< Poisoning the Press


Friday, October 01, 2010

BOB GARFIELD: Last month a group of historians petitioned a federal court in Washington, D.C. to release Richard M. Nixon’s 1975 grand jury testimony in the Watergate affair. Whether or not they succeed remains to be seen. But one thing is for sure. If Jack Anderson were alive and in his prime he would, by hook or by crook, find a way to get his hands on those documents. Anderson was an investigative reporter whose syndicated newspaper column Washington Merry-Go-Round outed countless political scandals, beginning in the 1950s. Anderson is the subject of a new book by George Washington University Public Affairs Professor Mark Feldstein, Poisoning the Press: Richard Nixon, Jack Anderson and the Rise of Washington’s Scandal Culture. Mark, welcome to OTM.

MARK FELDSTEIN: I'm delighted to be here, Bob. Thanks.

BOB GARFIELD: Would you just list some of the big scoops that Jack Anderson came up with in his many decades of writing this column?

MARK FELDSTEIN: You bet, I mean, everything from American troops getting involved in the Korean War – he was the first reporter to break that – to virtually all of Richard Nixon’s first scandals, the slush fund that led to Nixon’s mawkish Checkers Speech in 1952, financial dealings with Howard Hughes.

BOB GARFIELD: He caught Nixon using the IRS to achieve political aims. He caught Nixon’s CIA and a major U.S. conglomerate called ITT conspiring to overthrow Salvador Allende in Chile. The list goes on and on, eh?

MARK FELDSTEIN: Oh, it does. And it wasn't limited just to Richard Nixon. Senator Thomas Dodd, the father of Christopher Dodd, Anderson for a year got employees to filch documents from his office and he exposed the senator’s corruption, more than a hundred articles. It led to his censure, and he was a broken man. He broke the story about how the CIA and the Mafia - who were in cahoots to try to kill Fidel Castro, at the behest of the Kennedy administration. He broke the biggest stories of his time, stories that otherwise never would have come out.

BOB GARFIELD: Now the central conceit of your book is that Richard Nixon and Jack Anderson led kind of parallel lives. They came to Washington at about the same time. They came from very similar backgrounds. They both kind of had chips on their shoulders. They'd never really fit into the Washington mainstream. And both were just ethically bankrupt. Tell me about Jack Anderson’s, you know, ethical shortcomings.

MARK FELDSTEIN: Well, shortcoming, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder, but there’s no question he used tactics that I don't teach to my students in journalism school. He was not above using bribery, blackmail, participating in buggings. He believed that the First Amendment was divinely inspired – he was a devout Mormon – and that he answered to a higher calling than merely the law, that he answered to God and that God was on his side. Nixon and Anderson both used the very same techniques that they decried in the other, and both seemed oblivious to the sort of moral contradiction that that raised, let alone the slippery slope that Anderson, as the righteous muckraker had, of lying to expose the truth, of stealing to expose corruption.

BOB GARFIELD: Tell me about the India-Pakistan War.

MARK FELDSTEIN: Well, Pakistan then, as now, was this very troubled, unstable, undemocratic country and got into a war in 1971 with India. Nixon publicly professed neutrality, but privately - Jack Anderson learned - was secretly arming Pakistan and tilting U.S. policy toward this dictatorship. Nixon was lying to Congress, even lying to his own Cabinet about this. How did Anderson know? He got a hold of real time top-secret documents just a few weeks old, minutes that were taken of Henry Kissinger, Nixon’s National Security Advisor, of his meetings with the President. And he published them day after day after day in his syndicated column. It drove Nixon and his White House crazy. And the tapes, which I've listened to in great detail, show Nixon’s men trying to figure out ways to prosecute Anderson, and having to back off when they learned that Anderson had even more dirt on Nixon that he was threatening to expose and effectively blackmail the White House into not prosecuting him for espionage, which is what they wanted to do.

BOB GARFIELD: Nixon had often talked about neutralizing Jack Anderson, but suddenly the talk got extremely serious. Tell me about it.

MARK FELDSTEIN: They sicced the CIA illegally on Jack Anderson. Sixteen undercover agents spied on Anderson, his family, his staff. The Nixon White House concocted fake photos to implicate Anderson in wrongdoing. They sent him forged documents to try to get him to publish false stories. They even, at Nixon’s personal direction, according to the tapes, tried to smear Jack Anderson as a homosexual. None of it stopped him. Finally, they turned to the ultimate form of censorship, and they plotted to assassinate him.

BOB GARFIELD: Now, that plot happily never came to fruition but how close did they get?

MARK FELDSTEIN: A lot closer than anybody knew at the time. It got beyond just talk. E. Howard Hunt, one of the coconspirators, did an interview with me before he died – I tape recorded it – and he admitted for the first time that he and Gordon Liddy actually surveilled Anderson from his office as he drove home, looking for places along the route where they could cause an accident, and that they then staked out Anderson’s house in suburban Washington, looking for places where they could break in and put poison into his medicine.

BOB GARFIELD: Yeah, these guys were not faint of heart, either. I mean, E. Howard Hunt and Gordon Liddy were infamously two of the burglars who broke into the Watergate, the beginning of the end for Nixon.

MARK FELDSTEIN: In fact, it was just six weeks after the plot to assassinate Anderson was shelved by Hunt and Liddy and the White House that they instead broke into the Watergate Hotel. That mission was considered more important, more pressing. And you have to wonder – I mean, it’s easy to laugh about this murder plot now, it seems so absurd – but had they been able to pull off that bugging and Nixon would have been reelected in the landslide and no Watergate scandal to weaken him, could they have carried out this assassination plot? Would anybody even have known if Anderson mysteriously died? Would it just have seemed to be an accident?

BOB GARFIELD: All right, deal with the conundrum. He was a liar, he was a bully, he was a blackmailer, he was a thief and at least aided and abetted in a couple of federal felonies.

MARK FELDSTEIN: Hey, nobody’s perfect, Bob.

BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] So is it better that we had Jack Anderson, scoundrel for truth? Or would it have been better if no such beast had existed at all?

MARK FELDSTEIN: I think it’s better that he lived. You know, he was sort of the WikiLeaks of his day. He would not just get these classified documents and publish them in his column, he would hand them out gleefully at press conferences to other news reporters. I think he was a crucial check on wrongdoing at a time when the rest of the Washington press corps was docile and supine in the conformist days of the mid-20th century, because there was really nobody from the old muckrakers of a century ago between them and the sort of post-Watergate crowd of investigative reporting. And had he not been there, we would be poorer as a nation.

BOB GARFIELD: But it’s hard for me to listen to that and not take that ends-justifying-the-means prescription for contemporary journalists.

MARK FELDSTEIN: There is an inherent moral contradiction in lying to expose truth. Do I personally have the stomach to do it? No, and most reporters don't. But if we had had a Jack Anderson when the Iraq war was being planned by George Bush, maybe we would have found out earlier, from secret documents only he could have gotten that the weapons of mass destruction that justified the war was a lie. Maybe we would have saved some of the thousands of casualties that occurred as a result. Is that worth stealing those documents? Is that worth telling some lies? Maybe it is.

BOB GARFIELD: Well Mark, thank you very much.

MARK FELDSTEIN: My pleasure, Bob.

BOB GARFIELD: Mark Feldstein is author of Poisoning the Press: Richard Nixon, Jack Anderson and the Rise of Washington’s Scandal Culture.