Gene Sperling has reserved for himself a special place in Washington lore. In the days leading up to the sequester deadline, 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.
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