Barbara Feinman Todd, the director of the Georgetown College journalism program and professor of the practice, published her memoir last month to critical acclaim. (Photo courtesy Ginger Wall)
March 27, 2017 — Many Georgetown professors have old war stories from “the swamp,” “This Town,” or whatever you prefer to call the Washington politics-media complex. Here’s one you might not have heard before.
From a small office in the New North building, jam-packed with books on all kinds of writing, Barbara Feinman Todd has spent a quarter-century building up journalism education at Georgetown. She led the long crusade to develop a lonely English elective into an impressive investigate journalism project, a master’s program, and eventually an undergraduate minor. For a certain, small segment of the student population, she’s as much a Georgetown institution as the John Carroll statue.
Feinman Todd released her memoir, Pretend I’m Not Here, to widespread critical acclaim last month. The 320-page tome begins in her first few days as a 22-year-old in the Washington Post newsroom and tracks her fascinating career as a researcher for newspaper legends Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein, and Ben Bradlee, her ghostwriting work for Hillary Rodham Clinton, her path to Georgetown, and the lessons she learned along the way.
Pretend I’m Not Here has generated more media coverage than one might expect for a writer who moved to full-time teaching 15 years ago. That’s because it contains her first public comments in years about a mini-scandal from 1996 that briefly grabbed national headlines.
While shadowing Clinton in order to ghostwrite the 1996 bestseller It Takes A Village, Feinman Todd observed a strange meeting between the First Lady and a “new age healer,” later recounting it to Woodward off-the-record. She traveled to Europe after finishing her work on the Clinton book; upon returning, she discovered that the Clinton team had frozen her out of acknowledgments and tried to renege on her final payment.
Mystified at first, Feinman Todd soon discovered that Woodward had used a sensationalized version of her private disclosure to him in his book about the Clinton White House — a violation of journalistic practice for what she claims was a wholly off-the-record conversation. Soon, a version of Clinton’s meeting would appear in a book excerpt in the Post. While Woodward didn’t mention Feinman Todd, his former researcher knew it would not be hard for the Clinton team to peg her as the leak.
“It was obvious — everyone else in the room was on her team,” Feinman Todd said. “So a couple of reporters connected the dots.”
Pretend I’m Not Here marks the first time Feinman Todd publicly acknowledges Woodward’s betrayal, completing a puzzle that once fascinated the political journalism establishment. But the scandal is only a small part of her story.
“It’s about writing, and it’s about journalism,” Feinman Todd said. “I cared about telling a good story — telling my story.”
Feinman Todd recounts her time as a young woman in the Post newsroom, which she describes as a “grassroots master’s program in journalism,” filled with “brilliant, quirky, wonderful” people. But it was also a newsroom still adjusting to the concept of gender equality.
“It was the ’80s. Women had won equal rights, and we were supposed to do anything a man could do,” she said. “But there was sexism, explicit and implicit. Some women could overcome it, but for someone like me — inherently a people pleaser —it was hard to overcome. And I think that’s why I became an assistant.”
As she started a family (her husband is English professor Dennis Todd) and took on fewer ghostwriting gigs in the late 1990s, Feinman Todd soon found her niche as a professor. Though she had enjoyed teaching classes at Georgetown for years, walking across the Key Bridge to the Hilltop became more and more appealing as she grew dissatisfied with her life as ghostwriter. Georgetown provided a branch out of the swamp, allowing her to disappear from a world she had grown disillusioned with.
No longer resigning herself to supporting roles, she eagerly took on the challenge of leading the master’s in journalism program at the School of Continuing Studies.
“I knew Georgetown needed more journalism classes, and I knew I was in the right position,” Feinman Todd said.
Her work paid off: The former writer’s assistant developed into a charismatic classroom presence and beloved professor, even as her name faded from insider-Washington. From 2007 to 2011, she and a co-professor, Asra Nomani, led a class and an award-winning investigation into the kidnapping and death of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. Her “Washington Confidential” writing class, co-taught with English professor Maureen Corrigan, has become a students’ favorite. The undergraduate journalism minor, now in its sixth year, attracted 35 applications this spring.
“I always wanted to teach, and I’m very proud of what we’ve built here,” Feinman Todd said.
While she’s happier than ever at Georgetown, teaching isn’t the end of the road for Feinman Todd. More than anything, Pretend I’m Not Here is an in-depth look at the life of a writer. The thrills of success and brushes with fame are there, of course, but so are the boring days, and the heartbreak when an inherently tenuous career takes unplanned turns. For Feinman Todd, ghostwriting was simply a way to pay the bills while she worked on the great Washington novel.
“It’s not just about book tours and advances and seeing your name up in lights. It’s about rejection letters, estimating your taxes, scrambling for your next gig,” she said. “But if you have the compulsion to write, I can’t think of something I’d rather do.”
Ghostwriting took her down a fascinating road. But now that she’s finally picked up the pen and gotten that story on paper, she’s ready to tell more.
“My first mistake was not sticking with the fiction writing,” she said. “But I’m going to get back to that now, and I’m hopeful about getting published. I’m working on a historical novel, and it’s set in Washington. In the White House.”
— Patrick Curran