A caveat, for openers: Bob Woodward insists he has never used the term “threat” in referring to the world-famous e-mail that he received from Gene Sperling over the sequester issue. The two had engaged in a contentious phone conversation, and Sperling followed up with what most agree was a polite apology — he even said “my bad.” In that apology, he noted in extremely kind terms that Woodward would “regret” how the reporter was staking his position about how the Obama administration was handling the sequester.
Though Woodward hasn’t used the “T” word in characterizing Sperling’s little brushback, he has said as much via other words. On Fox News’s “Hannity” last night, Woodward said, “The problem I have with the Gene Sperling memo and e-mail and this comes after a shouting match. Now, lots of people shout at me and he says, I’m going to regret, you know, that’s — that goes into the coded, you know, you better watch out.”
A threat, in other words.
Now allow the Erik Wemple Blog to dump its media-crit mandate and play Woodwardian psychoanalyst for a spell. Forget about the notion that Woodward fears any sort of retribution from Sperling and the White House. Forget, also, that he’s doing all of this for publicity, despite all these media appearances (that’s transparency!). Let’s go with another theory, which is that the guy’s riffing about how the White House shouldn’t be using such language reflects a yearning. A longing for the good old days, when real threats were directed at The Washington Post.
Under this interpretation, Woodward:
— Wishes that someone in the Obama White House would say, “”All that crap, you’re putting it in the paper? It’s all been denied. Katie Graham … is gonna get her tit caught in a big fat wringer if that’s published.” That’s what then-Attorney General John Mitchell said to Woodward compadre Carl Bernstein during a particularly tense call during the Watergate reporting.
Now there’s code for “you better watch out”!
— Wishes that the Obama administration would exclude “our charming, much-respected, and even loved senior society reporter, Dorothy McCardle, then sixty-eight years old, from covering parties and made her sit alone cooling her heels in the press room…”*
— Wishes that the Obama White House would hatch a plan to get some deep-pocketed pal to buy The Washington Post, a shady notion that unfolded during Watergate.*
— Wishes that the Obama White House would engage in a special effort to stifle The Washington Post and favor other journalistic outlets, as President Nixon laid out in a May 1970 memo: “[N]o one on the White House staff is to see anybody from the Washington Post or return any calls to them,” wrote Nixon in the memo.* (The memo, though not likely its impact, preceded Woodward’s September 1971 start at the Post).
— Wishes that the reprisals against him would move beyond polite butt-kissing, through orchestrated obstruction and into outright unethical-cum-illegal behavior, such as this, via the memoir of Katharine Graham:
Of all the threats to the company during Watergate — the attempts to undermine our credibility, the petty slights, and the favoring of the competition — the most effective were the challenges to the licenses of our two Florida television stations. There were three separate challenges in Jacksonville and one in Miami, all of which — not coincidentally — were filed between December 29, 1972, and January 2, 1973, leading us to the easy conclusion that the four petitions must have been orchestrated. Out of more than thirty stations in the state of Florida up for renewal, our stations were the only ones challenged — some sort of record, particularly for stations whose news and community service ranked among the best in the United States.
UPDATE 4:11: When presented with this nostalgia-based theory, Woodward tells the Erik Wemple Blog, “That’s not true.”
*All these quotes are from Graham’s “Personal History,” her Pulitzer-winning autobiography.