Jack Anderson, Gentleman With a Rake
Sunday, December 18, 2005
My lasting image of Jack Anderson is of when he used to duck into the closet. It was then that the courtly, mild-mannered columnist would be transformed into a fiery orator, like the Mormon preacher he almost became.
It was 1974, I was an intern in Anderson's Victorian castle of an office at 16th and O streets NW, and he was regularly recording commentaries for radio and television. The closet had been turned into a sound booth, where Anderson would let loose with his booming baritone.
Anderson, who died yesterday at 83, was the most feared investigative reporter of his day, but in person Jack was the gentlest of men. He was patient and avuncular with the young and ambitious wannabes who rotated through his small office (and whose numbers included Fox News's Brit Hume, NBC's Jack Cloherty, the novelist James Grady and prizewinning Los Angeles Times correspondent Gary Cohn). He was a wonderful storyteller, a good listener and a devoted father of nine kids who was happy spending summer weekends at a big beach house in Rehoboth. He would begin even routine phone conversations with "Good to hear your voice." He once told me that the best way to develop a source was to be inconvenienced together at some distant airport.
It is hard to imagine now, when every minor publication is clawing away in search of government secrets, but Anderson was once one of the capital's few purebred investigative journalists. He managed to compete with the likes of the New York Times and Washington Post based on his own ingenuity and a tiny staff, though he was never quite seen as being establishment, in part because he was a lone figure blazing his own iconoclastic path.
He would produce worldwide headlines with scoops about chicanery by corporate giant ITT or behind-the-scenes dealings involving India and Pakistan, the latter work earning him a Pulitzer Prize in 1972. He could also be spectacularly wrong, put his faith in a bad source and have to issue an embarrassing retraction. But his ability to persuade people at the highest levels of government to share secrets with him was uncanny, especially in an era when most journalists were deferential toward the nation's leaders and when top political columnists had cozy relationships with the high and mighty.
Anderson was for decades the most widely read columnist in America, appearing in about 1,000 newspapers, including his odd but hardly obscure spot in The Washington Post's comics pages (before the paper dropped him almost a decade ago). He was also a regular on "Good Morning America" and churned out best-selling books. When I later served a two-year stint with him as a reporter in the late '70s, almost anyone, from senators to Cabinet members, would quickly return my calls. And Jack was generous with credit, writing the names of his "associates" into pieces they had reported. I think he was sensitive on this point because he had spent so many years as the less heralded legman for Drew Pearson, from whom he inherited the Washington Merry-Go-Round column. Nor was Anderson above telling the greenest rookie that if he worked hard, one day he might take over the franchise.
I became an expert in Anderson's style because, for a time, I was ghostwriting the column, subject, of course, to his editing and approval. Jack spent much of his time on the lecture circuit, and for a very basic reason: For all its prestige, he lost money on the column. The speaking fees he raked in -- and he was a skilled performer in front of crowds -- were what kept the enterprise afloat.
And so I studied the art of Andersonian hype. He always "learned" this or that from "secret" or "eyes-only" documents, or reported on what was being "whispered in the capital's back rooms." I once went to Texas to write about a controversial state senator, and Jack, never having met the man, reworked my copy to say that the politician's "ruddy face turned redder" when asked about some outrage.
He once told me something that stuck in my mind. Although the 750-word columns were often devoted to exposing nefarious misdeeds, when it came to the person under fire, Anderson said, "Act like you're his defense lawyer." In other words, make the strongest possible case for the innocence of the public figure you were prosecuting.
I first met the Utah native when he came to speak at the State University of New York at Buffalo. As the editor of the college paper, I was among a small group of students selected to take him out to dinner before his speech. When the waiter brought the menus, Anderson asked, in his unpretentious way, "What's good here?" None of us had any idea, for we were at a steakhouse far too expensive for us to have ever dined there.
I peppered him with queries about Washington reporting, then got in my car and raced to the event, where I shot up my hand when the time came for questions. I must have made a favorable impression, for I later received an invitation for a summer internship from Anderson's longtime partner and investigative equal, Les Whitten. The salary, I was told, was zero. I didn't care. I awkwardly backed out of a paying newspaper job because the chance to work for Anderson was so irresistible. Anderson later consoled me when he had to kill my last story of the summer, a profile of White House press secretary Ron Ziegler. He yanked it at the last minute when Richard Nixon resigned.
No one went to Anderson's office for the money (my starting salary as a "real" reporter was $11,000). But legions of aspiring journalists showed up to learn how this exotic practice called investigative reporting was done. The biggest secret, Anderson told me, was bluffing. "Always let the other person think you know more than you do," he said. And he could bluff like a champion poker player.
In later years, I began to see that Anderson's judgment was often flawed. He had a disturbing knack for entering into business arrangements with shady characters, and the dealings would later blow up on him. In 1992 he had to back out of a television project on the Exxon Valdez oil spill after it turned out -- Anderson later claimed ignorance -- that Exxon had put up $10,000 for the program. The quality of his work declined with his advancing age when, despite a struggle with Parkinson's disease, he refused to retire. His column was his life.
But in my mind at least, Jack Anderson will always be an icon of a clubby Washington that no longer exists, a man who tilted at powerful windmills but did so with a soft voice and easy manner. At least until he stepped into that closet.