The dirty dance between Anderson and Nixon

By Evan Thomas
Sunday, October 31, 2010

Poisoning the press

Richard Nixon, Jack Anderson, and the Rise of Washington's Scandal Culture

By Mark Feldstein

Farrar Straus Giroux. 461 pp. $30

President Richard Nixon was looking for some dirt on Jack Anderson. Maybe, the president suggested, Anderson was having a homosexual relationship with the Navy petty officer, Charles Radford, who had been leaking top-secret documents to the muckraking columnist. "Homosexuality destroyed" the Greeks and Romans, Nixon had earlier informed his aides. "Aristotle was a homo. We all know that. So was Socrates." Never mind that, between them, Anderson and Radford, both Mormons, had fathered 17 children and would remain married to the same women for more than 40 years. Nixon aide Chuck Colson ordered the White House "Plumbers" on a fruitless investigation of the columnist, whom the president regarded as White House Enemy Number One. All very outrageous, but then Anderson himself was constantly investigating flimsy or preposterous allegations of homosexuality involving, among others, Nixon White House aides H.R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman.

You might say that Richard Nixon and Jack Anderson deserved each other. Both had been hardscrabble boys roiling with resentment; both converted their insecurities into phenomenal drive. For years, newspaperman Anderson had been out to get Nixon, while Nixon regarded Anderson as a vile body that had to be eliminated, perhaps literally.

In his entertaining and well-researched account, Mark Feldstein argues that the Nixon-Anderson vendetta was behind the rise of the culture of scandal that has poisoned Washington over the past 25 years or so. That seems a stretch. Many factors went into the souring relations between reporters and politicians, starting with LBJ's "credibility gap" during Vietnam. But it is true that Nixon's obsession with Anderson helped set the stage for Watergate.

Anderson is largely forgotten now, but he was feared, if not exactly respected, in the 1960s and '70s. Starting in the '40s as a legman for Drew Pearson's Washington Merry-Go-Round column of gossip and scandal, Anderson had absolute faith in himself as a righteous scourge, even if he had to pay bribes and root through other people's garbage cans to get scoops. He was initially seen as uncouth - he dressed poorly and felt uneasy at Georgetown dinner parties. But by the time of the Nixon administration, he was breaking big stories so often (winning a Pulitzer Prize in 1972) that Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham invited him to her office and offered to move his column from the funny papers, where it had been relegated. Anderson declined; he liked, he said, to write for regular folks.

Nixon was so infuriated by Anderson's stories that he ordered the Plumbers to assassinate the newsman. Or so two of Nixon's henchmen, G. Gordon Liddy and E. Howard Hunt, later claimed. They planned to kill the columnist by slipping drugs into his food or arranging a hit to look like a street mugging. (Hunt had the brilliant idea of putting LSD on the steering wheel of Anderson's car, where it might be absorbed into his skin, causing him to drive off the road.) The mission, they claimed, was aborted by the White House. Colson, who ran the Plumbers, always denied any scheme to murder Anderson. But author Feldstein, a former investigative reporter who teaches journalism at the University of Maryland, makes a plausible case that the plot was real and at least tacitly approved by Nixon.

Anderson never had any doubt that Nixon was out to kill him. Anderson broke a few Watergate stories, but not nearly as many as Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, and after Watergate he seemed to fade. His column became increasingly unreliable as its author engaged in dubious money-making schemes. Anderson was, however, a reporter to the last. Dying of cancer and Parkinson's disease in 2005, he asked Colson, who become a Christian missionary, to visit him in the hospital. The talk between the two was warm and forgiving. "There's one thing I'd like to know," the old newsman finally said. "After all these years, what really happened?" Colson turned cold and denied everything. Anderson was never able to break the story of his own assassination plot. But he died trying.

Evan Thomas, a former editor at Newsweek, is the author of "The War Lovers" and a forthcoming biography of President Dwight Eisenhower.

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