How to threaten Bob Woodward

February 28, 2013

At least, this is how the conversation has sounded.

When is a threat not a threat? Or when is a “threat” not a threat?

Well, consider what all the abominable Twitterati are trying to nickname Woodwardgate.

First, Bob Woodward wrote an op-ed in the Post noting that the sequester — with its automatic, draconian spending cuts without tax increases — was the president’s idea, not, as the president has been saying, the brainchild of Congress. Shortly thereafter, all Inside Baseball Hell broke loose. The White House was unhappy. Officials pointed out that Everyone Knew At The Time that this was never ACTUALLY supposed to take effect, because Washington was supposed to come together and act like grown-ups and reach compromise. It took them several tries to say this, because midway through the phrase about how everyone seriously expected Washington to act like grown-ups and come together to reach a mature compromise, they kept bursting into hysterical laughter. 

Politico ran a piece that started off like this. I am not making this up:

“Bob Woodward called a senior White House official last week to tell him that in a piece in that weekend’s Washington Post, he was going to question President Barack Obama’s account of how sequestration came about — and got a major-league brushback. The Obama aide “yelled at me for about a half-hour,” Woodward told us in an hourlong interview yesterday around the Georgetown dining room table where so many generations of Washington’s powerful have spilled their secrets.

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.’ ”

“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.”

(Bolds mine)

This is literally how all my Bob Woodward fan fiction begins, except for the one where he approaches you at a bar and says he’s got a flag he would like to plant in your flowerpot. And I’ve got a pretty sizable folder of it — if not a famous folder, yet.

Trembling aside, the Internet seems to be in a bit of an uproar about whether Woodward was threatened by the White House. Woodward himself never said he was threatened, although he did describe the whole approach to communicating with him as “Mickey Mouse” on CNN, which is about as threatening an adjective as exists on this Earth, if my childhood nightmares are to be believed.

Since the “threatened” headline began to gain purchase, a number of younger reporters have leapt up to say that they get emails all the time saying much worse, from the flacks of far more threatening and imposing figures, all the time. “I got six emails yesterday saying that Joe Biden was about to sic his trained bears on my home,” they said. “People never tell me that they think I will ‘regret’ things. They tell me that they think I will RUE THE DAY I wrote such words, and that my error will be FOREVER BRANDED ON MY SOUL.”

“Sometimes,” they added, “Gene Sperling just sends me menacing GIFs of horseheads. But having grown up on the Internet, I am used to this sort of thing. Poor Woodward, so thin-skinned as to mistake this for a threat. I just sent him an email asking him out to coffee and saying his tie looked nice, and he burst into tears and demanded protective custody.”

The e-mails have since been leaked, and the relevant missive (from economic adviser Gene Sperling) turns out to begin with an apology for yelling.

Because nothing is more ominous than an apology for yelling! as some people are still maintaining. They have been forced into this position after they hoisted Woodward aloft on their shoulders as The One True Journalist in Washington and started saying that this intimidation had gone on far too long. “It’s not what we read on the page,” they say. “It’s how he felt at the time. After all, when Bob Woodward criticizes a White House, we know who generally prevails in this equation.”

To be fair, this all piles on top of the perception that the White House press corps increasingly spends its days doing the journalistic equivalent of sitting in a cafe with roses in hand, waiting hours and hours for a date who never shows. Maybe this is The Game, or the White House has been reading some other manual that indicates that this is how you get people to fall all over you. Up to a point.

“I can take any amount of criticism,” Noel Coward said, “so long as it is unqualified praise.” This certainly seems to be the White House’s strategy. Fortunately, dozens of people are willing to leap up for whatever scoops they are willing to toss into the pool, batting each other aside with their handbags and shouting noisily into the Twitters. So far. After all, better that than suffer a fate far more horrible than Woodward’s, even for a young reporter.

I got the most threatening e-mail possible from the White House: no e-mail at all.

Alexandra Petri writes the ComPost blog, offering a lighter take on the news and opinions of the day.
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Alexandra Petri | February 28, 2013