Now that Politico has revealed the apologetic, practically obsequious Gene Sperling e-mail that supposedly left Bob Woodward feeling so threatened, the venerated reporter looks like a wimp. Or worse, a hypocrite.
Woodward claims that he spoke out about the White House’s alleged pressure tactics on behalf of less experienced reporters. “I’ve tangled with lots of these people,” he said. “But suppose there’s a young reporter who’s only had a couple of years — or 10 years’ — experience and the White House is sending him an email saying, ‘You’re going to regret this.’ You know, tremble, tremble. I don’t think it’s the way to operate.”
And yet, when the roles are reversed, and it’s Woodward’s ass in the crosshairs, intimidating young reporters suddenly doesn’t seem so disagreeable.
Consider the case of Jeff Himmelman, a former Woodward research assistant who, in the course of writing a biography of legendary Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee, came across an old quote from Bradlee expressing his “residual fear” that some of Woodward’s Watergate reporting wasn’t on the up and up. As Himmelman wrote in our pages last year, Woodward summoned him to a meeting at Bradlee’s house where, after failing to get Bradlee to disavow the quote, he tried to pressure Himmelman not to include the quote in his book:
Bob turned to me. I had worked for him; he had given an impromptu toast at my wedding. You know me and the world we live in, he said. People who didn’t like him and didn’t like the Post—the “fuckers out there,” as Ben had called them—were going to seize on these comments. “Don’t give fodder to the fuckers,” Bob said, and once he lit on this phrase he repeated it a couple of times. The quotes from the interview with Barbara were nothing more than outtakes from Ben’s book, he said. Ben hadn’t used them, and so I shouldn’t use them, either.
That argument didn’t make sense, and I said so. Bob told me it was his “strong recommendation” that I not use the quotes, then that it was his “emphatic recommendation.” Then, when that got no truck: “Don’t use the quotes, Jeff.”
Fortunately, Himmelman learned well from his old boss about how to stand up to pressure. He used the quote.