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A D.C. ghost writer in the gossipy flesh

NONFICTION

Pretend I'm Not Here: How I Worked with Three Newspaper Icons, One Powerful First Lady, and Still Managed to Dig Myself Out of the Washington Swamp

By Barbara Feinman Todd

William Morrow/HarperCollins

304 pages, $27.99

Barbara Feinman Todd learned journalism from the best -- and the worst, ethically speaking -- and shines up her literary finesse as she tells and shows us what she has learned. Among all the nuances, though, she does not resist jabbing an occasional elbow in the reader's ribs.

For example, far along in the story, the author's professor husband wins a nine-month teaching residency in an academic villa not far from Florence, Italy. The villa, donated decades previously to Georgetown University by an American multimillionaire, retains an unsavory tinge. The donor, in her 80s, gave the palatial estate away to keep her children from inheriting it, because she did not like the way they treated her 30-something husband.

Todd doles out the really juicy gossip only a little at a time, linking her personal dilemmas with what she learns from and about Hillary Clinton, Bob Woodward and Ben Bradlee and other stars of politics at the Washington Post and then as a researcher and ghost writer. What she knows, she learned through laborious years as a ghost writer to some of the 20th Century's journalistic idols. She keeps Bradlee's secret (but lets us readers in on his need for a ghost) in the face of Woodward leaking Hillary Clinton's embarrassing moment. The problem -- ethical, professional, personal -- is that Todd confided the Clinton story in confidence to Woodward, and he used it in his own book.

Infuriated, Clinton stops payment to Todd for her ghost work on "It Takes a Village" and calls a press conference at which she displays a yellow pad covered in her own handwriting. The pad is to show that Todd wrote only part of the book, but none of the reporters even asks to examine it. Todd eventually gets paid, but too late for anyone in the sorry affair to save face. "Being betrayed," Todd ruminates, "was an occupational hazard of moving in these circles."

One question remaining unresolved is how an audio cassette hidden in her apartment disappears while Todd is abroad. Only one cassette is missing, labeled "Vince Foster" from the tapes of her interviews with Hillary Clinton. (Clinton associate Foster committed suicide soon after moving to Washington from Arkansas, although some question the ruling of suicide.)

Todd delivers 304 solid pages of historical fact, personal honesty and enough gossipy nudges to keep the pages flying by. Of Judith Martin, the Post's "Miss Manners" columnist, Todd says, "It's possible she took her job too seriously, floating around the newsroom in a royal haze, wearing white gloves up to her elbows."

She may be excused for her breathless praise of copy editors ("the grown-ups of the newsroom") because copy editors truly are the faceless, nameless drudges who each day "saved the newspaper from embarrassment and legal action and saved the writers from themselves, from errors of both judgment and fact, not to mention grammar." Not for nothing was the copy editors' bible titled, "The Associated Press Stylebook and Libel Manual." They know their priorities.

Todd secretly hopes that "during my time helping Carl, I would get to meet Nora" Ephron, Bernstein's former wife, who in her novel "Heartburn" describes the Carl character as "capable of having sex with a Venetian blind." Nora Ephron  (along with Renata Adler, author of "Speedboat") springs to mind as Todd keeps up the jabs at pretentious Washingtonians. Her brief but cogent tribute saves reviewers having to point out the parallels in their approaches. "Preach it, sister," she posthumously exhorts Ephron.

Todd also has plenty of kind words, especially for Sally Quinn, Bradlee's third wife (younger, blonder) who took more than her share of sarcasm and scorn from insiders. Quinn frequently invites Todd to lunch in the kitchen with her as Todd slaves away on sorting Bradlee's papers, eventually proving the task impossible. One Bradlee remark gets passed over and ignored until a later sleuth digs it up and causes severe ethical consternation for Todd. The issue is complicated, but she sorts it out, letting the reader in on the process and outcome in a vigorous mental exercise.

One of the questions that keeps popping up, no matter how hard Todd works to avoid it, is why she would spend so much of her career on writing as someone else, as a ghost writer. Just as she thinks she's free of it, as with Michael Corleone, they pull her back in.

She puts all these experiences to good use, and readers can be glad she did not edit out the really nasty but so, so accurate comments. Opera gloves,

Stephanie Shapiro is a former News reporter and editor, including copy editor.

 

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