Matt Mackowiak, Chris Frates and Anne Edwards are our guests this week.
Show produced by Katherine Caperton.
Original Air Date: March 2, 2013 on SiriusXM “POTUS” Channel 124.
Polioptics airs regularly on POTUS on Saturdays at 6 am, 12 noon and 6 pm.
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Regrets, I’ve had a few, but then again, too few to mention…
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We had a back-to-work show this week with Matt Mackowiak calling in from Texas, Chris Frates calling in from Capitol Hill, and my old friend Anne Edwards in the studio in Washington.
Matt and I covered the State of the Lone Star State, in particular his view of how Senator Ted Cruz is adapting to life in the spotlight, contrasted with how Senator Marco Rubio has adjusted to his role as a national figure.
Matt was also just back from Washington for the meeting of Republican governors and gave us his prescription for getting the GOP back on track. We also took a little time to consider the story of Mitchell Marcus, a member of El Paso’s Coronado High School Thunderbirds basketball team. This was an outstanding piece of TV journalis, and storytelling, by Steve Hartman of CBS News that should have been required viewing during sequester week in Washington.
Our show then ventured up to Capitol Hill to catch up with Chris Frates, National Journal’s national correspondent covering politics, congressional leadership and the intersection of money, politics and policy inhabited by Washington’s influence class. Chris had an interesting take that Congress, war-worn from years of last-minute maneuvering and back room dealing with President Obama and Vice President Biden, is charting a course to return to business out in the open in the months ahead.
And with us for most of the program was my old friend Anne Edwards, the longtime director of press advance for President Clinton whose roots in journalism and public service span decades (Clinton was not her first rodeo). Anne chatted with Matt and Chris, and we also caught up on the pageantry of Pope Benedict’s retirement and the secrecy at play in having First Lady Michelle Obama award the Oscar for Best Picture last Sunday at the 85th Academy Awards. Anne and I both had no problem with Mrs. Obama participating in the broadcast. First Families have a role to play in our national culture as well as our politics, and Mrs. Obama looked stunning, adding a measure of elegance to an otherwise bawdy and inelegant show.
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I love Anne and respect her immensely. But we have long disagreed on certain matters of logistics and philosophy when it comes to pool press coverage of the president. I consider myself pragmatic, sincerely understanding the press corps’ mission, but respectful of a president’s prerogative to disappear into private property. Anne is a bit more of a purist, a fighter for press access in a way that might not go over too well in today’s White House. The importance of this contrast in opinion will emerge in a minute.
Catching up with Anne inevitably meant that we would compare notes on the Bob Woodward-Gene Sperling Sideshow that dominated Twitter talk at the end of the week.
My thoughts on this were initially drawn back to January 21, 1999, when then-Senator Dale Bumpers, at the Impeachment of President Clinton, paraphrased H.L. Mencken, saying, “when the House lawyers say this isn’t about sex, it’s about sex.”
When Washington says this isn’t about the sideshow, it’s about the sideshow.
So let me offer a short Polioptic tick-tock of a rocky path between the president and the press corps over the last few weeks as among the reasons why, at the end of this week, Bob Woodward finds himself at the center of the storm.
- January 21, 2013 — President Barack Obama, the 44th POTUS, is inaugurated for a second time. It’s a historic day on many levels. The president’s speech, transcript here, gets a few pans, but is mostly admired. But overshadowing the substance or historical significance of the moment are Beyonce’s logistical hurdles in belting out a song that becomes Lip-Synch-Gate. It’s as if Robert Frost squinting into the sun and flubbing his lines drowned out reaction to “Ask not what your country can do for you?” After four years in the White House, a bruising reelection and a rhetorical moment to clean the slate and begin anew, the chattersphere becomes obsessed with the singing of a song.This is the kind of stuff that should be reserved for PoliOptics. Stay off our turf, mainstream media!
- January 27, 2013 — the publish date of the Barack Obama interview in the revamped New Republic. Franklin Foer asks the president, “have you ever fired a gun? The President’s answer: “Yes, in fact, up at Camp David, we do skeet shooting all the time.” So begins Skeet-Gate. Many news organizations make a big deal about it. Release a photo! Show evidence! First Beyonce, now skeet shooting. If I were in my friend Jennifer Palmieri’s shoes, the White House Communications Director might be getting a tad annoyed.
- February 17, 2013 — the president’s golf weekend at the Floridian Yacht and Golf Club. The White House Travel Pool is kept off the property, but Tim Rosaforte, a reporter for Golf Digest and Golf World, gets a few inside tidbits of The Round with Tiger through his access to the club and his relationship with uber-instructor Butch Harmon.
This is where Anne and I differ, by the way. I say ‘big deal,’ facetiously. She’s serious — it is a problematic violation of the pool protocol that should be addressed.
- February 18, 2013 — Ed Henry, the Fox News White House Correspondent and current president of the White House Correspondents Association, would agree with Anne. Vociferously. He says he is “extremely frustrated.” So begins Golf-gate. In my view, an elevated tee box is not a good hill to die on.
- February 18, 2013 — Mike Allen and Jim VandeHei join the discussion, publishing their “Behind The Curtain” piece with the stark headline “Obama, the puppet master.” The piece mentions the golf controversy in the seventh paragraph, but these widely-followed Old School newspapermen also delve into many of the other issues we discuss regularly on PoliOptics — the release of official White House photos; the creation of “White House Week,” a video report developed by our friend Arun Chaudhary; the acceptance of interviews with infotainment outlets — like The View — that don’t maintain a permanent presence in the James Brady Press Briefing Room.
Mike and Jim are right to point all of this out — and the White House is right to try to get away with any tactic it can to help deliver its message — until it starts doing permanent harm to the president’s image. Until then, it’s fair game. As my old friend and White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry told Allen and VandeHei in the piece, “The White House gets away with stuff I would never have dreamed of doing. When I talk to White House reporters now, they say it’s really tough to do business with people who don’t see the need to be cooperative.” No one ever said the White House beat was easy.
- February 19, 2013 — Back at the White House, Press Secretary Carney, in his regular on-camera briefing, says, “I am completely sympathetic, having covered two White Houses, to the difficulties of the job of covering any White House, and to the desire for more and more access. We work every day with you and others to provide that, and we will continue to do that.”
- February 21, 2013 — Apparently, Carney makes some headway in acting on his sympathies and allowing more access, as an “off-the-record meeting with top White House reporters” was reported by POLITICO. Interestingly, Dylan Byers noted in his piece that “POLITICO was not invited to the meeting, though it has been invited to similar off-the-record meetings in the past.” Makes one wonder if the characterization of the president as puppet master forfeited their seat at the table.
- February 22, 2013 — Bob Woodward publishes his op-ed in the Washington Post, “Obama’s sequester deal-changer”. The phrase “moving the goal posts” is formally enshrined into the standard Washington talking points lexicon.
- February 22, 2013 — Gene Sperling yells at Bob Woodward on the phone for “about a half hour.”
- February 22, 2013 — Gene Sperling emails Bob Woodward
I apologize for raising my voice in our conversation today. My bad. I do understand your problems with a couple of our statements in the fall — but feel on the other hand that you focus on a few specific trees that gives a very wrong perception of the forest. But perhaps we will just not see eye to eye here.
But I do truly believe you should rethink your comment about saying saying that Potus 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. The idea that the sequester was to force both sides to go back to try at a big or grand bargain with a mix of entitlements and revenues (even if there were serious disagreements on composition) was part of the DNA of the thing from the start. It was an accepted part of the understanding — from the start. Really. It was assumed by the Rs on the Supercommittee that came right after: it was assumed in the November-December 2012 negotiations. There may have been big disagreements over rates and ratios — but that it was supposed to be replaced by entitlements and revenues of some form is not controversial. (Indeed, the discretionary savings amount from the Boehner-Obama negotiations were locked in in BCA: the sequester was just designed to force all back to table on entitlements and revenues.)
I agree there are more than one side to our first disagreement, but again think this latter issue is different. Not out to argue and argue on this latter point. Just my sincere advice. Your call obviously.
My apologies again for raising my voice on the call with you. Feel bad about that and truly apologize.
- February 23, 2013 — Bob Woodward emails Gene Sperling
Gene: 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. I am listening. I know you lived all this. My partial advantage is that I talked extensively with all involved. I am traveling and will try to reach you after 3 pm today. Best, Bob
- February 27, 2013 — Mike Allen and Jim VandeHei, back for another entry in their “Behind The Curtain” series, arrive at the dining room table of Bob Woodward. Allen and VandeHei sit next to each other one one side of the table, Woodward on the other. Woodward has a copy of his book, The Price of Politics, in front of him, clearly visible to the camera, along with a small sheaf of papers, among which is a printout of the Sperling email (though it wasn’t revealed as Sperling’s at the time). The characterization, through the headline, of “Woodward at War” is what triggered so much of the Washington inside baseball conversation during the week, but there are four things to do when you actually link to this page on POLITICO:
- Read Mike and Jim’s article.
- Watch the 53-second video snippet at the top of the page which shows Woodward reading from Gene’s email. This Sports Center-type highlight dominates the “top-of-the-fold” real estate of the page, but it’s only 1/18th of the substance of the full Woodward interview.
- Watch the 3 minute, 19-second “extended” interview in the middle of the page which shows Woodward offering up the Sperling email as one of many perhaps annoying but, to him, ineffective tactics that a White House might use to discourage a reporter or columnist from following a line of inquiry or arriving at a certain conclusion. Woodward’s point is that while he might be immune to such emphatic push-back, a less wizened, more impressionable reporter could be swayed.
- Watch the full 18-minute on-camera interview that Mike and Jim conducted with Woodward as essentially a sequel to their story from a week earlier. Call it “Puppet Master II: Can Bob Be Wrangled?” Get Harvey Weinstein on the phone!
The looming sequester and the substance of Woodward’s column takes a back seat to Mike and Jim probing on process. This is catnip for PoliOptics fans. If Gene says Woodward may “regret staking out that claim,” might it have a chilling effect on Woodward’s ability to get access for his next book? Woodward basically brushes it off. White Houses have always been free to cooperate, or not, on Woodward’s books, and he goes out of his way to say that Obama’s White House has cooperated as well. You can tell in Woodward’s email to Gene that he empathizes with him — Bob also covered Gene during the Clinton years and knows the man argues passionately for his views. But the tangle is part of the job, and as long as Mike and Jim are asking about it, he’s not hiding his umbrage with the as-yet-unnamed senior White House official whose intent he may or may not have over-analyzed.
After watching the 18 minute conversation, I’m left with the impression that it was an indeed “behind-the-curtain” conversation about process — the kind of stuff that Washington insiders love too well — that got whipped into a cyclone by an overheated headline and the gang-Twittering that followed.
- February 28, 2013 — There’s one more thing for the tick-tock. Over at National Journal, another veteran journalist who established his Washington bona fides during the Clinton years, Ron Fournier, published a similarly fascinating process piece: “Why Bob Woodward’s Fight With The White House Matters to You.” Ron’s piece is less about Woodward than is it is about the protocol by which senior government officials and reporters communicate. Ron essentially tells us that select aides have “blanket anonymity” with him, meaning that they can email him any information they want, and Ron can use it but can’t attribute it. This is how Big Time reporters like Ron can readily write copy that says “…sources close to the president say…” But when one of those relationships turned hostile toward Ron over the Woodward affair, he decided to “ice” the source, refusing to take any more information unless it was on the record. As Ron wrote:
Because of tech-fueled changes in the market, there are fewer reporters doing more work with less experience than when I came to Washington with Clinton in 1993. Also, the standard relationship between reporters and their sources is more combative, a reflection of polarization in Washington and within the media industry. Personally, I had a great relationship with Clinton’s communications team, less so with President Bush’s press shop, and now — for the first time in my career — I told a public servant to essentially buzz off. This can’t be what Obama wants. He must not know how thin-skinned and close-minded his staff can be to criticism. “I have the greatest respect and admiration for what you do,” Obama told reporters a year ago. “I know sometimes you like to give me a hard time, and I certainly like to return the favor, but I never forget that our country depends on you.”
Issues of coverage, access and the evolving — and less compromising — White House tactics to manage the message. And we thought we knew how to do an end-run in the Clinton years with Radio Day on the North Lawn and the televised town halls with local network affiliates. That’s kid’s stuff. Now there’s Lip-synch-gate, Skeet-gate, Golf-gate, Woodward-gate, and the Puppet Master in the middle.
When Washington says this isn’t about the sideshow, it’s about the sideshow.