It was buried on page B-6, but one of the hotter articles on the Washington Post website on Sunday raised serious questions about a Post legend: Bob Woodward. A new book from journalist Barbara Feinman Todd chronicles her career in aiding three Post "icons" as well as Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Former New York Times public editor Clark Hoyt was the book reviewer. He relayed that Feinman Todd accuses Woodward of a "breathtaking betrayal," and Hoyt agrees that "if true, would be a serious breach of journalistic ethics. In a telephone interview, Woodward denied her account."
Feinman Todd writes that in October 1995, after she finished ghosting Clinton's It Takes a Village, Woodward invited her to his house for coffee and a visit. They went for a walk, and he pried from her a juicy Clinton story.
After "spelling out all kinds of conditions that he couldn't use anything I told him," Feinman Todd writes, she related a bizarre scene she had witnessed earlier that year, when a New Agey spiritual adviser led Clinton through imaginary conversations with Eleanor Roosevelt and Mahatma Gandhi, apparently as a way to help relieve the pressures of White House life.
The adviser's name was Jean Houston, and she quickly found favor with Mrs. Clinton by boosting her ego as a world-historical figure. Loose lips meant Feinman Todd was betraying Hillary, who is obsessive about keeping her secrets.
Feinman Todd, who had signed a contract with a confidentiality clause when she went to work for Clinton, acknowledges in the book that she shouldn't have told Woodward about the incident. At the time, he was working on his own book, about Bill Clinton's reelection campaign. But Woodward "reassured me he would keep his promise not to tell anyone what I'd told him," she writes. "He wouldn't use the material. ... Not now, not ever." He just wanted to understand the first lady's general state of mind.
But on a Saturday afternoon in June 1996, Woodward phoned to warn Feinman Todd that the next day's Post would have a front-page excerpt from The Choice: How Bill Clinton Won. And it would contain Hillary Clinton's strange conversations with the dead. "He admitted that even though he promised not to, he had taken what I told him in confidence and gone to the other participants to confirm the story."
Woodward reported Hillary's relationship with Houston clicked when "Houston said Hillary was carrying the burden of 5,000 years of history when women were subservient...She was reversing thousands of years of expectation, and was there upfront, probably more than virtually any woman in human history -- apart from Joan of Arc."
Then were the Jesus metaphors: "Houston felt at one point that being Hillary was like being Mozart with his hands cut off, unable to play. Though Houston did not articulate the image to Hillary, she felt that the First Lady was going through a female crucifixion."
Republicans had a field day with this cascade of egotism, but the media were protective. Newsweek Washington Bureau Chief Evan Thomas gushed "To many women, Hillary Clinton is not a cold-eyed conspirator, but a martyr....Hillary looks jjust the way she does to her philosopher friend, Dr. Houston -- as a Joan of Arc figure, persecuted for her righteous crusade." Naturally, the Clintons punished the disloyalty:
Woodward's efforts to report the story could explain why Feinman Todd suddenly found herself on the outs with the Clinton White House, which ordered the publisher of It Takes a Village to withhold her final payment. And, when the book came out, Feinman Todd was given no credit, despite a requirement in her contract that she be included in the acknowledgments.
Describing what she calls Woodward's "breathtaking betrayal," Feinman Todd writes: "By 'breathtaking,' I mean literally that it took my breath away. As I type these words twenty years later, I feel my throat tighten."
In response to the charge, Woodward said in the phone interview, "What she says is just not true." He described an entirely different encounter, starting with how they came to talk that day. Feinman Todd called him, he said. He didn't call her. "She said she was troubled by this thing she'd seen in the White House."
"I'm never going to say, 'I won't use it,'" Woodward said. "Of course you check things out. I talked to other people who were there. She was totally protected."
Feinman Todd contends in her book that it would have been obvious to everyone who the initial source was, particularly as Woodward left only her out of the scene in his book.
Most people acquainted with Woodward's sometimes sketchy career -- if you're young, check out the "deathbed interview" with Reagan CIA director William Casey for his book Veil -- can believe he's hungry enough for the best-seller that he wouldn't promise not to use a juicy tale. But it's also believable that she presumed she could tell an old boss and friend this bizarre story in some kind of presumed confidence without it coming back to bite her. There was a betrayal here, even if he made no promises. He gained from it, and she lost.
In his book review, Hoyt recalled what Woodward had done to "Deep Throat" in the Watergate glory days:
Woodward is no stranger to controversy over sourcing. In 2014, he was pressed by David Martin on CBS Sunday Morning about the treatment of his most famous source of all, Watergate’s Deep Throat. Martin said: “Part of your ground rules with him were not just never to even quote him but never to acknowledge his existence. And you did that in All the President’s Men. ” Woodward replied: “Indeed. We felt we had to lay it all out, tell the truth.”
But, Martin persisted, that put Mark Felt, the deputy FBI director who years later came forward as Deep Throat, in the position of having to lie repeatedly in public. “Isn’t that burning your source?” Woodward replied: “I had to be aggressive with him. We had to tell the complete story.”
Woodward always tried to put it in idealistic terms -- telling the "truth," the "complete story." But the book and movie deals were beckoning, and the need for the cinematic "Deep Throat" tale was a road to fortune and fame. Woodward always looks out for Number One, like many ambitious people in Washington. The media love to paint themselves in idealistic colors, but the grasping reality is much more black and white.