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A Blast From the Past

The youngsters among you might not appreciate the irony of Bob Woodward’s recent feud with the Obama administration. You really had to be there back in the early ‘70s, those halcyon days of the Watergate scandal when the Woodward legend was born, to fully savor its deliciousness.
Woodward was a superstar back then, famed as the late night cop reporter for the Washington Post who covered a third-rate burglary at the Democratic National Headquarters and teamed with Carl Bernstein to doggedly pursue it all the way to the resignation of President Richard Nixon. The left reviled Nixon with a red-hot hatred that is difficult to describe today, although it might be likened to Bush-hatred exacerbated by an all-out culture war between the hippies and squares, and thus Woodward was revered with an equal passion by the left for his heroic role in bringing in at long last bringing down their favorite villain. “All the President’s Men,” Woodward’s and Bernstein’s account of the Watergate scandal, became a runaway best-seller. The hit movie starred the famously handsome Robert Redford as Woodward. A Pulitzer Prize and other plaudits were lavished on the duo, and Woodward and Bernstein both enjoyed a celebrity that had never before been attained by mere newspaper scribes. Journalism schools saw a sudden surge in enrollments, and a generation of reporters set out to win the same kind of scandal-driven fame.
Like all legends it was rather overblown, ignoring the role that other reporters and especially the congressional investigating committees played in forcing Nixon’s resignation, and subsequent revelations about the identity of the anonymous sourced dubbed “Deep Throat” have given rise to a revisionist account about his motives. Still, it was true to the extent that Woodward had done an impressive job of reporting, and Woodward would henceforth be referred to as a “journalistic icon.” He continued to do solid work over the decades, focusing on his daily duties as a Post editor and his meticulously researched books about the passing administrations while the rest of the press tried to duplicate his past glories by digging up the hot scandal, and although he would sometimes uncover something embarrassing to a Democrat or flattering to a Republican he retained his reputation as a reliably liberal reporter.
Until now, at least. While meticulously researching “The Price of Politics,” a book about the Obama administration’s dealings with the congressional Republicans over budget matters, Woodward learned from his sources that the idea for a “sequester” had originated at the White House. The revelation attracted little notice at the time of the book’s publication, but now that President Barack Obama is jetting around the country to blame the Republicans for the impending budget cuts that have resulted the claim is suddenly the source of much controversy. Woodward stood by his story even after an indignant White House denial, then further offended the administration by insisting that the earlier deal struck by the administration did not include the tax hikes the president now insists on. White House press secretary Jay Carney went so far as to call Woodward’s allegation “willfully wrong,” the most serious allegation that can be made against a journalist. Not backing down, Woodward has become increasingly critical of the president’s handling of the sequester issue, even going on the left-wing MSNBC network’s “Morning Joe” program to describe Obama’s budgetary threats to withdraw an aircraft carrier from the Persian Gulf as “a kind of madness I haven’t seen in a long time.”
This presents a dilemma for the press, which much choose between two heroes, but we suspect that most reporters will opt for Obama’s version. That story features villainous Republicans, and besides, Watergate was a long time ago and Obama has done more for their side lately.
Woodward’s latest scoop probably won’t bring down another presidency, we’re sad to say, and certainly won’t make its way to the silver screen, where Woodward would undoubtedly be portrayed by a more homely actor, but it does seem to have complicated Obama’s efforts to blame the latest mess on his opponents. For that Woodward deserves another round of applause, this time from the right, and perhaps some grudging acknowledgment that his earlier work was more about a pursuit of the truth rather than just partisan politics.

— Bud Norman

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On the Connecticut Tragedy

There’s no avoiding the subject of last Friday’s horrible massacre at a Connecticut elementary school, as much as one might wish it.
All through Friday and Saturday our usual news sources were overflowing with reports about the shootings, and even when we took refuge in an old folks’ radio station the pop standards of Peggy Lee and Frank Sinatra were frequently interrupted with further updates on the carnage. Local stations “localized” the shootings, all reluctantly admitting that it could happen here, and everywhere people were talking about how terrible it was. At the very traditional church where we worship a tough old veteran of the Vietnam War was choking back tears on Sunday as he led a prayer asking that the victims’ families be comforted, and during the after-service chit-chat we saw one of the congregation’s sagest biblical scholars offering him a gentle pat on the back while admitting that there’s really nothing to say.
What is there is to say, except to offer a prayer that the victims’ families be comforted? Nothing we can think of, and no one else seems to have come up with anything new since the last mass murder, but because there’s no avoiding the subject everyone apparently feels obliged to trot out all the usual responses. So far we have not encountered any attempt to link the perpetrator to the Tea Party or any other conservative political causes, which has lately become a press rite in the wake of a mass shooting, but otherwise all the obligatory clichés have been deployed.
The inevitable cries for draconian gun control laws immediately followed, and from all the predictable people and organizations. This obliges the people who value a right to self-defense to make their case, even though they’d prefer to wait until a more dispassionate discussion is possible, and thus all the old familiar arguments get shouted once again.
All the old familiar arguments about America’s mental health system are also being shouted, as always. At the Gawker.com web site a mother offered her jarringly frank account of living with a son who suffers a madness frighteningly similar to that of the Connecticut shooter, a thoughtful reminder of the complex dilemmas involved in the issue, but otherwise the criticisms do not seem constructive.
The comments section beneath the mother’s essay are full of typical internet vitriol, much of it explicitly expressing an anti-white prejudice, most of it a strictly personal animus against a mother who seems to be struggling to do her best in a difficult situation. This also seems to be part of the new post-mass-shooting tradition, along with the ghoulish behavior of the news media, the demands to turn schools into fortresses, the occasional allusions to the murders that go largely unremarked, and the scapegoating of the parents and the schools and the police.
Of course, there are also the routine calls for national soul-searching. It is never made clear, though, what the nation should be searching for in its collective soul. As much as Americans like to regard themselves as exceptional in every way, mass murder is by no means an exclusively American phenomenon. Traditionalists who blame some aspect of contemporary society should also note the mass murder is not unique to modern times. Individuals have succumbed to the madness in every society in every age, and like all evil it has always proved impossible to eradicate.
The president, who famously promised to end the rise of the oceans and health the planet, seems willing to get the perfection of human nature a shot as well. Speaking to an audience in the town where the shootings occurred, the president asked “Are we prepared to say that we’re powerless in the face of such carnage? That the politics are too hard? Are we prepared to say that violence visited on our children year after year is the price of our freedom?” Some reporters took this to mean that the president intends to pursue stricter gun laws, which seems a fair conclusion, but the hubris of the implied answers to these rhetorical questions is even more worrisome. Sometimes a nation must admit that it is powerless against the vicissitudes of life. If the politics are too hard, it is because people are naturally protective of their rights. The price of freedom can be dear, but it will never purchase the safety and security that is promised by those who will take it away.
These things need to be said, even at time of national mourning.

— Bud Norman