Tom Brokaw had it right on NBC’s Meet The Press when he described the war of words between White House aide Gene Sperling and journalist Bob Woodward as “a speck that became a sandstorm overnight.”
Overblown is the word for it, since Sperling clearly was not threatening Woodward when he wrote in an e-mail that Woodward would “regret” accusing President Obama of “moving the goalposts” in his budget negotiations with the Republicans in Congress.
But Woodward chose to make an issue of it publicly, and repeatedly. Finally, on the Sunday shows this week, they both called for a truce and promised to put the argument behind them. We can only hope.
But this manufactured tempest did focus a spotlight on the often combative relations between the White House press corps and the Administrations they cover. It is, as the Daily Download’s Howard Kurtz described it on Reliable Sources on CNN, “a contact sport.” And it has been for years.
White House Press Secretaries often fight back when their respective presidents are criticized in print or on the air. It is a deliberate tactic, designed to intimidate reporters and make them think twice about taking the President to task.
Ron Ziegler and Larry Speakes were famously nasty in their tilts with reporters, as was the sarcastic Ari Fleischer. Jody Powell had an explosive temper and would rip into reporters when he thought they were overly critical of his boss, Jimmy Carter. As the New York Times White House correspondent , I was on the receiving end of blowback from Powell when I wrote critically of President Carter’s handling of the Iran-hostage crisis, but Jody would blow his stack and then forget about it. He did not hold a grudge.
“The closer a press secretary is to his President, the more angry and defensive they get,” Bill Plante, the longtime CBS News White House correspondent said Sunday. “When they are totally invested in the President, it clouds their view and they are less useful to us.”
Other press secretaries, like Marlin Fitzwater and Mike McCurry take a more gentle approach, often using humor to disarm, rather than the verbal sledgehammer. They are both considered to be among the most successful press secretaries.
The current incumbent, Jay Carney, is famous for the angry e-mails and phone calls he makes to reporters who criticize President Obama. Does his approach work? Many reporters in the White House press room think it makes him less effective.
But, of course, all loyalty in the White House is vertical, and if the President thinks his press secretary has it right, then he has fulfilled his first obligation.
And the attacks, no matter how angry, are rarely personal. Both parties — the media and the officials — recognize the arguments for what they are: a tactic.