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

Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 14, 2010

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.

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