Bob Woodward is not a reliable reporter. Readers of All the President's Men, which admirably chronicles several crucial errors and misrepresentations that he and Carl Bernstein made in the course of their—otherwise excellent!—Watergate reporting, have a sense of this fact. His old boss, the legendary editor Ben Bradlee, never really trusted him, wondering repeatedly and on the record whether the story and mythology of Deep Throat—the linchpin of the Watergate story that Woodward and his partner Carl Bernstein sold to the American public—was in fact a giant fraud.
And anyone who has been paying attention to Woodward's efforts to portray an apologetic, friendly, concerned email from a White House official as a Nixonian threat designed to silence him will come to the conclusion that, when it comes to assessing his character, we should trust those who know him best. Bradlee was on to something.
The email in question was sent by White House economic adviser Gene Sperling. It concerned a much-remarked upon column Woodward wrote last week accusing the White House of "moving the goal posts" in its ongoing negotiations with the Republican leadership over fiscal policy. The White House, Woodward claimed, came up with the idea of imposing a draconian "sequester" in order to motivate both Democrats and Republicans to come to the table and get a deal done. And since the White House didn't insist on tax hikes being a part of the sequester, its insistence that they be a part of a deal to avoid the sequester constitutes negotiating in bad faith.
The White House, understandably (and correctly), disputes this analysis. And in the course of disputing that analysis, Sperling spoke to Woodward on the phone last week. The conversation became heated, and then it ended. Apparently feeling badly about the way it ended, Sperling sent a follow-up email to Woodward. Here it is, in full:
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 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 barain 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. It was assumed by the Rs on the Supercommittee that came right after: it was assumed in the November-December 2012 negotiations. There may have been big disagreements over rates and ratios - but that it was supposed to be replaced by entitlements and revenues of some form is not controversial. (Indeed, the discretionary savings amount from the Boehner-Obama negotiations were locked in in BCA: the sequester was just designed to force all back to table on entitlements and revenues.)
I agree there are more than one side to our first disagreement, but again think this latter issue is diffferent. Not out to argue and argue on this latter point. Just my sincere advice. Your call obviously.
My apologies again for raising my voice on the call with you. Feel bad about that and truly apologize.
Here is what Woodward wrote back:
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
Four days later, Woodward appeared on CNN's Situation Room to discuss his claims regarding the sequester. When Wolf Blitzer asked him to described the White House's reactions to his claims, Woodward paraphrased the above email exchange, attributing it to a "very senior" White House official. Here is what Woodward said:
It was said very clearly, you will regret doing this... It makes me very uncomfortable to have the White House telling reporters 'You will regret' doing something that you believe in.' I think if Barack Obama knew that was part of the communications strategy—let's hope it's not a strategy, but as a tactic—he'd say look, we don't go around saying to reporters, you will regret this.
This is a unique circumstance. We have before us a window into Woodward's reporting process, such as it is. We have an original document, in the form of Sperling's email. We have a contemporaneous response from Woodward that crystallizes his understanding of that document, and its meaning, at the time. And we have Woodward's subsequent "reporting" on the substance of that document. Here is how they align:
Original Document: "I apologize for raising my voice in our conversation today... I know you may not believe this, but as a friend, I think you will regret staking out that claim.
Woodward's Contemporaneous Understanding: "You do not ever have to apologize to me.... I for one welcome a little heat; there should more given the importance. I also welcome your personal advice."
Woodward's Subsequent Reporting on the Content of the Document: "It was said very clearly, you will regret doing this... It makes me very uncomfortable to have the White House telling reporters 'You will regret' doing something that you believe in.'"
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."
There's no way to synthesize the information presented above and come to any conclusion other than that Bob Woodward lied. He told Sperling that he "welcomed" what he regarded as "personal advice" regarding his decision to take a specific view of contested events. He told him that he regretted that their exchanges weren't more contentious and "hot." He did not tell Sperling that he was "uncomfortable." Then he turned around and told Blitzer et. al. that he regarded the same conversation as a considered and deliberate attempt to intimidate him into silence.
Woodward, of course, knows from considered and deliberate attempts to silence. Last year, his former research assistant Jeff Himmelman wrote in New York magazine about Woodward's efforts to keep Himmelman from reporting Bradlee's longstanding skepticism about the veracity of All the President's Men. In the course of writing a book about Bradlee, Himmelman had come across an old, previously unreleased interview transcript in which Bradlee accused Woodward and Bernstein of disingenuously attempting to slip dodgy stories past the Posts' editors by bringing them in close to deadline. He also said he thought they might be full of shit:
Did that potted [plant] incident ever happen? … and meeting in some garage. One meeting in the garage? Fifty meetings in the garage? I don't know how many meetings in the garage … There's a residual fear in my soul that that isn't quite straight.
When Himmelman asked Bradlee about the interview, he stood by his skepticism. And Woodward tried to get him to kill it. It would give "fodder to the fuckers" who attack his reporting, Woodward said.
That argument didn't make sense, and I said so. Bob told me it was his "strong recommendation" that I not use the quotes, then that it was his "emphatic recommendation." Then, when that got no truck: "Don't use the quotes, Jeff."
At no point did Sperling's email come even close to the forcefulness of Woodward's appeal to Himmelman. And yet here he was, twisting the arm of a reporter much younger than he was in an attempt to manage his legacy. Tremble, tremble.
The baldness of Woodward's lie made it impossible for even the most wetbrained conservative partisans couldn't stand by him. Hot Air, the stomping ground of Michele Malkin, allowed that "it's a threat so veiled I can't see it." The Daily Caller's Matt Lewis wrote that Woodward "played" conservative media. The Washington Examiner's Byron York agreed that it "wasn't close to a threat."
What's odd about this self-immolation is that most of Woodward's post-Watergate career, as Joan Didion viciously detailed more than a decade ago in an immortal New York Review of Books assassination, has been an exercise in deference to power. On a nearly annual basis, he has produced book-length paeans to the notion that Washington is an occasionally messy machine that always produces the desired result, generally due to the noble actions of great men: "Washington, as rendered by Mr. Woodward, is by definition basically solid, a diorama of decent intentions in which wise if misunderstood and occasionally misled stewards will reliably prevail."
This is a story, of course, that those decent and wise stewards generally want told—even if it requires the publications of the odd embarrassing "insider" detail—which is why Woodward has been able to waltz in and out of every administration since Carter with impunity. The trade-off—access in exchange for an implicit pledge to judge his subjects by the polite rules of Washington—has essentially defined Woodward's journalism. Even when it came to Nixon, his bete noir, Woodward was willing to bow to his head and submit a list of pre-screened questions in exchange for an interview (it never happened).
But the spell has broken. The Obama White House has, it appears, been as receptive to Woodward's bargain as its predecessors were, but for some reason he's gone off the grid and begun firing wildly and without provocation. Who knows why. The changes to our politics over the last five years have obviously been hard on him. It's more difficult to tell stories about good men working out their honest differences when one half of the equation has foresworn compromise and committed itself to total political warfare. The comfortable subroutines of his brain have gone haywire, and he's kicking out garbage.
But the simplest explanation for this episode is that he wants people to buy his book about how the president is an effete asshole who's in over his head. How would one go about marketing a book like that, I wonder? During the entirety of the Bush Administration, Woodward made 11 appearances on Fox News Channel. Last year, he showed up 10 times. This year, he's been on three times so far. Guess where he's going to be tonight.
[Image by Jim Cooke, source photo via Getty]