Tevi Troy, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, was a senior adviser to President George W. Bush. He is the author of the forthcoming “What Jefferson Read, Ike Watched, and Obama Tweeted: 200 Years of Popular Culture in the White House.”
Gene Sperling has reserved for himself a special place in Washington lore. In the days leading up to the sequester deadline Friday, the city found itself immersed in a bizarre debate over whether Sperling, an economic adviser to President Obama and a Clinton administration veteran, tried to intimidate The Washington Post’s Bob Woodward by suggesting in an e-mail that Woodward would “regret” his writings about the president’s fiscal policy proposals.
Though the full e-mail message, once leaked, ended up reading far more chummy than threatening — it was virtually “e-kissed,” as one reporter put it — the spat, quickly dubbed “Woodwardgate,” had a compelling historical symmetry to it. The very notion of a senior White House adviser possibly attempting to intimidate an enterprising reporter smacked of exactly the kind of arrogance that Woodward himself uncovered decades ago in his exposes of Richard Nixon’s presidency.
And history shows that, although public respect for the news media currently resides in the basement (along with respect for Congress), press enmity has proved to be an unsustainable — though popular — tactic for the White House.
Two modern administrations in particular made press enmity a guiding force in their communications and political strategy: those of Nixon and Lyndon B. Johnson.
As president, Johnson found that his famous intimidation “treatment” — so effective in one-on-one interactions in the Senate — did not work through the medium of television. It also turned off reporters, but that did not stop him from trying it on them. Johnson would often call and berate senior network executives in response to critical stories, sometimes even challenging their patriotism.
In one instance, in 1965, CBS broadcast a report showing a Marine setting a Vietnamese hut on fire with a Zippo lighter. Johnson was so enraged that he called CBS head Frank Stanton at home to tell him that Stanton had “s--- on the American flag.” Johnson also questioned the loyalties of the Canadian-born correspondent, Morley Safer. “How could CBS employ a communist like Safer?” the president asked. “How could they be so unpatriotic as to put on an enemy film like this?”
In the winter of 1967, Johnson told NBC News President Bill McAndrew that he thought the networks were biased against his administration and that he was watching them “like a hawk.” The commander in chief seeking to intimidate the head of a federally regulated company certainly pushes the boundaries of propriety — and perhaps even legality.
Of course, just because Johnson was peevish with the press does not mean he was wrong about its animus against him. Reporters, particularly TV journalists, gave him a hard time and helped bring about his undoing. After the Tet Offensive, Walter Cronkite’s on-air report from Vietnam — which the president did not see — supposedly elicited his famous lament: “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America.” Shortly thereafter, Johnson would make his most memorable television appearance, announcing that he would not run for president in 1968.