Barbara Feinman Todd’s new book is a nonfiction account of her years as a top political ghostwriter, but it features enough betrayal and intrigue to fuel a creditable thriller.
In “Pretend I’m Not Here,” Feinman Todd clashes with a famous investigative reporter and is “caught in and chewed up by the (Clinton) White House machine.” Bob Woodward and Hillary Clinton play important roles in this brisk memoir, and neither comes out looking very good.
From the 1980s to the 2000s, Feinman Todd worked on a series of news-making D.C. books. She did extensive research for Woodward’s “Veil: The Secret Wars of the CIA, 1981-87” and Carl Bernstein’s memoir “Loyalties.” She performed similar duties for Ben Bradlee, the Washington Post editor who managed Woodward and Bernstein’s Watergate reporting, and helped several members of Congress write their autobiographies.
Meanwhile, she wrote big portions of Hillary Clinton’s “It Takes a Village.” It was a project that left her disillusioned.
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A Georgetown University journalism professor, Feinman Todd says she penned tens of thousands of words and supplied the 1996 book with its title, but those close to the first lady tried to diminish her efforts.
Clinton staffers, Feinman Todd writes, were sensitive to a media “narrative suggesting that Mrs. Clinton couldn’t write her own book.” In response, they “invited journalists over to see Mrs. Clinton’s longhand writing filling up hundreds of pages; the stunt was an orchestrated effort to leave the impression that my contribution was minimal.”
Though her “contract called for Mrs. Clinton to include me by name in the acknowledgments,” Feinman Todd’s work went uncredited. The slight was widely covered in the national press.
Why did Hillary Clinton’s team get tough with Feinman Todd? It seems that Clinton’s staff might’ve identified her as the source of a bizarre story that Woodward was trying to confirm for his next book.
As Feinman Todd recalls it, one day in the mid-1990s she watched Hillary Clinton take part in a strange “therapeutic exercise” led by “New Agey author” Jean Houston.
“Houston,” she writes, “suggested the First Lady close her eyes and imagine she was talking to Eleanor Roosevelt.
“There they were together in the White House, the ghost of a former First Lady in conversation with the current First Lady, discussing the challenges of the job. Then Houston told her to switch roles and inhabit Mrs. Roosevelt’s mind.”
Soon thereafter, Feinman Todd told her friend Woodward what she’d witnessed: “I trusted him not to use the material, which is what he promised.” But Woodward began digging for more details, and he wrote about the episode in his book “The Choice: How Bill Clinton Won.”
To Feinman Todd, Woodward’s actions were “a betrayal.”
“I didn’t want him to pursue this line of reporting and I made that clear,” she writes. “These were the conditions under which I had told Woodward what I told him. And which he failed to honor.”
Though Feinman Todd’s book would be more newsworthy had Hillary Clinton been elected president, it’s nonetheless entertaining. “Pretend I’m Not Here” also happens to be a perceptive self-portrait of a writer trying to find herself in an unforgiving city.
As an up-and-coming journalist, she writes, “it was much less of a risk to work on other people’s books — or so I thought — than to pursue my own projects.” Over time, Feinman Todd gained confidence, and came to see Washington as “a place where having the capacity for deception is a marketable skill.”
She learned this the hard way, but ended up with a pretty good book to show for it.
Kevin Canfield is a writer in New York City.
“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 (320 pages; William Morrow; $27.99)