WASHINGTON – When not fighting with Republicans, the White House has been tangling with one of the capital’s best-known and best-sourced reporters. But the Bob Woodward vs. White House sideshow moved to the center ring on Thursday. And much of the city paused to watch.
That’s when Politico published an email exchange between Woodward, the celebrity investigative reporter and chronicler of presidents, and Gene Sperling, President Obama’s top economic aide. Although Woodward had accused an Obama aide of rough treatment and veiled threats, the emails showed a much softer, genial exchange.
“I know you may not believe this, but as a friend, I think you will regret staking out that claim,” Sperling wrote.
“I also welcome your personal advice. I am listening,” Woodward responded.
The back-and-forth had some chuckling and others scoffing. The White House, which has been chafing with the press corps over other issues, downplayed the matter as routine business.
“I think you cannot read those emails and come away with the impression that Gene was threatening anybody,” said White House spokesman Jay Carney, a former reporter.
Still, the fight with Woodward has been an irksome distraction for a White House engaged in a high-stakes showdown with Congress over the federal budget.
Citing reporting from his book on the budget talks of 2011,“The Price of Politics,” Woodward has been noting that the White House came up with the idea for the much-maligned sequester – the automatic budget cuts set to hit most government programs on Friday.
That nugget has been embraced by Republicans eager to distance themselves from the unpopular cuts. They quickly dubbed the cuts the “Obama’s sequester.”
The White House has argued the point is irrelevant, since the sequester mechanism has been around for decades and both sides agreed to the deal.
The weeks-old dispute had fizzled until Sunday when Woodward, in a Washington Post opinion piece, accused the White House of moving the “goal posts” in its budget standoff. Woodward said he called Sperling to let him know the piece was running. That’s when Sperling lost his temper and yelled, telling him he would “regret” the assertion, Woodward told Politico.
The warning from Sperling would have scared off a less experienced reporter, Woodward said.
“I don’t think it’s the way to operate,” he said.
While only the two men know exactly what was said on the phone, the tone in the emails doesn’t look very scary, particularly compared to tongue lashings some other administration aides have been known to deliver. Exhibit A: State Department spokesman Philippe Reines once told a reporter to buzz off using a more profane expression.
Still, one person’s passionate defense of their point of view is another’s intimidation. Woodward’s fight with the White House prompted some journalists to come forward with their own stories of tough talk from administration aides.
Carney noted that he thinks relations are better now than when he joined the White House press corps in 1993. He called the tension the usual “adversarial relationship” between the press and government officials.
“’Twas ever thus,” he said.