Collective Madness

Bob Woodward and the Rules of Washington Morality

Why does Bob Woodward get to lie and still be Bob Woodward? Michael Tomasky on the rules of DC morality.

Miguel Medina/AFP/Getty

Woodwardgate got me reflecting on the question of Washington morality. Now yes, that’s an oxymoron if ever there was one. But surely there is some set (however bizarre) of impulses and rules that lets Bob Woodward say what he said, and Politico promote it as if it were a feud between two soap opera stars, with both walking away essentially unharmed, as they likely will (certainly in Politico’s case; Woodward’s black eye will need a little time to heal). More important than that, there must be a set of impulses and rules that observes what has been going on in this town for the last four years, with Republicans being the most obstructionist opposition in the country’s modern history, and yet somehow contrives to blame Barack Obama for the fact that our government can’t function. I have divined three such rules that seem to apply to the present case and to most of the big dilemmas the capital has confronted in recent times.

Rule One: When information is being injected into the discourse, the content of the information is far less important than the stature of and/or establishment’s feeling about the person injecting the information. You could be as prescient as old Tiresias bumping his way around Thebes, but if the Washington bigwigs have never heard of you or haven’t already given you their seal of approval, you’re wasting your time. However, if you already possess said seal of approval, you can say pretty much anything, and you will be taken seriously.

Think of Colin Powell at the U.N. That was one howler after another. Now granted it was hard to know that in real time. But what it wasn’t hard to know at that point in the spring of 2003 was that the neoconservatives then peopling the Bush administration had been thirsting for war against Saddam since 1991, and anyone who knew that (as all of Washington should have) would have taken the general’s presentation with several grains of salt. Of course, the opposite happened. Powell was widely respected, and, well, it seemed impressive, with all those photos of all those trucks surely doing clandestine, trucky things.

As for the obverse, my liberal allies, this explains why information that seems so obvious to us never gets through. Yes, when the private market isn’t pumping enough money into the economy, that’s when the public sector should be doing it—it’s exactly the wrong time to tighten the belt. This is Keynes 101. A bushelful of Nobel laureates have been running around saying this since 2008, most recently the great Robert Solow in the Times the other day.

But Solow isn’t a Washington animal. Ditto Paul Krugman. Why should we believe him, Washington sniffs? Not one of us. Besides he’s so snooty, and so … so negative. Now Joe Scarborough! There’s a man to trust. Talks sense, not all this Princeton mumbo-jumbo. Okay, he’s not an economist, but what do those fancy-pants economists know anyway?

There are two types of people in this realm—those who yearn above all else to win the establishment’s seal of approval, and those who couldn’t give a shit. Those who yearn quickly learn to say the right things: that entitlements are our nation’s crushing problem, that we simply must attack the deficit, that both sides are equally to blame. If you are of moderately above-average intelligence, you need attend only about 3.2 Washington cocktail parties to figure out that these are the lines to parrot for purposes of advancement.

Rule Two: Custom and process are far more important than substance. Most typical news events are either custom/process stories or substance stories (and obviously there are a lot more of the former than the latter). But when a news event brings both of these issues to the fore, substance will lose every time.

Woodwardgate is a textbook case. When Woodward wrote his infamous column last weekend, the small band of liberal bloggers and opinion writers, we who fashion ourselves (or more accurately were once fashioned by a Bush aide speaking on background who was probably Karl Rove) the “reality-based community,” all wrote that Woodward was just factually wrong. That Obama hadn’t moved the goal posts. He’d been talking about revenue as part of the sequestration fix since the day the 2011 Budget Control Act was passed.

We were interested in the substance. Silly us. What the rest of Washington was interested in was the simple fact that it was Bob Woodward saying it. All the liberals ended up doing, in fact, was making Woodward more interesting. And then, once it became a Woodward-Gene Sperling story, it was entirely about their relationship, whether Sperling’s words were indeed threatening, and so on.

This would be dismissible, but it actually had an insidious impact. Because outside of liberal-land, Woodward’s lie about the goal posts has basically been permitted to stand, which has played very much to conservatives’ advantage. His second lie, about the nature of Sperling’s obviously cordial email to him, has been somewhat refuted, but only depending on the eye of the beholder. This is the kind of thing that happens when substance is given short shrift, because substance has a well-known liberal bias.

Rule Three: While conservatives are expected to behave like conservatives, liberals are expected to behave better. It’s a given that conservative Republicans are going to be uncompromising, brusque, blunt, and boorish. It’s how so many of them have behaved since they first hit town in the Reagan days, and 30 years on it’s the sort of behavior everyone expects of them. Conservative Republicans who aren’t this way, who somehow fail to say the occasional crazy and offensive thing, are perversely disappointing, not quite the real article.

But liberals are supposed to be, as the old saying goes, so open-minded their brains fall out. There’s room maybe for one liberal crank. But Barney Frank just retired. Mostly liberals and Democrats are supposed to understand that conservatives are obstreperous and not only not behave that way themselves but also somehow compensate for it.

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This rule has pervaded the mainstream press coverage of the entire past four years and fiscal matters in particular. If Democrats had been in the minority these past four years and had been as dogmatic about no spending cuts as Republicans have been about no revenue, the Washington establishment would have pilloried them. Instead, now, it’s somehow Obama’s fault that he hasn’t made Republicans see sweet reason.

All these rules work to the benefit of conservatives more often than not because conservatives are generally the ones who try to obfuscate facts or persuade us that a message is credible because of who’s conveying it rather than its substance. And then, when liberals complain, they will be seen as behaving churlishly because they’re supposed to be better. This is how the scam is run. Washington usually falls for it, and Washington always will.