A Powerful, Flawed Reporting Giant Poisoning the Press
Richard Nixon, Jack Anderson, and the Rise of Washington’s Scandal Culture
By Mark Feldstein
Farrar, Straus & Giroux
461 pages; $30 Posted: Thu,Dec.9 2010
Book review by Mark Lisheron
Senior Contributing Writer Mark Lisheron (email@example.com) is Austin bureau chief for Texas Watchdog, a government accountability news Web site.
Mark Feldstein has done journalism a terrific service by putting Jack Anderson once again at the center of the reporting universe.
The legends of Watergate having blotted out the sun, almost no one remembers Anderson. But just a few short months before the world's most famous third-rate burglary collapsed into a conspiracy that brought the impeachment and resignation of President Richard Nixon, Jack Anderson was, perhaps, the most famous reporter in the world.
He was a Pulitzer Prize winner, feared and loathed by the highest-ranking political figures in both parties. He was fearless in defense of the First Amendment, protective of his sources and relentless in pursuit of the documented proof the best stories depend upon. And as Feldstein's book establishes, threatening enough that a president would seriously discuss with his staff having him killed.
Anderson was also an embarrassment. His prose and his ego were as loud and gauche as his suits. He was not above bugging and bribing, misrepresenting himself and consorting with underworld figures to get what he needed to kick out another 750-word column, incomprehensibly called the Washington Merry-Go-Round. Finally, as his fame and notoriety flickered, Anderson sold out in every ethically questionable way, for big money.
The portraits of Nixon and Anderson painted by Feldstein, a professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University and a much decorated investigative reporter himself, are not pretty. Nixon uses the red stain of communism to smear his way from the U.S. House to the Senate, the vice presidency and, after eight years in the political wilderness, the White House. Anderson's ethics, as he rises from "legman" apprenticing for Drew Pearson and eventually inheriting his nationally syndicated Merry-Go-Round column, would be unrecognizable today.
In 1958, while Nixon serves as vice president under Dwight Eisenhower, Anderson and a Democratic operative are caught bugging a businessman whose bribery of Eisenhower's chief of staff results in the staff member's resignation. Appearing before a grand jury, Anderson offers up, one of the prosecutors said, "the greatest morass of concealment, dissemblance and demonstrable perjury to which I have ever been exposed in a courtroom."
The lesson for Anderson, who walked, is to do whatever it takes and never back down. He is able to ferret out a $205,000 gift channeled to Nixon through his ne'er do well brother, Donald, from eccentric recluse Howard Hughes. At the same time, Anderson is taking thousands of dollars in cash, stock and gifts from column subjects and lobbyists.
Knee deep in the fetid mire, however, Anderson could summon sources to provide documents like those exposing the Nixon administration's secret role in a surprise and much condemned attack on India by Pakistan in 1971. It was the story that would win him the Pulitzer Prize and a curiously fleeting fame.
The lesson for Nixon is do unto others before they do unto you. One of the book's most valuable insights comes in the retelling of Anderson's bombshells exposing the Nixon administration's role in the murderous overthrow of the government of Chile on behalf of the International Telephone and Telegraph Corp. It was, with dirty money spent and illegal acts committed by the same cast, a dress rehearsal for Watergate.
As Anderson bears down on the story, Nixon suggests to his henchmen that the reporter should be murdered. The bumbling and haphazard planning – including discussions with a CIA scientist to slather an LSD-laced mixture on the steering wheel of Anderson's car – would be laughable if they weren't so chilling.
If there is one weakness in "Poisoning the Press," it is Feldstein's inability to adequately explain how or why Anderson, at the zenith in 1972, failed so miserably to get on top of Watergate. The book is also a little thin trying to keep the promise of the title to fix Nixon and Anderson in the rise of Washington scandal culture. Journalism ethics reform, the rise of investigative teams, their preoccupation with devalued scandals that are nonetheless given "gate" suffixes and their blunting by a new generation of politicians staying on message are handled in a nine-page epilogue.
Feldstein needn't have bothered. He already had a great story, a "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" love story of two powerful men who for gnarled and tangled reasons needed one another desperately.
Mark Lisheron (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an AJR senior contributing writer.###