A True Gene Sperling Story

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The Terminator, a.k.a. Gene Sperling -- the White House economics chief of diminutive stature but ferocious arguing chops -- has gotten on the wrong side of Bob Woodward for telling him the legendary reporter that he would "regret" making the claim that the president moved the goal posts on the sequester. I'm not qualified to judge the merits of either man's case (though I do think that Woodward is a very careful reporter) because I don't know enough about the issue. But I do know that it is a stretch to think that Gene was threatening Woodward, as Woodward has alleged, and as many of Woodward's new conservative admirers also allege.

The reason I know this is that a long time ago, way back in the 1900s, I gave Gene a column at The Daily Pennsylvanian, the University of Pennsylvania student-run newspaper (I was the editor of the paper at the time, and Gene was a Wharton graduate student), and we regularly tussled about the length of his columns. His columns, as I recall (I'm trying to dig them out from the pre-Internet era), were pretty great, but they always came in too long. The average column on our op-ed page ran about 800 words. Gene would turn in columns at 1,500 or 1,800 words. The editorial-page editor (Craig Coopersmith, who is now a famous physician) and I would suggest various cuts, and Gene would nod, and the columns would then come back at 1,900 words.

We usually managed to squeeze the columns in, because he was the best columnist we had, but on occasion he would present us with an insurmountable physics problem, and we had to cut. One day, when we couldn't get the column on the page at his preferred length, he put up a big fight, and he said, "You'll rue the day you cut this column."

I recognize that this happened decades ago, and you're probably wondering why I remember it at all. The reason is, it was the first time I had ever heard anyone ever use the expression "rue the day" in speech and it stayed with me.

I tell this story only to make the point that I did not feel threatened by Gene's statement, which was arguably stronger than the one he made to Woodward. Of course, he didn't have the White House behind him when he was a columnist at The Daily Pennsylvanian. On the other hand, we needed him as a columnist fairly desperately, so he did have us over a barrel.

And no, I don't rue the day I cut 700 words out of Gene Sperling's column.

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Jeffrey Goldberg is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and a recipient of the National Magazine Award for Reporting. He is the author of Prisoners: A Story of Friendship and Terror. More

Before joining The Atlantic in 2007, Goldberg was a Middle East correspondent, and the Washington correspondent, for The New Yorker. He was previouslly a correspondent for The New York Times Magazine and New York magazine. He has also written for the Jewish Daily Forward and was a columnist for The Jerusalem Post.

Goldberg's book Prisoners was hailed as one of the best books of 2006 by the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Slate, The Progressive, Washingtonian magazine, and Playboy. He received the 2003 National Magazine Award for Reporting for his coverage of Islamic terrorism and the 2005 Anti-Defamation League Daniel Pearl Prize. He is also the winner of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists prize for best international investigative journalist; the Overseas Press Club award for best human-rights reporting; and the Abraham Cahan Prize in Journalism.

In 2001, Goldberg was appointed the Syrkin Fellow in Letters of the Jerusalem Foundation, and in 2002 he became a public-policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.

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