WASHINGTON — Last week gave us a textbook case of why Americans hate Washington. The nation was on the verge of a financial shock — an entirely avoidable shock that policymakers themselves set in motion — but all people in this town wanted to talk about was whether Gene Sperling threatened Bob Woodward.
This could not be more inside baseball if we were wrapped in white cowhide with red stitches. Our tale, for those healthy enough not to follow capital prattle closely, begins last Sunday, when an op-ed by Watergate legend Woodward appeared in The Washington Post alleging that the sequester — the automatic spending cut that took effect Friday — was the Obama administration’s idea. Woodward turned up the volume Wednesday, when he said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” that Obama was exhibiting “a kind of madness that I haven’t seen in a long time” — widely interpreted as a Nixon reference.
Later that day, Politico published an interview with Woodward in which he implied that a White House official had threatened him. Woodward read aloud from an email from the anonymous official the phrase “I think you will regret staking out that claim.” BuzzFeed unmasked the threatening official as the diminutive economics adviser Gene Sperling. The full email exchange, which was then leaked, sounded rather less damning. Sperling, who had shouted at Woodward on the phone, had written a conciliatory email saying, in part, “I know you may not believe this, but as a friend, I think you will regret staking out that claim.”
This set Washington abuzz, debating whether the White House invented the sequester (it did) and whether Sperling threatened Woodward (he didn’t). Lost in all the intrigue: That $85 billion in government spending was about to be sucked out of the struggling American economy, that everybody agreed the cuts were stupid, and that nobody in Washington was doing anything to fix the problem. In other words, the only thing missing from the Washington debate was reality.
As is usually the case, the calculations here were about small tactical wins — heedless of the concept that what Americans want are not skirmishes but solutions. Who’s to blame? It’s always safe to say it’s the media’s fault. In this case, Woodward made a legitimate policy point — and then Politico and “Morning Joe” helped him to turn it into a grudge match with the Obama White House. “Woodward at war,” was Politico’s headline. Congress is another of the usual suspects, and deservedly so.
Republican lawmakers absolved themselves of any obligation to seek compromise and instead cited Woodward in news conferences, TV appearances and on the House floor to shift all responsibility to Obama. “Listen, it is the president’s sequester,” House Speaker John Boehner said Thursday when asked about Woodward.
Rather than negotiating a deal to replace the spending cuts, Boehner has been coarse and vulgar this week, telling senators to “get off their ass” and declaring that taxes are an attempt to “steal from the American people.” And yet Woodward is correct to single out the Obama White House for its excessive pugnacity.
His exchange with Sperling may be a poor example of it, but there’s little argument that 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. has become a frat house for the thin-skinned and the foul-mouthed.
“As editor in chief of National Journal, I received several emails and telephone calls from (a) White House official filled with vulgarity, abusive language, and virtually the same phrase that Politico characterized as a veiled threat,” Ron Fournier, one of Washington’s best journalists, wrote in Woodward’s defense. “Once I moved back to daily reporting this year, the badgering intensified.”
I’ve received the same communications — and so has everybody else I know who has dealt with this White House. If this administration launched drone strikes at the rate Sperling and his colleagues launch F-bombs, there would be nobody left in Yemen.
This isn’t just a language issue (although it’s amusing to think of Obama aides’ obscenity-laced emails going to the National Archives). It is a symptom of a White House in perpetual combat — with the media, with Republicans in Congress, with everybody — and dedicated to incremental point scoring, without a view of the real goal.
The failure to reach a “grand bargain” on taxes and spending is typical. Woodward told Politico he was perplexed that Obama won’t “sit down and work through this” and produce the obvious compromise. “Color me a little baffled,” he said. “I don’t understand this White House. Do you?”
I do. And it’s a !&%@#$ shame.
Dana Milbank is a columnist for The Washington Post.