Bob Woodward carries with him an invisible stamp. He is perhaps the country's only official validator of political scandal, an imprimatur earned from his exceptional work exposing the details of the Watergate cover-up. For months, Republicans and sympathetic parties in the media have been enticing Woodward to apply the stamp to Obama. So far, they've had no success.
Last night, Bill O'Reilly tried to lure Woodward into slapping the Watergate label on the IRS controversy. The Washington Post's Erik Wemple transcribed part of the exchange, which can be watched here.
WOODWARD: One of the things you learn doing this for 40 years is — and I agree this is not Watergate at all. But the road to Watergate is concealment, is not coming clean and just say “Oh well we won’t have to release that memo. We won’t have to let so and so testify. Let’s call executive privilege.”
WOODWARD: “Let’s stonewall.” And if they do that, they will dig themselves in a hole. And I think they have the moral and intellectual capacity to stop that.
Stamp not applied. The administration could dig a hole by obfuscating, but Woodward doesn't imply that they're doing so.
Wemple's article, though, is predicated on calling out the ensuing Fox News headline: "Woodward: IRS scandal 'on the road to Watergate'." That's still the headline, despite it not being what Woodward said. Woodward was being interviewed in the hopes that he'd link Obama and Watergate. When he did, however he did, it became the story. (Update, 1:00 p.m.: The headline has now been changed to "Woodward: Road to Watergate for Obama Admin is concealment.") Contrast that with Politico, which, reporting on the same interview, focused instead on Woodward drawing an indirect link between the IRS and the Obama administration. (Over the long run, such a link could be far more significant.)
It wasn't the first time Woodward opined on the IRS scandal. Last month, he called it "a big mess," but "not yet" at the level of Watergate. (No stamp.) During the same interview, which took place on Morning Joe, he also weighed in on Benghazi. "I would not dismiss Benghazi. It's a very serious issue." (No stamp.) Two days later, he revisited Benghazi on Meet the Press. Raw Story excerpted:
“First of all, people are making comparisons to Watergate,” he said. “This is not Watergate. But there are some people in the administration who have acted as if they want to be Nixonian, and that’s a very big problem.”
No stamp. But conservative site Newsmax followed up with an article titled, "Bob Woodward: White House Acts Like It 'Wants to Be Nixonian'."
On Face the Nation last Sunday, Woodward was again asked to opine on the Obama scandal set. This time, the topic was the Department of Justice media investigations. Poynter transcribes:
[Y]ou lump all these things — the IRS, Benghazi, and this together and what you’ve got is a feeling that no one’s coming clean, that we aren’t getting straight talk. And this goes to President Obama. He’s got to find a way to unravel this. We live in an age of distrust. I think it’s more severe now, and he has to come find some way to clean this up and say, this is what happened, this is what it means.
The Daily Caller picked up what Woodward said next: "Bob Woodward advises Obama to admit he ‘screwed up’." If — Woodward then qualified his comments — he actually had.
There's some symbiosis at play here. Woodward enjoys representing the old guard of journalism, and has earned the right to opine. He also understands the weight of his words' implications. Watergates don't start at full scandal, they develop. Many — most! — of developing scandalous paths end far before they get there. Each time Woodward points to such a path, it erodes his stamp. But it will probably get attention.