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Duel

Poisoning the Press: Richard Nixon, Jack Anderson, and the Rise of Washington’s Scandal Culture

By Mark Feldstein
FSG, 2010

“I believe in the battle,” said Richard Nixon in 1973, “whether it’s the battle of a campaign or the battle of this office, which is a continuing battle. It’s always there wherever you go.” “I, perhaps, carry it more than others,” he added, “because that’s my way.”

Nixon’s way earned him enemies, and it’s a truism that he was his own worst. The probable runner up, a reporter whose stories landed him on the White House enemies list, was not Bob Woodward or Carl Bernstein, but Jack Anderson, one half of Mark Feldstein’s dual character study Poisoning the Press. Anderson is considered a founder of investigative journalism and was the most popular columnist of his time: at the height of its popularity, his column reached 40 million people through a thousand newspapers; his radio broadcasts reached millions more. Aside from reporting on Nixon, Anderson played a role in the red-baiting Senator McCarthy’s downfall, revealed that the FBI was spying on Martin Luther King, Jr, and exposed the CIA plot to assassinate Fidel Castro. No other reporter was as enmeshed in the issues of the day and the course of world events. And yet he is nearly forgotten.

The Nixon-Anderson relationship spanned more than two decades, and it began amicably enough. In 1948, Anderson and his mentor, Drew Pearson, assured Nixon’s election to the Senate two years later by exposing the corruption of J. Parnell Thomas, Nixon’s rival for attention in the House Un-American Activities Committee. In 1952 Anderson and Pearson found out that Nixon, now a vice-presidential hopeful, had accepted $18,000 in kickbacks from various industries with business before the government. Nixon got wind and broke the story first, twisting the evidence to convince a credulous electorate that he’d intended no wrong. In 1956, the two reporters brought to light that a Nixon operative named Murray Chotiner raised $25,000 for the vice-president from Mickey Cohen, a California gangster who began his career in Chicago with Al Capone. On the eve of the 1960 presidential election, Anderson and Pearson uncovered another instance of bribery. Four years previous, Nixon’s brother had received a $205,000 “loan” from the billionaire Howard Hughes, which Nixon promptly used to buy an expensive house in Washington. Three months later the IRS issued a ruling that saved a Hughes subsidiary tens of millions in taxes. Anderson and Pearson published this story in their syndicated column, the “Merry-Go-Round,” on October 25, exactly two weeks before one of the closest races in presidential history, and it riveted the press for days. Nixon blamed the press for his loss, though as Feldstein points out, “In a race so close, defeat as well as victory had a thousand fathers.”

But Pearson and Anderson didn’t simply traffic in information for the public interest. They could be courageous reporters – their stories earned them hundreds of enemies – but they took their stories personally: the politicians they didn’t like were enemies, and in their zeal the reporting duo were often indistinguishable from smear artists. This, ironically, was how they found themselves helping Nixon again. In 1967 they reported that “a homosexual ring” was operating in California governor Ronald Reagan’s staff – homosexuality being the one charge everyone in this book shamelessly (and almost always baselessly) lobs at each other. The chief beneficiary of the story was Nixon, who became the frontrunner for the Republican nomination in 1968. Yet nine days after he won the election, the “Merry-Go-Round” disclosed that Nixon had at one time seen a therapist. Then, in 1971, Anderson, now running the column himself, used classified documents to reveal a number of embarrassing facts about Nixon’s policy in Vietnam, including sham peace negotiations, cloud-seeding designed to flood parts of the North, and various lies about Laos and Cambodia. He also brought to light Nixon’s nuclear showdown with Russia during the 1971 Indo-Pakistani war. A year later Anderson published a memo showing that Nixon orchestrated a $400,000 gift from ITT to the Republican Party in return for approving a merger. More memos revealed that ITT and the CIA conspired to overthrow the Chilean government. By this time Anderson was being treated like other Nixon enemies: he was under FBI scrutiny and CIA surveillance while rumors of corruption (not wholly unfounded) and homosexuality emanated from Nixon’s allies. He also gained the attention of the president’s infamous “Plumbers,” a group formed to stop leaks of classified information to the press – and Anderson was a copious leaker. The Plumbers had already bugged Daniel Ellsberg’s home and office when two members of the group, E. Howard Hunt and Gordon Liddy, future participants in the Watergate break-ins, formed a plan to murder Anderson. Hunt claimed he and Liddy got their orders from Charles Colson, Nixon’s Special Counsel, who got his orders from the President, but all of the other participants denied the President’s involvement, and Nixon’s culpability is unproven.

With a history like this, one would think Anderson would be better known today. Perhaps the reason why he’s not is that his own record is too checkered to offer sufficient moral contrast. Nixon and Anderson have much in common: like Nixon, Anderson was born to a devoutly religious family overseen by a dour, domineering father. They both avoided combat in World War II, and they both came to Washington soon after, suffused with ambition. They were both self-righteous and self-absorbed, but whereas Anderson was an assertive extrovert, Nixon was an introverted, scheming climber. Feldstein uses his narrow parameters – Poisoning the Press rarely steps outside of its two principal characters – to set this contrast up nicely, and the story takes off when Anderson publishes his first scoop on Nixon, who never hated in half-measure.

With Anderson, as with Nixon, the imperatives of ego and principle were often indistinguishable. Yet what secured Nixon infamy left Anderson to obscurity: corruption, lies, bribery and, guiding it all, a purblind self-righteousness. Anderson came to Washington in the late 1940s and apprenticed himself to Drew Pearson. This was not the ideal of disinterested reporting valued today. Instead, Pearson’s activities were an amalgamation of what we would today consider separate professions: reporter, op-ed writer, and political operator. Pearson’s reportage serviced his views, and he used his sources and political connections to further them beyond the page. He was not above maneuvering to destroy the men he exposed, because, as Feldstein quotes Anderson, he “believed that to get the job done he must intrude during all phases of the battle.” Pearson – as Anderson would – enjoyed his celebrity status. Among other activities, he had in a bit part in The Day the Earth Stood Still as the only journalist urging his colleagues to be calm.

Anderson was still more avid, and the two worked well together. After the story about Nixon’s rival in 1948, Pearson lobbied several congressmen to have the man prosecuted, and sent his new apprentice to hand-deliver the evidence; this was, in their view, only finishing the job. But Anderson’s morality could quiet itself when it wouldn’t benefit its owner. A few years later Anderson concealed Nixon’s role in helping McCarthy come up with a list of alleged communists McCarthy had foolishly promised to the public, a list Anderson knew didn’t exist. But McCarthy was a source, his reputation was still intact, and besides, Anderson fancied himself a soldier in the fight against communism.

To gain traction for their stories, Pearson and Anderson would use the same tactics with Nixon as they did with his adversaries – they played a secret role in the political process. When Lyndon Johnson took the floor of the Senate to denounce Nixon, he did so with a speech drafted for him by the pair. Feldstein quotes a remark Anderson told a reporter years later:

I had come to believe that the ordinary-life virtues of loyalty, compassion, gratitude and unambiguousness should have a distinctly subordinate place in relations between a muckraker and an official. Each knows what the other is about, or ought to. Often the very basis of their association is the potential it offers for using one another. My duty was to see to it that I was not the one used, except when being used served the larger ends of exposure.

Anderson believed his own rationalizations, but his morality, like Nixon’s, flexed for money. Feldstein seems to find it difficult to admit this. Note the exculpatory language he uses to introduce Anderson’s bribe-taking:

With nine young children to feed and a parsimonious boss, Anderson secretly began taking money from Washington news sources whom he covered…. Anderson also accepted free stock from a wealthy entrepreneur and complimentary airplane travel while plugging these benefactors in his column…. Although the unwritten rues of journalistic ethics were more lax in that era than today – other reporters also accepted money and gifts from those they wrote about.

The worst person Anderson had dealings with was Irv Davidson, whom Feldstein describes as “a mobbed-up arms broker and lobbyist who peddled influence (and prostitutes) to his shady friends.” Anderson’s relationship with the lobbyist lasted for years. Among other hauls, Davidson netted $15,000 for Anderson from the brutal Somoza regime in Nicaragua. After Watergate Anderson was eclipsed by younger men like Woodward and Bernstein (and even a few women, eventually), and he stooped to infomercials and more salacious gossip in his newsletter and columns, which dwindled in readers as the years passed.

As the New York Times put it succinctly at his death, Anderson’s “bombastic, self-congratulating style, abbreviated exegeses and a blistering moral outrage fueled both by his Mormon upbringing and unabashed theatrical flair caused some to question his gravity.” Yet as with any tragic hero, Anderson’s flaws underpinned his accomplishments, which are considerable. He helped to bring down a violent, corrupt and unbalanced president (and his violent, corrupt and unbalanced FBI Director), he exposed official crimes against a civil rights leader, and against millions in Southeast Asia.

For most of Anderson’s career, the rest of the media were more deferential. Plenty of “Merry-Go-Round” stories were ignored by the rest of the Washington press core. The newspapers that bought Pearson and Anderson’s columns often censored or watered them down. And yet Feldstein never pulls back from his characters to do more than sketch the world around them. Part of his book’s conceit is that the Nixon-Anderson fight left a “scandal culture” in its wake, but the meekness of the press in the 1950s and 1960s suggests that, corruption aside, some rancor between the politicians and the journalists who covered them wasn’t necessarily a bad thing – the last ten years teach us the same lesson.

This is Poisoning the Press‘ one very serious liability: when Feldstein attempts to go beyond the book’s rivalry to the course of history, to the supposed “Rise of Washington’s Scandal Culture” in his subtitle, his focused narrative fails him. It’s normally considered dirty pool to criticize a subtitle; after all, authors don’t always have a say in promotion. But Feldstein attempts to make the case that the Nixon/Anderson battle played a pivotal role in the growth of Washington’s triviality. Perhaps it did, but Feldstein trades the necessary context for momentum; the meta-view is confined to the prologue, epilogue and a few allusions throughout, where Feldstein either fixates on similarities between the past and present (the continuing infuence of Nixon men like Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney and Roger Ailes) or succumbs to drama. So when he’s focusing on the rivalry he tends to blanket responsibility over everybody. When the spotlight shrinks to Nixon, drama trumps sense: our sensationalist media “was Nixon’s ultimate revenge,” as if it were a goal he achieved himself.

I kept wanting Feldstein to pull back and give us the benefit of his experience – he was a journalist for two decades and even interned for Anderson in the 1970s – to analyze an industry he knows as few others do. At one point he makes an astute aside about how the media deals with scandal – in this case, Nixon’s therapy sessions: “It was the beginning of a trend that would continue for the next generation in which the Washington press corps would exploit the titillation of political scandal while pretending to do otherwise by dressing it up as reporting on how other media outlets covered the story.” But these insights come few and far between, and we have to settle for being borne along by the vigor and irony of combat.

I wonder if Feldstein is aware of this shortcoming. “Of course,” he notes with seeming haste near the end,

the rise of Washington’s modern scandal culture is the product of larger forces and deeper institutional changes beyond these two men. The spread of cable, satellite, and the Internet has transformed the media into an instantaneous cacophony of infotainment…At the same time, government secrecy, special-interest money, political polarization, and corrosive cynicism have become ever-present features of public life, reinforcing Washington’s media-driven scandal mania.

All of this is true. But the changes in medium he notes here didn’t occur until the 1980s, and the socio-political forces below have been present since the country’s founding – it’s their dynamics that are important. Feldstein never manages to place his duel in the continuum of history. But his Jack Anderson is a big, tragic figure, and in many ways a stand-in for the news industry as a whole: flashy, corrupt, greedy, self-absorbed, self-righteous, and sometimes noble. We should remember him.

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Greg Waldmann, a Senior Editor at Open Letters Monthly, is a native New Yorker living in Boston with a degree in International Affairs.