Gene Sperling has reserved for himself a special place in Washington lore. In the days leading up to the sequester deadline Friday, 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.
As president, Johnson found that his famous intimidation "treatment" — so effective in one-on-one interactions in the Senate — did not work through the medium of television. It also turned off reporters, but that did not stop him from trying it on them. Johnson would often call and berate senior network executives in response to critical stories, sometimes even challenging their patriotism.
In one instance, in 1965, CBS broadcast a report showing a Marine setting a Vietnamese hut on fire with a Zippo lighter. Johnson was so enraged that he called CBS head Frank Stanton at home to tell him that Stanton had "s--- on the American flag." Johnson also questioned the loyalties of the Canadian-born correspondent, Morley Safer. "How could CBS employ a communist like Safer?" the president asked. "How could they be so unpatriotic as to put on an enemy film like this?"
In the winter of 1967, Johnson told NBC News President Bill McAndrew that he thought the networks were biased against his administration and that he was watching them "like a hawk." The commander in chief seeking to intimidate the head of a federally regulated company certainly pushes the boundaries of propriety — and perhaps even legality.
Of course, just because Johnson was peevish with the press does not mean he was wrong about its animus against him. Reporters, particularly TV journalists, gave him a hard time and helped bring about his undoing. After the Tet Offensive, Walter Cronkite's on-air report from Vietnam — which the president did not see — supposedly elicited his famous lament: "If I've lost Cronkite, I've lost middle America." Shortly thereafter, Johnson would make his most memorable television appearance, announcing that he would not run for president in 1968.
Nixon didn't learn from his predecessor's struggles with the news media; his approach was to get mad and to get even. Chronically unhappy and suspicious about press coverage of his administration, he ordered Chief of Staff Bob Haldeman to clamp down on any White House staff contact with Time, Newsweek, the New York Times, The Washington Post and CBS. He also compiled his infamous "enemies list," which only elevated the historical status of some of those on it. CBS's Daniel Schorr — No. 17 on the original tally of 20 — later reveled in his inclusion, claiming that his "lecture fees went up."
Schorr may have laughed at Nixon's tactics later in life, but White House threats are often acted on. More than once, Nixon contemplated going after the television stations that displeased him. He even tried to persuade the FCC to refuse to renew the licenses of offending stations and suggested using antitrust lawsuits to break the networks into smaller entities. "If the threat of screwing them is going to help us more with their programming than doing it, then keep the threat," the president said in a 1971 tape-recorded conversation in the Oval Office.
But in the battle between Nixon and the news media, we all know who won. (Ask Woodward.)
After Johnson and Nixon, most White House communications offices got the message that a hardball approach with the press could often backfire. Ronald Reagan's tactic was to be rather blithe with reporters, and just go over their heads and speak directly to the American people. George H.W. Bush, barring an antagonistic on-air interview with Dan Rather in 1988, when he was vice president, tended to be gracious with members of the news media. The Clinton team shifted more to confrontation, bringing its campaign war-room mentality to the White House. As for the George W. Bush administration, its attempts at trying to corral the press failed, as it seemed that reporters could not wait to jump on any hint of intimidation from the White House.
The Sperling incident aside, the Obama White House seems confident in taking a tough approach with the media. Perhaps, given their large social media and electronic outreach operations — as well as the predisposition of the White House press corps to like Obama — his advisers think they can get away with it. The Post's Paul Farhihas chronicled some contentious incidents, noting, for instance, that CBS's Sharyl Attkisson was "cussed" at by White House spokesman Eric Schultz because of her reporting on the "Fast and Furious" scandal. Farhi also found a number of other journalists who complained about "heavy-handed" calls or e-mails from the White House press staff.
In addition, former White House aide Anita Dunn led a White House campaign against Fox News, and Obama himself told Rolling Stone that Fox holds "a point of view that I think is ultimately destructive."
It may be too much to say that the Obama White House is bringing back the Johnson and Nixon playbook. And Woodward, in particular, has received enormous access to top officials of this White House. But it would not surprise me if the Obama team's other efforts at intimidation, rather than the specifics of the Sperling e-mail, inspired Woodward to make the "regret" incident public. As Woodward well knows, attempts to intimidate the press are not unprecedented — and are rarely wise.