When one of Washington's most distinguished journalists -- Bob Woodward -- accuses the White House of rewriting history, even liberals should take note. And when the White House responds by threatening him, you would think the story would become a national scandal. What makes the story even more important is that it deals with an issue that has dominated the news in recent weeks: the Draconian budget cuts that will take effect on March 1 unless a last-minute deal is reached in Congress.
Woodward has accused the White House of misrepresenting the president's role in creating the plan to cut $1.2 trillion from the budget over the next decade. In his book "The Price of Politics," Woodward describes in detail how the idea for the sequester came about. Writing in The Washington Post on Feb. 22, Woodward said that "the automatic spending cuts were initiated by the White House and were the brainchild of (then Office of Management and Budget Director Jack) Lew and White House congressional relations chief Rob Nabors -- probably the foremost experts on budget issues in the senior ranks of the federal government." Woodward not only names the individuals involved, but also gives exact timelines for when the discussions took place and how the final agreement came about.
Woodward's complaint is not only that the White House is trying to place sole responsibility for coming up with the idea of the automatic cuts on Republicans, but also that it has now demanded that Republicans accept tax increases as a part of any deal, which was explicitly rejected when the deal was cut. "So when the president asks that a substitute for the sequester include not just spending cuts but also new revenue, he is moving the goal posts. His call for a balanced approach is reasonable, and he makes a strong case that those in the top income brackets could and should pay more. But that was not the deal he made," he says.
Careful reporter that he is, Woodward phoned Gene Sperling, chief economic adviser to the president, before the article was to be published to get his version of events. But the phone call didn't go well, according to Woodward. Sperling reportedly yelled at him for most of the conversation and then followed up with an email apologizing for raising his voice but also doing something far worse. The email, reprinted in Politico this week, shows Sperling threatening Woodward.
"I do truly believe you should rethink your comment about saying ... that Potus (president of the United States) 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."
Such ominous remarks coming from the president's economic adviser are meant to intimidate. Reporters -- even one as famous as Woodward -- need access to pursue stories. And if a top White House official lets it be known that a reporter is persona non grata in the White House, the message goes out to others not to talk.
Worse, it is an example of this White House's imperious style -- one that hearkens back to another presidency with which Bob Woodward is all too familiar.
Woodward became a national figure as a young man reporting on the Watergate scandal that led to President Richard M. Nixon's resignation. Woodward's bestselling book, "All the President's Men," is a chilling account of what happens when the people surrounding the president decide that protecting their boss is more important than upholding the oath of office to protect and defend the Constitution, which each of them takes.
In the case of the Nixon White House, the corruption emanated from the Oval Office. Woodward is not accusing President Obama of directing his men (and they are mostly men) to try to squelch legitimate journalistic inquiry -- but if the president is not at fault, he has an obligation to clear the record. And Obama is doing just the opposite.
In the days leading up to the automatic cuts, the president has been out campaigning against Republicans, laying on their shoulders full blame for failing to reach a deal. But it is the president who has rewritten the terms of the agreement reached in 2011.
Sperling's threat against a senior journalist was not made in a vacuum: It is an attempt to cover up the president's own dissembling. The only cure is for the president to admit his misstatements and hold accountable those who would flaunt their power to keep the truth from emerging.