Bob Woodward’s public drubbing over the past 24 hours confirms his own four decades of reporting about Washington: no one’s career is untouchable, ever. The New Yorker described the episode unfavorably as an “interception,” and White House Svengali David Plouffe compared the 69-year-old journalist to a washed up major league ball player. The Woodward mockfest — over his claim that a “very senior” White House official, Gene Sperling, threatened him — went far beyond the usual criticisms leveled against the single most influential journalist in American history.
The episode also caps off a rough season for Woodward, starting with last year’s accusations in the authorized biography of his former editor Ben Bradlee that he and Bernstein Hollywooded up some of their original reporting (“a residual fear that it wasn’t quite straight,” Bradlee is quoted as saying about one Watergate story,) and continuing this week to Sperling screaming at him over the phone, then apologizing to him as a “friend.” Like the journalistic equivalent of J. Edgar Hoover, Woodward has been feared as the keeper and spiller of the city’s secrets, and the attacks indicate the Beltway herd sees him as weaker now, more frail, a safe target for potshots, no longer having to worry as much about earning his ink-stained wrath.
But before we put Woodward in the hearse, it’s worth looking at his claim. Sperling clearly berated Woodward over the phone so badly that it prompted a pseudo-apologetic follow-up email telling the author to change his position on an important issue. Woodward was confident in his version of events that happened to contradict the White House’s line. True, Woodward might be wrong about the facts on this one, but that doesn’t mean that one of the most experienced investigative reporters around doesn’t recognize a threat. (Woodstein probably wouldn’t have survived a tangle with the Nixon administration without that sort of radar.)
In fact, Woodward’s run-in shows how far the White House’s casual intimidation, invigorated by the mandate of a second term, has crept into the most elite corridors. The squeeze is on—from Bradley Manning (jailing the Wikileaks source for life); to the seven prosecutions against government whistleblowers, and, now, to an assault on the supposedly gentleman-like confines of Washington political journalism.
Why has the press so quick to dismiss Woodward’s experience of White House bullying? At the very least, Woodward has been aggressively questioning the official administration version of events. He re-iterated his stance last night on Hannity: it was a “coded you better watch out” message.
That’s not to say there aren’t all sorts of other dynamics at play in the budget-reporting-flap, from the Washington culture clash to Woodward’s generally center-right pro-establishment positions. Woodward, too, the career-maker/ender and master of the death-bed confession, has practiced a kind of savage show-no-mercy journalism for decades, leaving a trail of shattered “DC friends,” like Sperling and Gen. Jim Jones, in his wake. And it’s certainly true that Woodward’s relationship with President Obama has taken an explicitly personal tone.
In the prologue to The Price of Politics, the book where Woodward’s sequester reporting first appeared, the author recounts his personal connection with President Obama, starting on March 11, 2006, when he met the “junior senator from Illinois” in “formal white-tie and tails” at the Gridiron dinner. “Oh the horror of it all, and, Oh, the wonder of it all,” Woodward wrote about the evening. “Rarely have I seen anyone manage a moment so well.”
Then Woodward questioned whether Obama deserved to even be in the room: “But if he had done nothing much so far, why was he here? Why the buzz? The approbation? What exactly was being measured?”
Finally, Woodward wrote, Obama wasn’t as “serious” as Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who’d given the Gridiron speech in 1981, and wasn’t committed to fight for “the little guy.” Obama, concluded Woodward, was an empty suit, a vessel, a walking ego. “Obama had not once mentioned the party or high purpose. His [Gridiron] speech, instead, was about Obama, his inexperience, and in all the paradox of the moment, what he had not done. Two and a half years later, he was president elect of the United States.”
Weirdly, though, before the recent slide, Woodward had been in a late career renaissance.
Put aside the unfortunate Bush at War and Plan of Attack, which revealed all the well documented criticisms of Woodward’s style of access journalism (in this case, an uncritical and gauzy eyed portrayal of the Bush administration post 9-11.) He knocked it out of the park in his next books with a series of detailed, critical, and largely unflattering accounts of inside the national security apparatus from Iraq to Afghanistan, starting with State of Denial to The War Within, then onto Obama War’s. It was Woodward at his finest — revelatory, compelling, and significant.
(The Secret Man, his 2008 book about Deep Throat, FBI Agent Mark Felt, is also an incredibly insightful look at Woodward’s own methods of reporting. He reveals, for instance, how he burned Felt on one of his and Carl Bernstein’s most important Watergate stories. Woodward writes he knew “Felt would object” to the “very aggressive, interpretive language” of how Woodstein attributed information to FBI and Justice Department files despite Felt warning him to put “not one word” of parts of the interview should appear in the paper. Woodward, too, noted that Nixon had ferreted out Felt as the Washington Post’s source as early as Oct. 9, 1972. Also: Wired, his biography of John Belushi, is worth revisiting.)
Another example of Woodward’s recent contributions to the field of journalism: Obama’s Wars revealed, for the first time, the existence of CIA paramilitary squads in Pakistan, some of the first details on the Obama administration’s drone program, and gave a frightening account of the military’s soft-coup against Obama over the failed surge in Afghanistan. It also marked the end to former National Security advisor Jim Jones career; like Gene Sperling, a Woodward “friend.”
Though it may be tempting to keep piling on Woodward, it’s worth remembering that he’s more or less still chipping away at the official narrative in his own official way. He’s not immediately backing down against the fearless arrogance of the Obama White House, and that’s not a bad thing, either. All The President’s Men was a book and movie that inspired an entire generation of reporters and political junkies. Perhaps Woodward feels Team Obama doesn’t quite respect that bit of history. Plouffe and Sperling, certainly, are right to stick to Woodward when he’s wrong. But why should we expect him to flinch?