White House threats and regrets: A little perspective

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Any time a “very senior person” at the White House tells any reporter that the journalist will regret expressing critical comments about the administration, it’s worth noting.

Reports of such a threat made to The Washington Post’s Bob Woodward – whose news reports on Watergate are now the stuff of journalistic legend – instantly galvanized attention from colleagues and national news outlets.

After all, not many decades ago, then-President Richard Nixon had a personal “enemies list” of those who criticized him – mainly politicians and reporters – that became one of the benchmark developments of the Watergate scandal. Nixon had these opponents face tax audits, be profiled by private investigators, or be subjected to other harassment.

For his part in the current flap, Woodward made talk show rounds and did interviews: He told Politico Wednesday that an Obama aide “yelled at me for about a half hour.”
Woodward also told CNN of an email message that warned “very clearly: ‘you will regret doing this’.”

 “It makes me very uncomfortable to have the White House telling reporters you’re going to regret doing something you believe in,” Woodward said.

 But does the incident rise – or sink, depending on your perspective – to anything comparable to Nixon’s list, or to other past threats to press freedom and independence from the Oval Office?

 On Thursday morning, Politico posted an e-mail exchange between Woodward and senior White House economic adviser Gene Sperling. In it, Woodward responds to Sperling’s apology for “raising my voice in our conversation today.”  The journalist responded:  “You do not ever have to apologize to me. You get wound up because you are making your points and you believe them. This is all part of a serious discussion. I for one welcome a little heat; there should more given the importance. I also welcome your personal advice.”

 Hardly the kind of Nixonian-level hatred and contempt expressed  toward journalists in the 1960s and 1970s, including the late Daniel Schorr, a correspondent for CBS News and later for PBS. Schorr learned he was among Nixon’s “enemies” – number 17 – when reading the list “live” on the air, seconds after it was released.

 This week’s threat may not even match up well against a very personal challenge by President Harry Truman to a Post critic who penned, after a Constitution Hall concert, that presidential daughter Margaret “cannot sing very well.”

Handwritten – on two pages of White House stationary, no less – Truman told critic Paul Hume that “Someday I hope to meet you. When that happens, you’ll need a new nose, a lot of beefsteak for black eyes, and perhaps a supporter below!”

 Of course, when it comes to ultimate threats against journalists from the Oval Office environs, it’s tough to beat Presidents Lincoln and John Adams. Lincoln arrested editors who he felt were sympathetic to the Confederate cause. Adams backed the Sedition Act of 1798 which – just seven years after the First Amendment and Bill of Rights was adopted – provided for the jailing of journalists who criticized the president or Congress.

Even during Watergate, no administration official dared go that far – though Nixon’s Attorney General John Mitchell once famously warned Post editor Ben Bradlee that newspaper’s coverage of Watergate would mean publisher Katherine Graham is “gonna get her tit caught in a big fat wringer.”

On deep background: Mitchell was referring to old-style washing machines in which washed laundry had to be fed by hand between two top-mounted wringers to squeeze out most of the water prior to drying.

Ouch. Now that’s a threat!