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.

The Palmetto Payoff

In the 19th century, sailing ships plying the lucrative China trade out of Baltimore had a harsh but economic way of dealing with crew at the end of a two-year voyage. With the homeport in sight, the captain would use the heavy boom to knock a crewman into the water, thereby banking his pay. It was known as The Baltimore Payoff.

Mitt Romney got the Palmetto Payoff Saturday night, a swift hit upside the head from South Carolina Republicans that shattered his image as the party’s inevitable nominee. His double-digit defeat at the hands of the resurgent Newt Gingrich changed the equation in the Republican race and assured that this already long primary season will continue into the spring. Romney may yet win the nomination, but not without a fight.

Florida is a different ball game, as should be apparent in tonight’s debate on NBC. The Massachusetts Moderate is likely to swing hard at Gingrich, depicting the former Speaker as a failed leader. Gingrich, if he is as smart as he thinks he is, will adopt a more Presidential posture to help wavering Republicans envision him in the Oval Office.

The debates are more than just Reality TV.

They have become the central focus of the campaign in which candidates define or destroy themselves. And for Gingrich, whose campaign is still under-financed, they are the ultimate in free TV. It was no surprise, then, when Gingrich promised on Saturday night to challenge President Obama to seven three-hour debates during the general election campaign. No sitting President would give his opponent such a gift of free exposure, of course, but the prospect enhanced Gingrich’s image as a scrappy fighter willing to confront Obama.

Since we have to wait two more weeks for the Superbowl, tonight’s debate will have to fill the void.


The dysfunction of the American government has never been so transparent.

With the so-called Super-Committee kaput, more market instability looming and the distinct possibility of another recession, the absolute inability of Washington to solve the nation’s fiscal problems is inescapable.

The task was not that difficult: cut $1.2 trillion out of the budget over the next 10 years to begin to reduce the $15 trillion national debt. The common-sense answer was obvious to ordinary Americans: trim entitlements slightly and increase tax revenues modestly. Combine that with an extension of the payroll tax cut and the soon-to-expire unemployment benefits and there is a good chance the recovery will accelerate. Repeal the senseless Bush tax cuts on the wealthy and the economy could step on the pedal.

But the Super-Committee proved to be no more able to do that than the divided and dysfunctional Congress as a whole. So the blame-game has begun, with plenty to go around. It is a favorite sport in Washington, Capitol Hill’s Thanksgiving gift to the nation. As predictable as a Redskins defeat.

The public will surely spread the blame, charging both parties with the failure, as well as the executive branch. As it should. The Republicans are likely to get the lion’s share and pay the heavier price, but the Democrats, especially the so-called leadership, will pay as well. As it should.

President Obama will not escape this latest debacle. He may have been off in Asia reasserting the U.S. role in that region, but he wasn’t far enough away from the disaster in D.C. to avoid his share of the responsibility. The painful reality of the President’s current situation is that he has a plan: a jobs bill, proposals for an infrastructure bank, tax reform, etc. , that would surely help, but he lacks the political chops to get it enacted. So, ill-served by a weak staff, he fritters around the edges of the problem. His base sticks with him, but the independents he needs to get re-elected are drifting away.

Nonetheless, from the Las Vegas bookmaker’s point of view, he remains the odds-on favorite to be re-elected. Why? The disarray in the Republican field, mainly, and the growing sense among voters that divided government is part of the problem, not the solution. It is inescapably clear that in our system, as it functions today, real progress can only be made when one party or the other controls the White House and Congress.

It is up to be the public to decide which party should be in control. The voters need to give that party the political clout to pursue a solution. If the public doesn’t like the result, they can change it in the next election.

But at least there could be movement, instead of gridlock.