REVIEW: Pretend I’m Not Here: How I Worked with Three Newspaper Icons, One First Lady, and Still Managed to Dig Myself Out of the Washington Swamp by Barbara Feinman Todd

Review by J. Michael Lennon

pretend-im-not-here coverTo lead off, a few facts: the three journalists Todd worked with are Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein and Ben Bradlee, the trio responsible for bringing down Richard Nixon by revealing his complicity in the Watergate break-in cover up. The first lady was Hillary Clinton.

By dint of grit, verve, a degree in creative writing and a pocketful of empathy, she gained the confidence of these first-string capital players. She began as a copy aide—basically a gofer—at the Washington Post and then served as a grunt researcher for Woodward, moving up the ladder of his esteem until she became the lead researcher on his award-winning study of the CIA’s covert activities and secret wars, Veil: The Secret Wars of the CIA, 1981-1987, published in 1987.Todd announces in the early pages that her purpose is to depict the “long ride that would take me from researcher to book doctor, to collaborator to ghost” for Hillary Clinton’s 1996 best-seller, It Takes a Village. Serious writers of nonfiction, essayists and biographers, deadline journalists and narrative historians, will derive benefit from this deftly written memoir of literary collaboration and political shenanigans inside the Beltway.

I hasten to add that in addition to masterly expositions of the chores and delights of being Woodward’s researcher (“the education I was receiving from Woodward was priceless”), Ben Bradlee’s amanuensis cum fact checker cum memory prodder cum rewriter, Carl Bernstein’s archivist (“the great book I knew was buried within Carl’s brain was like hunting for a downed plane’s black box at the bottom of the sea”), and Mrs. Clinton’s ghost writer (“I would die if I didn’t get the job. I wanted the job so much. Until I got the job”), there is another story entwined with these revealing and instructive accounts, one summed up by a quote Todd placed at the beginning of a key chapter, a line from Joan Didion’s 1967 collection, Slouching Toward Bethlehem: “Writers are always selling somebody out.” In Washington the payoff for such betrayals are larger by a couple of degrees of magnitude, and Todd’s experience is a cautionary tale for any writer lured by the aphrodisiac of working elbow to elbow with a powerful, glamorous figure.

The first half of Todd’s memoir, Pretend I’m Not Here: How I Worked with Three Newspaper Icons, One First Lady, and Still Managed to Dig Myself Out of the Washington Swamp  (William Morrow) is an unhackneyed, sometimes comic, always engrossing account of her apprenticeship. One research gig leads to another until her prowess as an organizer of the narratives of the lives of powerful, glamorous figures (Senator Bob Kerry is another) leads to a call from Alice Mayhew, the legendary Simon and Schuster nonfiction editor who has worked with historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, journalists Woodward and David Maraniss of the Washington Post, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, President Jimmy Carter, among many others, including Hillary Clinton.  At the time, the early 1990s, the First Lady needed a victory; her image was tarnished by a congressional investigation into her and her husband’s involvement with the Whitewater Development Corporation, which was selling vacation properties in Arkansas.  A book seemed like a good idea, one that would laud her long-standing commitment to various projects benefiting children. Todd’s mandate from Clinton was not focused, however. “There was no title, no outline, no direction, no shape, no narrative,” she wrote. Zilch. As she had with Bernstein and Bradlee, Todd immersed herself in the archival material—speeches, position papers, op-ed pieces by Mrs. Clinton, and then interviewed her again and again, circumambulating Clinton’s longstanding record of activism on children’s issues with her queries and research, and using all this material to construct a narrative. When it began to coalesce, she came to the White House almost every day—there was a publishing deadline—and traveled with the Clintons on their vacation to Wyoming. She shared meals with Hillary (once with the President), and for a crucial stretch slept overnight in a guest bedroom at the White House. Slowly, it came together. Todd drafted the entire book, and Mrs. Clinton and Mayhew edited it, adding and subtracting material, polishing and tweaking. Years later, Todd made a careful comparison of her manuscript with the published book and saw that 75 percent of the final text was hers. She also came up with the title, no small achievement.

But when It Takes a Village was published in early 1996, it carried no appreciative words from Clinton about Todd’s contribution, even though an acknowledgement was contractually required. Washington people read the acknowledgement pages of such books like teas leaves, she notes. Everyone in the book business does. To add injury to insult, the final quarter of Todd’s fee for ghosting the book was withheld by Simon and Schuster, an action directed by the White House. News of this unseemly ingratitude was soon zipping around the Washington gossip cyclotron, and the imbroglio was labelled “ThankyouGate.” Bradlee and Bernstein complained and, eventually, the check was sent. Following that, the First Lady’s chief of staff called Todd and a not-unstinting statement of gratitude from Mrs. Clinton was discussed and then released. Todd was relieved to be paid and acknowledged, but baffled by the chain of events. Why had Mrs. Clinton turned against her?

The last hundred pages of the book unravels the snaggle of suspicion, mendacity, and betrayal that resulted in the imputations aimed at Todd. She unwinds the knots with care and precision at lento pace, pausing often to comment on the nature of the odd duties and responsibilities of a ghost writer, which ranged from library research, fact-checking, drafting chapters, and leaving holes for the subject to fill with illustrative anecdotes. She also trimmed and did not hesitate to cut scenes that didn’t work. With Bradlee, they agreed on three kinds of interviews: 1) those he did solo with her running the tape recorder; 2) those done jointly because of her knowledge of the topics to be discussed; 3) and those she did alone because the interviewee would be more likely to be honest if Bradlee wasn’t in the room. “Ghostwriters, book doctors, and editors,” she writes, “often talk about feeling as though they are practicing psychotherapy or even sitting in moral judgment, a judge and jury who outs a person’s past on trial. But they don’t have a license to practice medicine or law.” Oddly, Todd does not add biographers to this list, perhaps because they write about the dead more often than the living.

Ultimately, Todd determined that the cause of her problems with Mrs. Clinton led back to Bob Woodward, the brilliant, professional reporter who told Bradlee’s biographer, Jeff Himmelman, that the “zone of interaction between a reporter and a source” is a kind of “hallowed ground,” and protecting the source’s identity, as he did with Deep Throat, is a sacred trust. There is no way to detail here how Todd was able to build a chain of fact and surmise into her iron-clad conclusion about her betrayal by Woodward. It is a fascinating tale of ratiocination and instinct, and the last third of the book is riveting. She also reveals her own culpability after a fearless self-interrogation. Why did she write this story now and expose Woodward? “Because I can’t expose myself without exposing him. Writing, when committed honestly, is an act of exposing. Exposition. Think about that word. It comes from the Latin exponere, defined as ‘to explain or put forth.””

Now a journalism professor at Georgetown University, Todd says she has lost interest in telling the stories of other, but feels compelled to tell her own, 20 years after the events she details with such candor and clarity in Pretend I’m Not Here.

 

j michael lennon headhostJ. Michael Lennon is author of Norman Mailer: A Double Life (2013), he is now editing the first two volumes for the Library of America’s Mailer edition.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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