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A new book reveals depths of columnist Jack Anderson's anti-Nixon tactics

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 14, 2010; C01

There was a time in Washington when Jack Anderson was a hero, the columnist who kept unearthing Richard Nixon's dark secrets, a Pulitzer winner who revealed the administration's secret tilt toward Pakistan in its war against India.

But Anderson's reputation would have been shredded had anyone learned that he paid off the source who slipped him the classified documents on Pakistan. Here's how it went down: Anderson bought some undeveloped California land from Navy Yeoman Charles Radford, using an old high school friend as a middleman to disguise the transaction. "It was really a payoff," Anderson acknowledged a few months before his death.

Anderson made the admission to author Mark Feldstein, an associate professor at George Washington University. When Feldstein worked as an Anderson intern in the 1970s, he says: "I looked up to him and admired him. He certainly had his warts, God knows. I certainly realized that his later career turned embarrassing. Any of us who worked for him knew the tactics he used were not the ones I teach in journalism school."

But, he says, "the blackmail and bribery came as a shock."

Feldstein's new book "Poisoning the Press" stunned me, another former Anderson reporter from that era, and may transform the muckraker's image as well. While detailing Nixon's utter obsession with Anderson -- to the point that 16 CIA operatives once kept him under surveillance and Watergate burglar G. Gordon Liddy plotted to kill him -- the author makes the case that each side employed equally ruthless methods against the other.

Anderson, who died in 2005, may seem a remote figure today, but in the pre-Watergate days he was the capital's leading investigative journalist and self-promoting showman, churning out a remarkable series of scoops with his small staff. Nixon called him an S.O.B. and worse.

Their mutual hostility was a harbinger of the escalating frictions between presidents and the press, although no subsequent administration has matched Nixon's in terms of venality and criminality toward journalists. But the accumulated evidence of Anderson's unclean hands soils what otherwise would be a media morality tale.

Not everyone buys this thesis, of course, including Anderson's longtime deputy Les Whitten. "Jack had a lot of things wrong with him, but when he was good he was very good, and he was good most of the time," Whitten says. "Jack was not underhanded so much as he was clever. . . . He was from the school, if you're right 75 percent of the time, that's a pretty good average."

Brit Hume, the former Anderson reporter who became a Fox News anchor, praises the book's portrayal. "I think by and large it was fair to Jack," he says.

Questionable tactics

Feldstein, an easygoing former correspondent for ABC, NBC and CNN, began the project as a doctoral dissertation a decade ago. He conducted 200 interviews, reviewed tens of thousands of pages of documents, including Anderson's FBI file, and time spent listening to the scratchy White House tapes. On Tuesday, GW will unveil the archives donated by Anderson -- 200 boxes of personal papers that the Bush-era FBI tried to seize after his death, claiming the possibility of national security secrets, before backing off months later.

Anderson's questionable tactics were visible as early as 1958, when he and a Democratic congressional investigator were caught with bugging equipment in the old Sheraton-Carlton Hotel, surreptitiously recording the businessman who bribed Sherman Adams, later forced to resign as President Dwight Eisenhower's chief of staff. This was a big break for Anderson, who was then the chief legman for columnist Drew Pearson.

During the 1960 campaign, Anderson worked with an operative for John F. Kennedy's campaign to uncover a secret $205,000 loan -- actually a gift that was never repaid -- from reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes to Vice President Nixon's brother, Donald. Pearson was reluctant to run the story on the eve of the election, so Anderson set a trap by letting a top Nixon aide know he was investigating the matter. That prompted the GOP campaign to leak a sanitized version to a conservative Scripps-Howard reporter, creating the opening for the columnists to "correct the record" with the seamy details.

Anderson and Pearson quickly took a partisan side, drafting a statement for their friend Lyndon Johnson, Kennedy's running mate, to demand Senate hearings on Nixon's finances. They even sent a telegram to Democratic congressman Jack Brooks -- headlined SUGGEST PRESS STATEMENT SOMEWHAT ALONG THESE LINES -- which Brooks faithfully followed.

Anderson sometimes hit Democrats, too. Weeks after Martin Luther King's assassination, he reported that Robert Kennedy had authorized FBI spying on the civil rights leader -- and later acknowledged that the leak had been timed by RFK's rival, President Johnson, who had given the story to Pearson. The bureau confirmed it to Anderson even though J. Edgar Hoover had called him "a flea-ridden dog" who was "lower than the regurgitated filth of vultures."

Homophobic surveillance

One of the book's most striking themes is the blatant homophobia of that era, as revealed by Feldstein's archival sleuthing. Weeks after Nixon took office, a White House aide gave Anderson a ludicrously false tip that the president's top assistants, H.R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman, were gay lovers. Anderson had a staffer conduct surveillance outside Haldeman's Watergate residence and later told the FBI's No. 2 man that he had learned of a gay sex ring in the White House.

That performance was matched by the administration's response to the leak of the India-Pakistan papers by Radford, the Navy yeoman. Nixon, according to Ehrlichman's notes, called him to ask, "Is yeoman deviate?" The president later told his staff he wanted investigators to find out if the relationship between Anderson and Radford was sexual. Ehrlichman later recommended "keeping [Radford] under surveillance in the hope of catching him . . . with Jack Anderson sometime." Nixon approved the plan. It was absurd on its face: Anderson had nine children and, like Radford, was a Mormon.

As it turned out, the administration brought no charges. "I'd love to take that bastard Anderson" and prosecute him, Nixon told his attorney general, John Mitchell, who agreed. But Anderson countered by threatening to reveal an even more embarrassing story than the leaks themselves: that Radford had been spying on the White House on behalf of the Pentagon (as he would eventually acknowledge in congressional testimony).

During another controversy, White House aides muttered about a young Anderson staffer. "Do we have anything on Hume?. . . . It'd be great if we could get him on a homosexual thing," Haldeman said.

"Is he married?" Nixon asked.

They should check because "he sure looks it," said top aide Chuck Colson.

The president then speculated that Pearson and Anderson were gay, too, which was inaccurate. They all shared a fierce anti-gay prejudice in an era when the discovery of homosexuality was a career-ender.

Hume now laughs off such talk, saying, "I thought that stuff was hilarious."

Cat-and-mouse game

Hume came under White House scrutiny after breaking a blockbuster story, that ITT had promised to put up $400,000 for the Republican National Convention in exchange for a Justice Department antitrust ruling allowing the conglomerate to acquire an insurance company. Hume had confirmed with ITT lobbyist Dita Beard that she had written a memo outlining the deal (saying Mitchell "is definitely helping us, but cannot let it be known. . . . Please destroy this, huh?"). The White House tried to prove the memo was a fake. When FBI tests essentially authenticated it, Nixon's counsel, John Dean, pressed the bureau to modify that finding. Hoover, though he despised Anderson, rejected the request as improper.

Like two bruised prizefighters, Anderson and Nixon continued to swing away -- the difference, of course, being that the president wielded the power of the government. The CIA, though barred from domestic spying, had already tried having its agents tail Anderson, a tactic he mocked by having his kids dress up like their father and drive off in different directions. Later in 1972, the president's men tried feeding negative material about Anderson to the press, then sent him a forged White House letter in an unsuccessful attempt to get him to bite on a bogus scoop.

The cat-and-mouse game turned more serious when two Nixon campaign operatives, Liddy and E. Howard Hunt, began plotting to murder Anderson. They considered breaking into his Bethesda home and slipping poison into one of his medicines, putting LSD on his steering wheel or ramming into his car. Finally, Liddy decided on knifing or strangling Anderson, which he called "justifiable homicide." Feldstein questions how serious the plots were, but notes that Liddy and Hunt both admitted their involvement; Liddy wrote about the plot in his autobiography.

Playing dirty

But just when one sympathizes with Anderson as the target of thugs and loons, the book serves up reminders that he could also play dirty -- even when that meant consorting with his nominal enemies. When George Wallace was gearing up for his 1972 campaign challenge to Nixon, Anderson asked for -- and received -- Internal Revenue Service files on the Alabama governor. White House aide Murray Chotiner provided the confidential tax records, which is a felony. The story damaged Wallace, and Feldstein concludes Anderson was being "disingenuous at best" by praising Nixon in his column for refusing to kill the investigation.

As a younger reporter, Anderson admitted in an unpublished manuscript obtained by Feldstein, "I would have regarded such dealings as evidence of a deplorable cynicism." In the end Anderson double-crossed the Nixon team by burning his source, reporting that the White House had "use[d] our column" to leak Wallace's records, bringing "pressure on him through a tax investigation" to "eliminate" the "threat to President Nixon's reelection."

In 1973, the columnist went after acting FBI director L. Patrick Gray, determined to derail his nomination after the bureau arrested Anderson's partner Whitten on trumped-up charges of receiving classified documents that were thrown out by a grand jury. After testifying at Gray's confirmation hearings, Feldstein reports, Anderson "blackmailed a key legislator." He pushed Senate Majority Whip Robert Byrd to oppose Gray, saying, "Bobby, I've got more newspapers in West Virginia than Pat Gray has." The message, Anderson admitted, was "if I ever found any dirt on him, I had an audience in his home state." Byrd wound up leading the opposition to Gray and used questions supplied by Anderson.

Anderson played only a minor role in the Watergate scandal that toppled Nixon, and his influence gradually declined over the years. In 1992, as Feldstein, who interviewed me, notes in the book, I reported that a $10,000 Exxon check wound up in Anderson's bank account for a television program he was making after the Exxon Valdez oil spill; he claimed he didn't realize Exxon's role and pulled out of the project.

The interviews with Anderson in the last years of his life, as he struggled with Parkinson's disease and was succumbing to cancer, had a poignant air. "He was so forgotten by the time I got to him that he was glad to be remembered," Feldstein says. The lesson, in his view, is "how corrupting power is, no matter how idealistic you start out."

On the other hand, Feldstein says of his onetime boss, "I think he was incredibly brave and was doing it when no one else was and broke some stories of enormous consequence. He's both heroic and arguably corrupt. He's not a simple villain or hero."

kurtzh@washpost.com

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