Getting the Scoop

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January/February, 2000


Getting the Scoop

Memories from Journalism's Golden Age

By Mark Feldstein


Peace, War, and Politics

By Jack Anderson
Forge

Click on the title to buy the book

Years before Woodward and Bernstein, there was Pearson and Anderson. When the legendary Watergate reporting team was still practically in diapers, columnists Drew Pearson and Jack Anderson were striking terror throughout official Washington, virtually inventing modern investigative reporting in the nation's capital, beginning when Harry Truman was in the White House.

Pearson is now long dead, Anderson ailing from Parkinson's disease. But the surviving granddaddy of muckraking takes one last ride around the Washington merry-go-round in an engaging, often hilarious look back on a lifetime devoted to poking the eye of the powerful and the pompous. Anderson's memoir is also a light and entertaining survey of scandal in post-World War II Washington, and a history of two Beltway reporters who weren't afraid to get their hands sullied as long as they felt it was on behalf of the public. Indeed, they spirited off classified documents, eavesdropped on private conversations, and crusaded openly and joyously without regard for more conventional notions of journalistic objectivity.

In recent years, Anderson has faded into obscurity. His sources have dried up, retired, or died, while a younger generation of reporters has largely pushed him aside. To Washington's power elite, Anderson was always an object of derision, an uncouth gossip-monger and self-promoter whose hyped-up prose and shoot-from-the-hip style were considered ungentlemanly in the snobbish drawing rooms of the nation's capital.

Yet whatever his faults, Jack Anderson was a critically important check on governmental power during a time when few other reporters even tried to hold officials accountable. Indeed, Anderson's old-fashioned muckraking exploits provide a telling contrast to the current corporate climate in today's ever-consolidating media world. Anderson was one of the last of a dying breed of independent journalists who answered only to his own personal sense of right and wrong, not to any publisher maneuvering for marketing position.

Anderson's righteous sense of morality was honed early, in the tight-knit Mormon community where he grew up outside Salt Lake City during the Depression. Anderson was molded by the Mormon philosophy that life is a struggle between good and evil, but he was also rebellious, chafing at his dour father and longing instead for adventure beyond his strict world.

He soon found his escape as a reporter, first infiltrating polygamous sects at home, then traveling to China, where he became a war correspondent. Anderson cultivated Chou En-lai as a source, then (briefly) spied on China's Communist Party for U.S. intelligence. He soon ended up battling American military censors, and headed back home to seek further adventure as a "leg man" for Washington's only investigative reporter at the time, Drew Pearson.

It was 1946, and Pearson was at the height of his power. The young Anderson got a crash course in crusading journalism: "Drew was forever meddling in affairs of state, needling congressmen to do his bidding, even writing speeches for them to deliver on the floor. He believed that to get the job done he must intrude during all phases of the battle. Not only would he expose the abuse, he would hound the tribunal until it investigated, instruct witnesses on their testimony, propagandize the galleries, help draft the remedial legislation, and write a popular history of the affair."

Anderson followed the clarion call of his mentor. He got himself invited along while investigators bugged the hotel room of a businessman suspected of bribing Dwight Eisenhower's White House chief of staff. He testified before congressional committees, lobbied senators on their votes and used his column as leverage.

It was all for a good cause. Pearson was one of the few editorial voices in the nation who supported the progressive policies of the New Deal---most newspapers at the time were owned by conservative Republicans. Pearson and Anderson took upon themselves the mantle of battling for the common man. "Weasel wording and outright lies are the norm in Washington," Anderson writes. "I confess there are moments of pure joy when some public servant forgets who the true bosses are and I am around to remind him."

Anderson grew close to Joseph McCarthy, and at one time the two even double-dated. McCarthy was such a trusted source that he would even let Anderson listen in on the senator's private phone calls with Senate Majority Leader Robert Taft. Anderson in turn shared his own files to help McCarthy try to back up his reckless and unsubstantiated charge of communist infiltration of the State Department. Nevertheless, when Pearson decided to go after McCarthy, Anderson followed suit---at first reluctantly, then enthusiastically digging up dirt on his one-time friend, an act of courage few in the media would emulate until years later.

McCarthy did not appreciate this betrayal. "You wait for the next elevator, Jack," he told Anderson one day. "I don't want you stinking up this one." But Anderson took the rejection in stride. "Contrary to popular theology," he writes, "there is nothing that produces as much exhilaration and zest for living as an ugly, protracted, bitter-end vendetta that rages for years and comes close to ruining both sides." In the end, it was Pearson and Anderson left standing---although McCarthy's efforts to brand them as Communist lackeys led to the loss of their radio sponsor, and to a public fistfight between McCarthy and Pearson (with Vice President Nixon breaking it up). "I miss the old slam-bang attacks," Anderson reflects. "In those days, a critic might step up to Drew Pearson or myself and deliver a punch in the nose. Today, they spin and they sue."

It was indeed a simpler time in mid-century America, and a simpler world-view prevailed. There were good guys and bad guys, and Pearson and Anderson saw their job as helping the one and exposing the other. Their column was the most influential in the nation, carried by hundreds of newspapers. While a disapproving Washington Post relegated them to the comics pages, their scoops could not be ignored---from the cash payments billionaire Howard Hughes secretly funneled to both the Nixon and Humphrey campaigns to the CIA's clandestine hiring of Mafiosi to try to kill Fidel Castro (and the execution of Anderson's Mafia source as a result).

In the mid-1960s, Anderson's exposé of the corrupt Senator Thomas Dodd should have earned him a Pulitzer. So should his unearthing of a smoking-gun memo by an ITT vice-president admitting that the company paid off the Nixon campaign to kill anti-trust prosecution. But jealous competitors refused to recognize his work and even blackballed Anderson from the prestigious insider's Gridiron Club.

Anderson's adversaries in government were even more aggressive. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover resorted to animal metaphors to describe the columnist---"a rat of the worst type," "a flea-ridden dog" and "lower than the regurgitated filth of vulturesŠ he'll go lower than dog shit for a story." The last, at least, was true; Anderson's staff rifled through Hoover's trash (including his dog's feces), largely because Anderson thought Hoover had gotten too powerful and needed to be put in his place. (Congress and the White House were afraid to take on Hoover because of his dossiers crammed with dirt on these politicians.)

But it was the Nixon White House that really went after Anderson, after the paranoid president went on repeated tirades about all the damaging leaks the columnist was receiving. Nixon already blamed Anderson for narrowly losing the 1960 election to John Kennedy because of the columnist's election-eve story about a secret Howard Hughes "loan" to Nixon's brother. As president, Nixon watched, horrified, as Anderson obtained all kinds of embarrassing---and classified---secrets about Vietnam. Then Anderson published verbatim transcripts of the secret Watergate grand jury, thwarting Nixon's efforts to stonewall the scandal by hiding behind grand jury secrecy. To top it off, Anderson outed Vice President Spiro Agnew's son as being gay.

The Nixon White House decided to strike back. White House aide Jeb Magruder told colleague G. Gordon Liddy that Nixon "would sure like to get rid of that guy." Along with fellow White House "plumber" E. Howard Hunt, Liddy met with a CIA operative to discuss options---drugging Anderson with LSD, poisoning his aspirin bottle, staging a fatal mugging. Nixon's men then turned to more subtle measures, unsuccessfully trying to discredit Anderson by planting false evidence that he was gay or trying to get him drunk before his radio show. But none of these tactics worked; the straight-arrow Anderson was a father of nine and a teetotaler, not easy to discredit.

But the Nixon Administration still didn't give up. In "Operation Mudhen"---an apparent synonym for "muckraker"---a team of CIA agents began following Anderson when he met with sources. Undaunted, Anderson set his teenage children on the operatives, who fled before a laughing Anderson brood gleefully taking photos of the government spies.

Still, Nixon's henchmen were undeterred. They arrested Anderson's partner, Les Whitten, for receiving stolen government documents while he covered an unrelated story, and then used that arrest as a pretext for subpoening Anderson and Whitten's telephone records---allowing them to trace the reporters' sources.

Anderson decided it was time to draw a line in the sand. Publicly, he issued "Free Les Whitten" buttons to milk the story for maximum publicity. Privately, he retaliated against the acting FBI Director, L. Patrick Gray, who was responsible. In a meeting with the Senate Majority Whip Robert Byrd, Anderson "did something I am not proud of. In fact, had my own staffers done it, I would have fired them. ŒBobby, I've got more newspapers in West Virginia than Pat Gray has,' I said. My message was clear: If I ever found any dirt on him, I had an audience in his home state that would love to read about it. There was a pause and then he said, ŒAll right. What do you want me to do?'" Gray was defeated. For Anderson, this wasn't a matter of revenge, but of self-preservation: "Drew Pearson had taught me that if anyone ever trampled on the Constitutional rights of the column, I should hit back swiftly and with such force that the next person would be forewarned not to tangle with me. ŒIf you don't,' Drew said, Œthey'll descend on you like a flock of buzzards and pick you apart.'"

To his credit, Anderson fesses up to at least some of his mistakes. He apologizes to Spiro Agnew's son for delving into his private life, and for his erroneous claim (and tardy retraction) that Sen. Thomas Eagleton had been caught drunk driving. And he admits he made a mistake getting too close to President Reagan and spiking his own scoop about the president's disastrous arms-for-hostages swap.

In truth, while Anderson continued to rack up scoops in his later years, after Watergate he lost his monopoly on Washington muckraking. Suddenly, investigative reporting became fashionable, and Anderson had stiff new competition---from Seymour Hersh, from Bob Woodward, and from a legion of other aspiring reporters. The Pearson-Anderson monopoly was broken.

Anderson's memoirs cover ground familiar to those of us old enough to remember the drama of his era. Despite its flaws---sloppy editing and proofreading, a self-involved blustery style, and superficial historical summaries---it ought to be required reading in every journalism school. After all, for more than a generation, Pearson and Anderson were the only real journalistic check in the nation's capital. Without them, many of Washington's secrets would never have come to light.

Jack Anderson was one of a kind---courageous, even heroic, when most of the press was either ducking for cover or sucking up for invitations to elite Georgetown dinner parties. Part carnival huckster, part freedom fighter, part impish rascal, he stood alone for many years when it was decidedly unfashionable to do so. And after being vilified by the leading lights of the establishment, in the end he was almost always right. For that, the nation---and his envious journalistic colleagues---owe him a debt of gratitude.

Mark Feldstein--a producer at "Dateline NBC" in Washington-- was an intern for Jack Anderson in the 1970s.

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