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Rob Horowitz: Bob Woodward Goes Off the Rails

Wednesday, March 06, 2013


For those of us whose first exposure to Bob Woodward was as the heroic young Washington Post investigative reporter who, along with his partner Carl Bernstein, brought to light the wide-ranging Watergate cover-up, watching him self-destruct this past week has been truly dispiriting.

Gene Sperling, Director of the Obama Administration’s National Economic Council and a long-time Washington economic policy advisor, delivered the final coup de grace on the national Sunday shows this past weekend. Woodward’s charge that a high-level Obama administration official who was later revealed to be Sperling attempted to intimidate him had already been largely discredited by the release of the full text of the email exchange that Woodward referenced. But giving the American public the opportunity to see Sperling, whose demeanor is closer to Mr. Rogers from the old PBS show than a truly intimidating presence such as the Baltimore Ravens’ Ray Lewis, drove home the absurdity of the famous Washington Post journalist’s claim. It was the equivalent of saying one was being bullied by the head of the high school chess club.

Since the publication of Woodward’s latest book, The Price of Politics, the journalist has been in a contentious back and forth with the White House over his critical portrayal of the role President Obama played in the 2011 fight over raising the debt limit. Recently, Woodward has stepped forward in a series of television appearances to argue that the sequester—the just implemented across-the-board budget cuts in discretionary domestic and defense spending—was originally President Obama’s idea. In this assertion, Woodward appears to be on sound factual ground. Obama’s motivation for proposing the idea, as has been well-documented, was that he believed that it would be so politically unacceptable to both Democrats and Republicans that it would force agreement on a ‘Grand Bargain” and never be implemented.

If Woodward had simply stopped at correcting the record and pointing out that the President was now trying to duck authorship of the sequester, when he was the one who suggested including it in the debt ceiling deal, he would have preformed a useful journalistic service. Unfortunately for his own credibility, Woodward did not stop there. He wrote an op-ed piece for the Washington Post in which he argued that since the sequester included only spending cuts, that President Obama by arguing for a combination of increased revenues through closing tax loopholes along with spending cuts was “moving the goalposts.’ The record shows otherwise. From the day the debt ceiling deal was finalized, President Obama has consistently pointed out that the purpose of the sequester was as a Sword of Damocles to achieve a balanced long-term debt deal that included both new tax revenues and spending cuts. Obama hasn’t moved the goalposts one inch so Woodward’s claim is inaccurate and his attempts to justify this willful twisting of the facts on television were painful to watch.

This claim, namely that Obama was ‘moving the goalposts,’ was the source of Woodward’s argument with Gene Sperling. Woodward quoted out-of-context a line from an email from Sperling on the topic that said ‘you will regret it’ and spoke of how this was an attempt to intimidate. Once the entire email exchange, which you can read by clicking here was released, however, it was evident that it was part of a polite and substantive email in which Sperling was plainly telling Woodward he would regret his interpretation because it was wrong—not because there would be any consequences.

Woodward strongly believes that if President Obama was better at working with Congress and reaching out to Republicans agreements could be reached. Like other members of the so-called Washington establishment he doesn’t appear to recognize that the current partisan polarization in which the most liberal Republican Senator is now more conservative than the most conservative Democratic one have made the kind of past bi-partisan Washington deals he celebrates more elusive. President Obama’s task in bringing them about is much harder than for past Presidents including examples cited by Woodward such as Clinton and Reagan. But reasonable people can disagree about this.

What is harder to excuse is Woodward’s misleading description of his exchange with Gene Sperling. It is the kind of deception to which Woodward himself has often taken public officials to task

Rob Horowitz is a strategic and communications consultant who provides general consulting, public relations, direct mail services and polling for national and state issue organizations, various non-profits and elected officials and candidates. He is an Adjunct Professor of Political Science at the University of Rhode Island.


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