A recent cartoon in The Atlanta Constitution portrayed columnist Jack Anderson and presidential confidant Charles Kirbo as a couple of Sherlock Holmeses circling each other warily, magnifying glasses in hand.
The cartoon referred to the latest turn in the once potentially explosive "Vesco scandal," which began in the columns of hundreds of newspapers in September under the Jack Anderson byline.
The original allegation - that fugitive financier Robert Vesco used R. L. Herring, an Albany, Ga., businessman, to put the fix in with Kirbo and Carter adviser Hamilton Jordan - has in many respects been overshadowned by a running feud between two angry and wounded men, Kirbo and Anderson.
The two are, in fact, investigating each other. Each is feeding his information to law enforcement authorities and, sometimes, through the press, to the public.
Each is convinced that the other is engaged in a scurrious undertaking. And each is waiting for the other to take a misstep that can be seized upon for advantage.
For Anderson and Kirbo, it is all very serious business."I want to protect my reputation," Kirbo said. "That's the only thing I've got to live off of. I'll go anywhere I want to get information that will help clear me of this damned slander and libel."
The columnist is equally adamant: "I consider this (Kirbo's investigation) to be White House-inspired to try to discredit me and destroy my credibility," Anderson said.
But it is has also taken on the trappings of a low-budget thriller, with characters that include a convicted con man who fakes documents to ensnare the president's men, a blonde former airline stewardess pursued by both sides for her knowledge of the phony documents a private eye who tries to trap a presidential confidant by planting a tape recorder in the blonde's purse, and an avuncular Atlanta lawyer who drives a pickup truck and calls himself "just an ordinary South Georgia cracker," but sleeps at the White House when in Washington.
For all the theatric's - legitimate queations can be raised about some of the actions of both men over the last two months.
A review of the case shows that Anderson, for example, should have been especially cautious about the motives of Herring, the Georgia businessman who said recently that he was preparing a case against the Carter administration in hopes of getting immunity from prosecution in an unrelated fraud case.
"I don't know what his motives were," Anderson said in a recent telephone interview. "I felt he probably was hoping for revenge after getting indicted."
The columnist also acknowledged that he went to extraordinary lengths to help both Herring and Vesco in return for their help in piecing together his story.
After Herring was indicted in July on fraud and racketerrring charges, Anderson testified in behalf of his release from jail "to get better entree to him," the columnist said.
Anderson knew Vesco from an appearance on the columnist's lie-detector-based television interview to talk about his alleged approaches to the Carter camp, Anderson said, Anderson agreed to carry a message for Vesco to Stanley Sporkin, enforcement chief at the Securities and Exchange Commission.
Vesco also wanted immunity from his legal problems in return for testimony about Herring's attempts to fix those same problems. Sporkin said no deal.
Anderson explained that his mission for Vesco as simply passing on a message. "I had to do it as a condition for talking to Vesco," he said.
Anderson's enthusiasm for the story also showed up in his writing. The original column "linking" Kirbo and Jordan to a $10 million political fix was reversed, softening the charges, after some clients, including The Washington Post, questioned it. Anderson said he reworte the piece after getting new information from the Justice Department.
When he broke the story that the key documents implicating the Carter confidants were not authentic, he referred to them as "reconstructions." He never admitted making a mistake.
When Kirbo struck back, Anderson counterattacked. In his most recent columns describing Kirbo's taped conversation with Herring's wife, he wrote that Atlanta attorney tried to suborn a witness, and that the FBI was investigating him for obstruction of justice. The Post dropped both references after checking with the FBI.
Kirbo also appears to have been careless at times in his conduct as he sought to defend himself from Anderson's accusations.
According to the tape of his conversation with Herring's wife, a witness in the Vesco matter, Kirbo did advise her not to be "too open" in what she said to the FBI, as Anderson reported.
Kirbo cautioned the former airline stewardess that she was too "inclined to trust everybody. That's a mistake . . . You need to really have a lawyer to talk with you and help you analyze it," Kirbo told her. "I think it would be a mistake for you to put too much trust in me, cause I'm trying to protect my reputation. I think you've got some misplaced trust in Jack Anderson. And it's a mistake to be too open with the FBI. Because they've got another thing they're working on."
Kirbo, while declining to make a statement on the conversation until he could hear the tape, said he felt he hadn't said "anything that was wrong. The tape doesn't give me any problem."
Kirbo at first denied telling the woman not to be "too open." He withdrew his denial when he discovered that a recording existed.
Kirbo also had denied ever meeting with members of the Georgia group seeking to help Vesco. He later withdrew that denial as well. In each instance, he said he simply could not remember the events.
Kirbo has been in regular contact with Attorney General Griffin B. Bell, his good friend and former law partner in Atlanta, whose Justice Department is running the investigation into Anderson's allegations. Kirbo says that while he has discussed the Vesco matter with Bell, he has either sought nor received information from the attorney general about it.
He also said he has discussed the matter with Jordan, who with Kirbo was a target of Anderson's Vesco accusations, and once, "at the very early stages," with the president.
"He knew it was a lie," Kirbo said of Carter. "He just shook his head."
The battle between Kirbo, who is Carter's most trusted adviser, and Anderson revolves for the moment around the "reconstructed" documents.
On Sept. 11, Anderson reported that a group of south Georgians, led by Herring, had been hired around the time Carter took office by Vesco.
Their mission was to put in the fix with presidential aide Jordan and Kirbo to solve Vesco's hopelessly tangled legal problems. Vesco was then in Costa Rica, a fugitive frome five indictments in the United States.
Anderson contended that letters and telephone messages in his possession showed that the group had actually made contact with Kirbo and Jordan.
Two weeks later, however, the bottom fell out of Anderson's allegations. He discoverd that the documents were "reconstructions," in his words. The originals had been lost by the Georgians, so they created new ones from memory, the columnist said.
Cindy Herring had helped in the reconstruction process. Her husband, she said on the tape, "was hoping that he could get immunity in exchange for testimony" on the Vesco allegations. "The only way he could possibly get it to come out was to convince Jack Anderson that the whole thing was true."
Cindy Herring said she tipped Anderson off on Friday, Sept. 22, about the reconstructions through private investigator Richard Bast. Bast had been retained by her husband's lawyer, and also was working with Anderson on the story. Anderson "was extremely distressed" to learn the documents were not authentic, she said.
Suddenly, Cindy Herring, who had already been interviewed by the FBI, became a woman in great demand. Anderson brought her to Washington for three days of conversations, she said on the tape.
Kirbo too arranged - through Tina Harden, sister-in-law of White House aide Richard Harden - his own interview with Cindy Herring.
He chartered a plane to take him and an associate in his law firm to Albany, Ga., for the meeting.
"I'm just an ordinary south Georgia cracker you're talking to," Kirbo told her, "and I feel sorry for you . . ."
Cindy Herring was playing her own game, however. She had hired her husband's lawyer, Benjamin Brown, of Rockville, Md., and in turn, private investigator Bast.
Bast, who has worked with Anderson all along on the Vesco story, said he put a tape recorder in Cindy Herring's purse during Kirbo's visit to "preserve the integrity" of the conversation. "We always do it that way," he said.
Shortly thereafter, Anderson reported in his columns that Kirbo had advised a witness in the case not to be "too open" with the FBI.
He also launched an attack in his columns on Kirbo's investigation by accusing Kirbo of coordinating his efforts with the White House in a Nixon-style drive to "destroy our reputation."
Both Kirbo and White House spokesmen dispute Anderson's claim.
"Mr. Kirbo has the same rights as Jack Anderson when his character has been attacked," said deputy press secretary Rex Granum, "to talk to people, ask them question, and find out if people are lying . . ."
"If there's a question where our sympathies lie," said Granum, "our sympathies are with Mr. Kirbo and Mr. Jordan."