Investigative Columnist Jack Anderson Dies

By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 18, 2005

Jack N. Anderson, 83, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter who for years was America's most widely read newspaper columnist, died Dec. 17 at his Bethesda home. He had Parkinson's disease.

A crusader in the mold of muckrakers from a century ago, unbounded by contemporary notions of objectivity, Mr. Anderson was highly successful during the 1950s and 1960s, when few reporters actively sought to uncover government wrongdoing. At one point, his column appeared in about 1,000 newspapers with 45 million daily readers.

His influence flagged in recent years, but for decades he had the investigative field virtually to himself. The number of scoops that he had a hand in was amazing: the Keating Five congressional ethics scandal; revelations in the Iran-contra scandal; the U.S. government's tilt away from India toward Pakistan, for which he received the Pulitzer Prize in 1972; the ITT-Dita Beard affair, which linked the settlement of a federal antitrust suit against International Telephone & Telegraph to a $400,000 pledge to underwrite the 1972 Republican National Convention; the CIA-Mafia plot to kill Fidel Castro; the final days of Howard Hughes; U.S. attempts to undermine the government of Chilean President Salvador Allende; allegations about a possible Bulgarian connection to the shooting of the pope; an Iranian connection to the bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut.

"He had such huge strengths and huge weaknesses," said Mark Feldstein, director of the journalism program at George Washington University, who is writing Mr. Anderson's biography. "He practiced journalism like a blue-collar craftsman with a populist point of view. He was practicing a crusading craft rather than a profession, and [investigative reporting] has lost some of its juice, its verve, its gusto, in trying to be objective. Anderson didn't try to hide his politics or his agenda."

Mr. Anderson and Drew Pearson, his predecessor on the "Washington Merry-Go-Round" column, were among the few investigative reporters working in the mass media after the Great Depression until the technique came back into style during the Vietnam War and Watergate era.

Mr. Anderson was an investigator from the start, when he went to work in 1947 as a "legman" for Pearson's column, which began in 1932. In 1969, Pearson died and left the column to him. Mr. Anderson ran it -- with an ever-changing cast of interns -- until he unofficially retired in 2001, when Douglas Cohn, his writing partner since 1999, and Eleanor Clift of Newsweek took over. The column ran until July 30, 2004, when United Feature Syndicate announced its end.

"Part circus huckster, part guerrilla fighter, part righteous rogue, Anderson waged a one-man journalistic resistance when it was exceedingly unpopular to do so," Feldstein said in a July 2004 article in The Washington Post.

Mr. Anderson's work enraged those in power. President Richard M. Nixon tried to smear him as a homosexual, the CIA was ordered to spy on him, and, according to the Watergate tapes, a Nixon aide ordered two cohorts to try to kill the journalist by poisoning.

"Contrary to popular theology," Mr. Anderson wrote for a journalism history project, "there is nothing that produces as much exhilaration and zest for living as an ugly, protracted, bitter-end vendetta that rages for years and comes close to ruining both sides."

He explained in a Parade magazine article what drove him: "I have tried to break down the walls of secrecy in Washington. But today the walls are thicker than ever. More and more of our policymakers hide behind those walls. Only the press can stand as a true bulwark against an executive branch with a monopoly on foreign policy information. It has all the authority it needs in the First Amendment."

Despite all his scoops and his high profile in Middle America, Mr. Anderson was never the celebrated Washington journalist of the kind found at Georgetown dinner parties or Gridiron Club soirees. The power elite saw him as an uncouth gossipmonger and shameless self-promoter.

Mr. Anderson, a Mormon who eschewed smoking, drinking, cursing and caffeine, was cast from the dissenter mold of journalism. He called himself a muckraker, a term from the turn of the 20th century.

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