Old Iconic Journalists Never Die, They Just Exaggerate

On CNN yesterday, Bob Woodward, an icon of American journalism, clearly suggested that he was threatened by someone, someone quite high up, in the White House for a column he wrote accusing President Obama—falsely, it turns out—of “moving the goal posts” in his dealings with Republicans over sequestration.

Today, we know that Bob Woodward, an icon of American journalism, has lost a lot of his, well, iconishness.

Woodward has told anyone who will listen, or read, that the sequester nonsense was the White House’s idea, personally approved by President Obama. Republicans and their supporters in right-wing media have, for once, loved Woodward’s reporting.

But what Woodward the iconic reporter doesn’t tell folks, at least very clearly, is that the sequester nonsense was sort of a last ditch effort to stop Republicans from destroying the country’s credit worthiness and wrecking the economy in August of 2011.

Lest we forget, the idea behind the sequester was to avoid for a time the debt ceiling issue and to present something so stunningly stupid that both sides would bend their wills to avoid it and a compromise could be reached. If Obama made a mistake, it was in underestimating the Republican leadership’s fondness for stupidity.

In any case, Woodward’s column last week included this falsehood:

So when the president asks that a substitute for the sequester include not just spending cuts but also new revenue, he is moving the goal posts.

Woodward claims that when Joe Biden and Mitch McConnell reached that now infamous deal in 2011, it “included an agreement that there would be no tax increases…” We know this is false for at least three reasons:

1) President Obama has always, since the fight with Republicans began, talked about the need to raise revenues, as part of a “balanced approach” to deficit reduction.

2) The law resulting from the deal (the Budget Control Act) contradicts Woodward’s claim, for reasons you can clearly see here.

3) Woodward’s own book on the subject, The Price of Politics, contradicts the Woodward talking and writing today, as Dave Weigel (“How Bob Woodward’s Book Debunks His Big Washington Post Op-Ed”) and others have pointed out.

All of which brings us to Woodward’s suggestion to CNN’s Wolf Blitzer that some high Obama administration official threatened him, which CNN reported this way:

Bob Woodward says he was threatened by White House

Veteran journalist Bob Woodward said Wednesday he was threatened by a senior Obama administration official following his reporting on the White House’s handling of the forced federal spending cuts set to take effect on Friday.

Woodward would not reveal to Blitzer who the offender in the White House was that sent him this supposed threat in an email, but he did reveal the email he received to Politico, which reported it this way:

Digging into one of his famous folders, Woodward said the tirade was followed by a page-long email from the aide, one of the four or five administration officials most closely involved in the fiscal negotiations with the Hill. “I apologize for raising my voice in our conversation today,” the official typed. “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.”

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.’”

Today, of course, the alleged offender in the White House fought back. Again, from Politico this morning:

POLITICO’s “Behind the Curtain” column last night quoted Bob Woodward as saying that a senior White House official has told him in an email he would “regret” questioning White House statements on the origins of sequestration. The official in question is Gene Sperling, economic adviser to the president. The White House has since pushed back, saying the exchange was far more innocuous than Woodward claims.

Innocuous? Well, yes. Very innocuous as you will see when you read the email below (as well as Woodward’s response to it). But I want to first say that I have watched Bob Woodward’s appearances on MSNBC’s Morning Joe for a couple of years now, and the more I have heard him talk, the more I have noticed that he seems to enjoy being “the story” more than the storyteller, and this sad episode appears to confirm that.

Here is the email, via Politico, from Gene Sperling, Director of the National Economic Council for President Obama, followed by Woodward’s response:

February 22, 2013


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.


From Woodward to Sperling on February 23, 2013:

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




  1. Duane, I believe you nailed it when you said,

    ” . . . the more I have heard him talk, the more I have noticed that he seems to enjoy being “the story” more than the storyteller, and this sad episode appears to confirm that.”

    You are not the first to sense the problem. Consider this from the “criticism” section of Woodward’s bio on Wikipedia:

    Joan Didion has leveled the most comprehensive criticism of Woodward, in a lengthy September 1996 essay in The New York Review of Books.[18] Though “Woodward is a widely trusted reporter, even an American icon,” she says that he assembles reams of often irrelevant detail, fails to draw conclusions, and make judgments. “Measurable cerebral activity is virtually absent” from his books after Watergate from 1979 to 1996, she said. She said the books are notable for “a scrupulous passivity, an agreement to cover the story not as it is occurring but as it is presented, which is to say as it is manufactured.” She ridicules “fairness” as “a familiar newsroom piety, the excuse in practice for a good deal of autopilot reporting and lazy thinking.” All this focus on what people said and thought—their “decent intentions”—circumscribes “possible discussion or speculation,” resulting in what she called “political pornography.”

    I became an admirer of Woodward’s two years ago when I thought he captured the true essence of the Iraq war in his book, and while nothing since has changed my mind about those facts I can see now that his method of implying an ability to capture seemingly impossible insider information has to be considered suspect. In the future I resolve to be much more circumspect about his output. Woodward will be 70 next month and it is hard not to think that his passion to sustain his popular momentum, perhaps past its prime, has overcome his journalistic scruples. Celebrity has a way of going to people’s heads, doesn’t it?

    Woodward is not alone, I noticed this morning, among political pundits who at least occasionally let their emotions overrule their principles. Gene Lyons column covers a similar episode where columnist David Brooks lost it, but at least Brooks had the integrity to admit his error.


    • Jim, thanks for that link to Lyons’ column. Somehow I had missed that little episode, but kudos to Brooks for admitting he got it wrong (that is an excellent exchange with Ezra Klein).

      Woodward’s integrity as a journalist, particularly his intepretive writings, are now all a bit tainted, and he has no one but himself to blame. I don’t know how he thought he could get away with this nonsense without Gene Sperling fighting back. Amazing. Perhaps he has gotten a little too big for his britches.



  2. ansonburlingame

     /  February 28, 2013

    Let me set the record straight at least from my own perspective on Bob Woodward.

    I have known Bob, face to face, since 1988 when we spent three nights in my den discussing “Pentagon leadership issue”. Since then I have maintained loose email and phone contact with him every year or so on many different issues. He has not changed a wit in those interveneing 25 years, not a wit, in my view and experience.

    Bob is no longer a daily reporter and has not been such for some time now. Instead he devotes his considerable effort and skill to researching his books and occassional broad policy pronouncements, given his own perspective.

    BUT one thing has always been a constant. Woodward tells the TRUTH, as he sees it, basic and fundmental truth based on more research and “conversations” than ANY of us have EVER attempted, EVER attempted.

    Woodward NEVER “spins” anything as far as intentional spin to support a cause, one way or the other. Woodward, as best I can tell has NO CAUSE, other than the TRUTH in American politics. He was that way during Watergate and remains that way today, based on 25 years of “watching”, more closely than any of you have had the opportunity to watch, due to “luck” on my part and Bob’s willingness to remain “in contact” for whatever reasons he may have to do so.

    I “think” his reasons are rather simple. Bob and I are the same age. He graduated from Yale the same year I did from USNA. And he was a junior officer for a few years in the NAVY, a common background of sorts. I am in no way his “peer” as a political analyst and he is not mine in terms of being a Naval Officer. But there has been some mutual respect generated over the years with very limited and occassional contact, of a sort.

    “You may regret……” is a dumb thing to put in an email for sure. It COULD BE A THREAT, I’ll get your ass type of statement. Or it COULD BE a point that because the writer thought Bob was dead wrong he would regret being called out publicly for being wrong.

    But so what, to me. Who caused sequestration, as the first idea, is immaterial today. What are we going to do about it is the question before us all.

    We have been stuck at “top dead center” on fundamental policy approaches to get out from under the GR and have been so stuck for 4 years and counting. As well this country has FAILED to resolve that issue as well, with little or no progress fundamentally how best to do so.

    TAX MORE and SPEND LESS, both at the same time is the solution that makes sense to me. But we cannot come to agreement on such and here we are today, if the TRUTH be told, which Woodward as done as best I can tell.



    • Anson,

      1. I appreciate your personal insight into Bob Woodward’s world.

      2. However, I do have a problem with this:

      Woodward tells the TRUTH, as he sees it…

      And this:

      Woodward NEVER “spins” anything as far as intentional spin to support a cause, one way or the other. Woodward, as best I can tell has NO CAUSE, other than the TRUTH in American politics.

      Come on, Anson. Do you have to capitalize TRUTH? We’re not talking metaphysics or theology here. The addition of “as he sees it” by definition makes it at least a small “t” truth, don’t you think? Wow.

      And he never, uh, excuse me, NEVER, spins anything? Oh, boy. This entire episode with Gene Sperling was nothing but spin, from beginning to end.

      I suppose you really believe, then, that Bill O’Reilly runs a “no spin” zone, right?

      Oh, boy. Help.



  3. RDG,

    Brian Buetler’s take on the Woodward fumble echos my thoughts.



    • Beutler’s point about how funny it is that the right thought that Woodward was a left wing hero is exactly right. They live in a world where if they compartmentalize someone as “non-conservative,” especially a journalist, that ipso facto makes that person one of our heroes. Oh, boy.

      Thanks for that link. I didn’t know that Matt Lewis said “we got played.” Along with Erickson, that is progress.


  4. ansonburlingame

     /  March 1, 2013

    Just great, Juan, let others do your thinking for you in another “link”.



    • Anson,
      Buetler’s take on Woodward compounding one error with another succinctly echoed my evaluation concerning the reporter’s self-inflicted wounds. The article has the added bonus of including several other “links” that support his assessment. Should you choose to challenge the conclusions drawn with something other than unsolicited twaddle, I will read your comment and determine if it merits further discussion.

      That is all.


      • What? You mean you reject Anson’s Theory of Links?


        • RDG,
          I wonder if Anson has nightmares about “links?” Maybe “links” have replaced union “thugs” as the Boogie Men who disrupt otherwise thought-provoking den scrums with Bob Woodward.

          It’s a damn shame he finds “links” distasteful. I found one that requires no reading – just narration and easy to understand graphics.



          • That’s a damn good piece of work. Wow. It’s going up. Thanks, my linking thug brother.



          • I agree with Duane, Juan, outstanding LINK. Oops, ‘scuse me for shouting, I just couldn’t contain myself.

            BTW, Rachel Maddow had the bar graph part of this study on her show last night. Too bad she didn’t have the rest of it.


            • THANKS, “Jim”!!!!

              Shouting in CAPS is a novel way to communicate, especially when tossing in the odd quotation/question mark.

              Fred enjoyed “watching” Helga BASTE her “eggs” so much sometimes he forgot about THE CLIFF!!! just long enough to…. But then again, who pays for Helga’s “eggs”??? Fred fumed therein, convinced the “rich” were once again “feeding” DEADBEATS AND THUGS!!! with “we the people’s” hard earned gross domesticated products, right?


    • What? Are you serious?


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