Bob Woodward, the associate editor of the Washington Post and investigative journalist of Woodward and Bernstein fame, has recently become embroiled in a full-on brawl with the Obama White House over the origin of the “sequestration” concept. In the process, the Obama White House has all but explicitly threatened Woodward, according to Politico:
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.”
As Woodward himself cracked, “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.’”
Nevertheless, this apparent threat has spawned both mockery of those taking it seriously and sympathetic reporting from unlikely places, as well as copious amounts of snark from the Left. However, even if one assumes the “threat” against Woodward was serious, a serious threat is not necessarily a credible one. In fact, if there is any journalist who has nothing to fear from the Obama White House (aside from the highly unlikely prospect of being targeted with a drone), Bob Woodward is that journalist. Why? Here are the top three reasons:
#3. Woodward’s legacy is bulletproof
Let’s cut right to the chase. Woodward could arguably retire today and there would be a credible case that he’s the greatest living journalist of his generation. But don’t take our word for it. Back in 2007, Bob Schieffer of CBS News wrote an entire op-ed making exactly that case:
Bob Woodward always finds a way. From Watergate to the first Iraq war, he has always managed to find just the key source to tell us why the government came to do what it did. Now he has done it again. In “Plan of Attack,” he gives us the best and I judge the most accurate picture yet of how the United States got into war with Iraq.[…]
Bob Woodward does what reporters are supposed to do. He checks the government’s story against his own investigation. That’s what sets democracies apart from totalitarian societies where the government is the only source of information. In a democracy, the press provide a second source. Citizens can then judge which story is correct. Bob Woodward has established himself as the best reporter of our time. He may be the best reporter of all time.
Nor is he the only person who thinks this. Fred Barnes of The Weekly Standard, who is hardly cut from the same cloth as Schieffer ideologically, described Woodward as “the best pure reporter of his generation, perhaps ever. He uncovers more things than anyone else in journalism–important things as well as trivial, and all interesting.”
Combine these statements by two politically disparate but equally respectable journalists, and you have a testament to the esteem in which Woodward is held among those in his class. In fact, Woodward quite arguably could have retired after Watergate, and his name would still be chiseled in history for good. He’s won two Pulitzer Prizes, as well as practically every other award for journalism there is. The fact that he continues to generate scoops and is seen as a gifted seeker after truth, rather than simply a one-time journalistic celebrity, is just the icing on the cake.
Even if the Obama administration were entirely correct that Woodward was unfair to them in his reporting, he isn’t going to go down in history as the man who libeled the Obama White House. He would still go down as one of the men who exposed Watergate and, for 40+ years after that, remained an influential voice in Washington’s journalistic establishment, before retiring when he made a misstep with his coverage of the Obama Administration. That’s a legacy most journalists would kill for.
#2. Woodward has faced criticism from explicitly ideological press outlets before
Given Woodward’s early bona fides as one of the men who exposed the Nixon White House, many conservatives probably reflexively think of him as a hostile force in the media. This isn’t incorrect, but it’s incomplete. Yes, Woodward’s most famous damaging scoop was about Nixon, but it was hardly his only one. And as it turns out, some of his reporting uncovered facts or explored angles that irritated liberal readers to no end. In fact, as recently as 2005, Woodward was attacked by New York Times columnist Frank Rich for being insufficiently hard on the second Bush administration:
Woodward knows more about the internal workings of this presidency than any other reporter. He has been granted access to all its top officials, including lengthy interviews with the president himself, to produce two Bush best sellers since 9/11. But he was gamed anyway by the White House, which exploited his special stature to the fullest for its own propagandistic ends.”
Woodward, to his credit, is not guilty of hyping Saddam’s WMDs. And his books did contain valuable news: of the Wolfowitz axis’ early push to take on Iraq, of the president’s messianic view of himself as God’s chosen warrior, of the Powell-Rumsfeld conflicts that led to the war’s catastrophic execution. Yet to reread these Woodward books today, especially the second, the 2004 “Plan of Attack,” is to understand just how slickly his lofty sources deflected him from the big picture, of which the Wilson case is just one small, if illuminating, piece.
Rich’s criticism, compared with some of Woodward’s more radical critics, was mild. The late Christopher Hitchens disdainfully called Woodward the “stenographer to the stars” in the 90’s and slammed him for his brand of “access journalism,” which Hitchens claimed had allowed White House officials to mislead Woodward on areas such as the Iran Contra scandal. “Woodward is evidence of something in the postmodern publishing game,” Hitchens sneered, “an author whose books are written by his sources.” You can watch a clip of Hitchens’ mockery of Woodward below:
Liberal book reviewer Anthony Lewis went even further, disingenuously calling Woodward a “first class reporter” before accusing him of practicing “a trade in which the great grant access in return for glory.” And it’s not just liberals who have attacked Woodward. Last year, conservative writer Derek Hunter called Woodward a “liar,” citing a book about Woodward and Bernstein’s investigation of Watergate.
The end result of all this?
Woodward is still standing, and is still seen as one of the greatest journalists of his time, even in spite of the broadsides from the likes of Rich and Hitchens. Partisan media outlets have tried to humble him before, and found themselves soundly beaten. Lewis admitted as much, even as he attacked Woodward:
Woodward is a first-class reporter. That was brought home to me one time when I took issue with him. In 1997 he and Susan Schmidt wrote a piece in The Washington Post saying that agents of Kenneth Starr, the independent counsel supposedly looking into President Clinton’s role in Whitewater, a long-ago Arkansas real estate deal, had questioned Arkansas state troopers about “any extramarital relations” Clinton may have had while governor. A deputy of Starr’s told me the story was distorted, and I criticized the article in a column as a case of tabloid journalism. I could not have been more wrong. Before long Starr made clear his obsession with Clinton’s sex life. Woodward and Schmidt had found a valuable early clue to Starr’s damaging course.
When even the people who attack you have to admit that you’re too good to be beaten the normal way, you know you’ve got a pretty solid defense.
#1. Woodward has dealt with angry White Houses before
There isn’t much to say here except that, if Woodward isn’t going to be invited to the Obama White House Christmas party, he won’t be shedding any tears, because he’s used to it. This is the eighth administration Woodward has covered, and the fifth whose dirty laundry he’s aired, and none of what he did before has hurt him yet. What is more, he’s faced criticism from everyone from Richard Nixon (obviously), to Ronald Reagan, to George W. Bush, and now to Barack Obama. Woodward’s biography on his website includes the details of some of these attacks:
In 1972, the reporting of Woodward and Bernstein in the Post was regularly denounced by the Nixon re-election campaign, Republican leaders and the White House. For example on Oct. 16, 1972 White House Press Secretary Ron Ziegler denounced the reporting as “hearsay, innuendo, guilt by association.” Six months later, on May 1, 1973, Ziegler reversed himself and said, “I would apologize to the Post, and I would apologize to Mr. Woodward and Mr. Bernstein . . . . They have vigorously pursued this story and they deserve the credit and are receiving the credit.”[…]
A number of officials, including President Reagan, publicly said that it was impossible that Woodward had interviewed Casey in his hospital room in January 1987 because they alleged Casey could not speak. This was disputed by others who talked briefly with Casey at the time. For example, Robert M. Gates, Casey’s deputy at the time, in his book “From the Shadows”, recounts speaking with Casey during this exact period. Gates directly quotes Casey saying 22 words, even more than the 19 words Woodward said Casey used with him. The CIA’s own internal report found that Casey “had forty-three meetings or phone calls with Woodward, including a number of meetings at Casey’s home with no one else present” during the period Woodward was researching his book.[…]
In his 1999 memoir, All Too Human, George Stephanopoulos, the Clinton communications director, wrote that the Agenda was “a comprehensive and basically accurate account.” He quotes President Clinton saying, “That Woodward book tore my guts out.” Stephanopoulos also described in detail how Woodward won his own cooperation, and he quotes Hillary Clinton saying in July 1994, “The whole problem with this administration is the Woodward book. It’s hurting us overseas, and it’s the reason all our numbers are down.”
The takeaway is clear: Woodward managed to outflank the Nixon, Reagan, Clinton and Bush II White Houses, and even induced cooperation in some of them. The idea that the Obama White House could be more dangerous to his career than Nixon, Reagan, Clinton and the second Bush combined strains credulity, to say the least.
What is more, even when Woodward’s reporting has been criticized by the White Houses he’s covered, when the facts emerge, it has almost always been him who’s had the last laugh. Granted, history isn’t predictive and there’s no particular reason why Woodward couldn’t get the case of the Obamas wrong, but given the prior cases, it looks unlikely.
In fact, given the prior cases, it looks as though it will be the Obamas who “regret” tangling with Bob Woodward, not the other way around. Then again, Woodward never covered the legendary community organizer and author of “Rules for Radicals” Saul Alinsky, who wrote that when destroying enemies, one should “Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it.” Given Alinsky’s influence on this President, and this White House, not covering Alinsky or his followers might be an omission worth noting. Certainly, Alinsky’s influence can be seen in the jokes about Woodward’s age, and other areas of snide mockery that come from the White House and their allies. Still, if Richard Nixon couldn’t silence Woodward as a cub reporter, Alinskyite juvenilia could have a much harder time with him now.