WASHINGTON - The U.S. capital is revelling in the full-on feud between the White House and legendary Watergate reporter Bob Woodward, whose claims of being threatened by a top adviser to President Barack Obama have become a target of mockery.
The relationship between Woodward and the White House has been strained for months, ever since the American journalistic icon wrote "The Price of Politics," a book critical of Obama's leadership style during budget negotiations with Republicans in 2011.
But the bad blood spilled into the public eye this week when Woodward claimed a "very senior" aide to the president threatened him for challenging Obama's account of the origins of sequestration, the massive package of spending cuts to federal departments and agencies set to kick in on Friday.
The aide, since identified as Obama economic adviser Gene Sperling, "yelled at me for about a half hour," Woodward says, and then followed up with an email warning the Washington Post reporter that he'd "regret" his claims.
"‘You'll regret,'" Woodward, quoting the email, recounted in an interview with Politico.com.
"Come on. I think if Obama himself saw the way they’re dealing with some of this, he would say, 'Whoa, we don’t tell any reporter you’re going to regret challenging us.'"
In fact, Sperling's email had a far less ominous tone. Rather than a threat, he sent a warning that most political reporters have probably received countless times during the course of their careers: that big scoop is, in fact, a big flop.
"I apologize for raising my voice in our conversation today. My bad," Sperling said in the email, obtained by Politico.
He then quite politely took issue with Woodward's insistence that Obama had "moved the goal post" by pushing for a mix of new revenue and spending cuts to avert sequestration, instead of simply budget reductions.
"You're focusing on a few specific trees that give a very wrong impression of the forest," Sperling wrote.
"But perhaps we will just not see eye to eye here.... I know you may not believe this, but as a friend, I think you will regret staking out that claim."
The 69-year-old Woodward's reply to Sperling seems to suggest he wasn't feeling terribly threatened.
"You do not ever have to apologize to me," Woodward responded.
"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."
Stephen Hess, a longtime political adviser whose resume includes stints in the administrations of both Dwight D. Eisenhower and Richard Nixon, once hired Sperling as an intern in the late 1970s.
"He's a lovely guy, terrific," Hess recalled on Thursday, adding that the entire Sperling-Woodward dustup was just business as usual in Washington.
"Woodward is complaining about the sort of thing that happens every day in Washington, when the White House isn't happy about something a reporter has done or said and things get heated."
Indeed, hordes of enthralled political junkies watching from the sidelines were left scratching their heads after the Sperling-Woodward emails were published.
"Apparently Bob Woodward didn't know that today's reporters have a different maxim: 'Follow the emails,'" Taegan Goddard of Political Wire quipped.
Goddard was making reference to Woodward's famous Watergate reportage, alongside Carl Bernstein, in which a source known as Deep Throat urged him to "follow the money."
"That's it?" asked a dismayed Henry Blodget at Business Insider. "That's the 'threat'?"
Woodward "misconstrued that apology into some sort of weird Gangland fantasia," chimed in Jason Linkins of the Huffington Post.
Even some conservative pundits, who initially accused the "liberal media" of closing ranks around the White House even when it was under attack from a fellow leftie, stood down.
"Ok wow," tweeted Erick Erickson of RedState.com. "Finally read the email to Woodward. I must now move to the 'not a threat' camp."
Conservative website The Daily Caller said it was duped by Woodward's allegations of a threat.
"Predictably, conservatives latched onto this, as it confirmed our suspicion about the Obama administration's 'Chicago-style' of politics. A lot of mainstream journalists bought into this, too — reflexively believing anything the great Bob Woodward says," Matt K. Lewis wrote in a piece for the site.
"Looks like we were played."
That was a decided shift in tone from the jubilation that erupted among conservatives when Woodward's allegations first surfaced on Wednesday night as they pounced on them as proof Obama was dishonest and his administration thug-like.
Despite the conservative disappointment, Woodward was still slated to appear on Thursday night on "The Sean Hannity Show" on Fox News, hosted one of the network's most virulent Obama foes.
Some have suggested Woodward, who won a Pulitzer Prize with Bernstein for uncovering the Watergate scandal that lead to Nixon's downfall, is seriously tarnishing his legacy.
"When it comes to his chosen profession, Bob Woodward has had the kind of career most media professionals can only dream of," liberal blogger Steve Benen wrote.
"Which is why it saddens me to see him become so reckless for no reason.... It seems Woodward is doing lasting, possibly irreparable harm to his once-sterling reputation, and that is a genuine shame."
But Hess, who once quipped of the journalist: "When Woodward listens, people talk," doesn't think so.
"No, it won't hurt him in any way," he said. "This is the ultimate 'inside the Beltway' story; I just can't imagine anyone caring about it even 30 miles away. If it was anyone other than Woodward, no one would have paid it any attention at all."