Last night on CNN, Bob Woodward made national news when he complained that he had been threatened in an email exchange with an unnamed top White House official. According to the Watergate legend, the “very senior” official warned him that if he reported news about the sequestration in a way the White House did not like, “you will regret doing this.”
Put that way, it certainly sounds ominous. And just to drive the point home, Woodward repeated the claim in an interview with Politico:
“Woodward repeated the last sentence, making clear he saw it as a veiled threat. “ ‘You’ll regret.’ Come on,” he said. “I think if Obama himself saw the way they’re dealing with some of this, he would say, ‘Whoa, we don’t tell any reporter ‘you’re going to regret challenging us.’”
“They have to be willing to live in the world where they’re challenged,” Woodward continued in his calm, instantly recognizable voice. “I’ve tangled with lots of these people. But suppose there’s a young reporter who’s only had a couple of years — or 10 years’ — experience and the White House is sending him an email saying, ‘You’re going to regret this.’ You know, tremble, tremble. I don’t think it’s the way to operate.”
Again, that does sound potentially serious, particularly since this “threat” struck home with someone as experienced and presumably tough as Woodward.
As it turns out, however, the very senior official in question was Gene Sperling, who as head of the National Economic Council is not exactly in a position to order drones rained upon Woodward’s increasingly big head.
The e-mail exchange between Woodward and Sperling has also been released. Here is what Sperling wrote:
“I apologize for raising my voice in our conversation today. My bad. I do understand your problems with a couple of our statements in the fall — but feel on the other hand that you focus on a few specific trees that gives a very wrong perception of the forest. But perhaps we will just not see eye to eye here.
But I do truly believe you should rethink your comment about saying that Potus asking for revenues is moving the goal post. I know you may not believe this, but as a friend, I think you will regret staking out that claim. The idea that the sequester was to force both sides to go back to try at a big or grand bargain with a mix of entitlements and revenues (even if there were serious disagreements on composition) was part of the DNA of the thing from the start. It was an accepted part of the understanding — from the start. Really.”
And here’s how Woodward responded after this supposed “threat”:
“Gene: You do not ever have to apologize to me. You get wound up because you are making your points and you believe them. This is all part of a serious discussion. I for one welcome a little heat; there should more given the importance. I also welcome your personal advice. I am listening. I know you lived all this. My partial advantage is that I talked extensively with all involved. I am traveling and will try to reach you after 3 pm today. Best, Bob
I’ve been in more than my share of those conversations, with everybody from county commissioners to U.S. senators. It’s ridiculous for Woodward to claim that he felt threatened or intimidated by it. In the first place, the context makes it clear that Sperling was warning Woodward that if he reported things that way, he would regret it because it would be factually incorrect. There was no other implication, and Woodward’s response makes no mention that he felt threatened in any way.
Even if you try real real real hard to imagine Sperling’s email as some threat, it in no way justifies Woodward’s collapse upon his fainting couch.
When Woodward and Carl Bernstein were breaking the Watergate story 40 years ago, Nixon’s attorney general, John Mitchell, famously warned Bernstein that Washington Post owner “Katie Graham … is gonna get her tit caught in a big fat wringer if that’s published.”
THAT was a threat.
Indeed, Nixon plotted how to revoke federal licenses for TV stations owned by the Post as a way to get back at the newspaper.
“They should give some thought to taking on the guy that went into Cambodia and Laos, ran the Cambodian bombing campaign,” an angry Nixon was taped as telling an aide in the White House. “What do the hell they think they’re doing in there?” Later he abandoned that approach, telling the same aide that “We’re going to screw them another way.… They don’t really realize how rough I can play.… But when I start, I will kill them. There’s no question about it.”
Sad to say, Woodward’s grotesque exaggeration of his exchange with Sperling diminishes both his standing and credibility.
– Jay Bookman