Bob Woodward, the square-jawed star of the Watergate scandal, recently sat down with Politico to gripe about how an Obama aide "yelled at [him] for about a half hour" and later said he'd "regret" asking the administration tough questions. As you might've gather from that whole "star of Watergate" statement above, Woodward is no stranger to the president's men making tough talk with journalists. And beyond being a little bit miffed about the administration's posture towards the press, Woodward is bullish in his quest to let America know that this sequestration crisis is simply a product of Barack Obama making marionettes out of all of us — Congress, the press, the people. He wrote a whole book about it. But did the White House really threaten him? Some people think that Woodward's gone little too far this time.
Woodward's latest swipe at the White House has Beltway types pretty stirred up, especially the ones in the media already making a mess out of the administration's press policies this month. It smacks of the real playground intimidation nonsense that makes politicos cover their mouths and say, Ohhh! First, you have a star like Woodward lowering his brow at the Obama administration. Again, this is the guy that Robert Redford played in All the President's Men, a movie about how journalism brought down an American president. Whomever that "senior aide" was that threatened Woodward — he's been identified to Buzzfeed's Ben Smith as White House Economic Director Gene Sperling — just threw his juicebox at man who's now accusing the executive branch (in Politico) of going "tremble tremble" and (on CNN Wednesday night) with "a tactic" that makes him "very uncomfortable." (Update, Thursday, 8:35 a.m.: The White House has released the email exchange between Sperling to Woodward, and they don't seem that threatening at all. Woodward's reply includes this: "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.")
That would be a silly thing to do on any day of the week. But at a time when the Obama administration's taking heat for being hypocritical about transparency, it's just madness. "Madness" — that's the same word that Woodward used on television Wednesday morning to describe Obama's handling of sequestration, a situation that the journalist says the president orchestrated. Woodward's been at this since last week, and kept it up both in print over the weekend and at various stops in Congress and on TV later through Wednesday. That's exactly what Woodward called to talk to said senior aide about when he got the yelling routine. However, some would doubt Woodward's account of the whole exchange. It's hard to know what was said on that initial phone call, but the "you will regret" threat came in the form of an email that Woodward shared with Politico. "I apologize for raising my voice in our conversation today," wrote the aide. "You're focusing on a few specific trees that give a very wrong impression of the forest. But perhaps we will just not see eye to eye here. … I think you will regret staking out that claim."
Different people will interpret that threat differently. Members of the press pool and other D.C. journalists can't help but separate it from the recent controversy over the White House blocking the press from following Obama on to the golf course. That seemingly small incident is part of a broader complaint that many journalists have with Obama and his promise to be transparent. "The way the president's availability to the press has shrunk in the last two years is a disgrace," longtime ABC News White House reporter Ann Compton told Politico recently. "This is different from every president I covered. This White House goes to extreme lengths to keep the press away." Extreme lengths like veiled threats? Bob Woodward says yes.
However, it's impossible not to read into Woodward's intentions in blowing up his exchange with a White House aide, not to mention Politico's decision to report on the incident. Even Politico's Mike Allen and Jim Vandehei, who wrote that big post-golf "puppet master" exposé, now admit that "Woodward, once Public Enemy Number One to a generation of Republicans, [has become] the unlikely darling of the right wing." After Allen and Vandehei published their latest story about Woodward's run-in, journalists were quick to reinterpret what happened between Woodward and the aide. The Huffington Post's Jason Linkins actually talked to the White House after the story went live on Wednesday night and got this reply for an "official":
Of course no threat was intended. As Mr. Woodward noted, the email from the aide was sent to apologize for voices being raised in their previous conversation. The note suggested that Mr. Woodward would regret the observation he made regarding the sequester because that observation was inaccurate, nothing more. And Mr. Woodward responded to this aide's email in a friendly manner
Your conspiratorial self may ask: But isn't that just more evidence that the White House is manipulating the press into telling it what to report???? No, it's actually just a less slanted read of what went down. Woodward's more slanted read, by the way, looks like this:
Woodward repeated the last sentence, making clear he saw it as a veiled threat. " 'You'll regret' Come on," [Woodward] 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.'"
We'll let you interpret the two sides of this argument before, but it's worth remembering that Woodward's been waging a war on Obama for a while now. He's going to keep fighting it, too. Woodward heads to Fox News tomorrow to talk about the whole situation with Sean Hannity. Maybe they'll eat some donuts and have a soda.