throat," subsequently revealed as deputy FBI director, Mark Felt.

An unpublished 1990 interview unearthed by Himmelman reveals that Bradlee was unconvinced by Woodward’s description of how he communicated with Deep Throat. Woodward has long claimed that he set up meetings with his source by moving a flower pot around on his balcony in downtown Washington, D.C. They would then meet in an underground parking garage. This was a cumbersome method of communication since it required Deep Throat to keep Woodward’s balcony under constant observation.

We now learn that Bradlee (at least in 1990) expressed "a residual fear in my soul" that something about Woodward’s story was "not quite straight." (Bradlee subsequently told Himmelman that he does not believe that Woodward "embellished" his reporting but also that he stands by his 1990 comments. Confused?)

As I suggested in a June 2005 article for the Washington Post on the Felt-Deep Throat revelation, Bradlee had reason to be suspicious of this particular historical detail. While it might have made sense for Woodward to have communicated with Deep Throat via the flower pot as long as his source occupied a high position in the FBI, it made no sense at all after Felt retired from the Bureau in April 1973. Felt lived in Virginia, on the other side of the Potomac river to Woodward. Without the resources of the FBI at his disposal, it was no longer feasible for Felt to keep Woodward’s balcony under daily observation on the off-chance that his reporter friend would request a meeting.

Nevertheless, Woodward strongly implies in his book, All the President’s Men, that he used the flower pot system to communicate with Deep Throat one last time after Felt’s retirement. "In the first week of November [1973]," he writes, "Woodward moved the flower pot and traveled to the underground garage."

Based on conversations with another Woodward researcher, I believe that Bob used a literary sleight of hand in order to disguise the identity of his source. It may have been technically true that Woodward moved a flower pot around on his balcony in November 1973, and traveled to an underground garage, but he misled readers into thinking this had something to do with a meeting with Deep Throat. When I asked Woodward about this (in 2005), he declined to offer any explanation except to say that everything he wrote in All the President’s Men was "accurate."

If this all sounds like a storm in a Washington teacup, it is because it is. The essential points of Woodward’s (and Carl Bernstein’s) Watergate reporting are not in dispute. And yet, Woodward is responding very defensively, equating a desire to clarify some trivial historical details with an assault on his journalistic ethics.

"Don’t give fodder to the f-ers," Woodward told Himmelman at one point, referring to Nixon loyalists who have repeatedly questioned his Watergate reporting.

I can understand why Woodward, who spawned an entire generation of investigative reporters, is reluctant to reveal how the journalistic sausage is made. But four decades have now passed since the Watergate break-in. We know a great deal that we did not know back then, including the identity of his key source. Surely it is time to clear up any remaining mystery over underground parking garages and flower pots.