WASHINGTON — Only in Washington does a tempest turn on the meaning of the word “regret.”
Only in Washington does the back and forth between a legendary journalist and a White House wonk turn into an epic talking-head fest and trending Twitter topic.
And only in Washington does a sideshow to a looming economic calamity become the show itself.
It all came together like a NASCAR pileup Thursday as the politerati, the digerati and actual regular people hashed out the who-shot-whom dynamics of Bob Woodward’s jeremiad against the White House.
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Woodward, chronicler of presidents since the Watergate era (which might not be an era without his reporting), pushed back against a White House challenge to his claim in a Sunday Washington Post op-ed piece that President Obama and his budget negotiators had come up with the idea of the sequester and had “moved the goal posts” in talks with Republicans by insisting on new taxes.
That characterization bought Woodward a heated lecture from Gene Sperling, Obama’s top economic adviser, who said in a subsequent email: “I do truly believe you should rethink your comment about saying … that (Obama) asking for revenues is moving the goal post. I know you may not believe this, but as a friend, I think you will regret staking out that claim.”
In an interview Wednesday with Politico, it sounded like war; the headline was “Woodward at War,” a play on the title of one of his best-selling books. Politico excerpted Sperling’s email, trimming the “I know you may not believe this, but as a friend” part, and suggested Woodward didn’t take kindly to Sperling’s admonition.
Politico wrote: Woodward repeated the last sentence (of Sperling’s email), 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.’ ”
Woodward said he stands by the idea that Sperling’s language was over the line but stops short of suggesting outright intimidation. “I never characterized it as a ‘threat,’ ” he said. “I think that was Politico’s word. I said I think (Sperling’s) language is unfortunate, and I don’t think it’s the way to operate.”
Politico said it stands by its reporting.
On CNN late Wednesday, Woodward never used the word “threat” or said he felt threatened. But he said Thursday: The White House has “the power. When someone says ‘you’ll regret something,’ they can use their power any way they want. It’s a tone question.”
In a statement, the White House pointed out the (Sperling) email to Woodward “was sent to apologize for voices being raised in their previous conversation. The note suggested that Mr. Woodward would regret the observation he made regarding the sequester because that observation was inaccurate, nothing more. And Mr. Woodward responded to this aide’s email in a friendly manner.”
One of the ironies of this little flap is that Woodward — long savaged by the right for his reporting on Republicans — is getting attaboys from conservatives for standing up to all of this president’s men.
As for all the fireworks, Woodward is amused. A little. “People wonder what’s going on here.” he said. “And every now and again, you get another example of how things operate.”