Forty years after Watergate, 20 years after he stepped down as executive editor of the Washington Post, Ben Bradlee remains a folk hero in the annals of American journalism. This surprising and compulsively readable bio, written as a first-person quest to dig out the real Bradlee, does a better job of explaining why he's a legend than the retired editor's own somewhat bloodless 1996 memoir.

Bradlee, now 90, gave Himmelman access to all his papers. "Don't feel that you have to protect me," Bradlee told him. "You and I have a great relationship, and there's nothing you can do in this book that's going to change it." Press reports suggest that may not be the case. Bradlee's third wife, Sally Quinn, is said to be unhappy with the book, and the author's former mentor Bob Woodward apparently is livid.

Among the surprises: Himmelman digs up an old Bradlee interview that suggests he suspected Woodward embellished his meetings with Watergate background source Deep Throat. He speculates on sexual tension between Bradlee and publisher Katharine Graham, and describes Bradlee's rocky relations with his older children. Himmelman also finds out that Woodward and Bernstein did in fact interview a Watergate grand juror, contrary to their denials.

Himmelman says he was only following Bradlee's dictate: Follow your nose. But in the end this is a flattering portrait. Clearly he likes and admires the old editor, and it's not hard to understand why. Most of the book dwells on Bradlee's glory days with Newsweek and the Post, chumming around with JFK, career highs (Pentagon Papers, Watergate) and lows (Janet Cooke). Himmelman's chapters on Watergate are especially masterful, untangling that web in a fresh and comprehensible way. I enjoyed Bradlee's own letters and memos, which are wonderfully brisk and pungent -- and mostly unprintable in a family newspaper.

The book makes clear that as a reporter for the Post and Newsweek, Bradlee was just OK. But as an editor he had the experience, instincts, charisma and guts to be great when it mattered most. And it never mattered more than it did in Washington in the 1970s.