Spy vs. Spy: Richard Nixon and Jack Anderson
Richard Nixon never saw himself as anything other than a hero, even in his least heroic moments, and in his self-styled role as hero, he had many villains, more villains than any superhero ever had: some of them easily defeated (George McGovern); some of them defeated only with great, and inexplicable, difficulty (Hubert Humphrey); others self-defeating (Ted Kennedy, George Romney); others kept close as ostensible friends, to better avoid one’s own defeat (J. Edgar Hoover, Dwight Eisenhower); and some defeated by others, and in the most total way possible (Jack and Bobby Kennedy).
Jack Anderson was, in a way, the nastiest kind of villain, because he was a journalist and therefore could not really be defeated–except, of course, in the way the first two Kennedys were. There’s conclusive evidence that that’s precisely what Nixon’s men, if not Nixon himself, set out to do. G. Gordon Liddy and E. Howard Hunt were plotting Anderson’s execution when the Watergate break-in, or its failure, forced them to divert their attention to matters of more immediate survival. And, like the Watergate burglary itself, there’s no undeniable proof the command actually came from Nixon per se, yet no one seems to doubt it, either.
Anderson was there at the beginning of Nixon’s career and he was there at the end, and he was there at many of the places in between. He was there at so many places, you could tell Nixon’s whole story and make it Anderson’s story, too–and that’s precisely what Mark Feldstein has done, with Poisoning the Press: Richard Nixon, Jack Anderson, and the Rise of Washington’s Scandal Culture.
Feldstein has gone all the way back to when the two were born, thirty miles and less than a decade apart in California, one raised a Quaker and the other a Mormon, both serving at sea in the Pacific in World War II. They came to Washington the very same year, 1947, and their paths got crossed up almost immediately. Before Anderson gave Nixon such terrible fits as author of the “Washington Merry-Go-Round” column, he gave him terrible fits as one of the column’s researchers, in the days when Drew Pearson wrote the column. It was in the capacity of Pearson’s chief assistant that Anderson actually helped give Nixon his start in politics, in a way both oblique and undeniable. By exposing not only the sexual improprieties, but the much more serious financial improprieties, of J. Parnell Thomas–Nixon’s “chief competitor on,” and the chairman of, the House Un-American Activities Committee–Anderson paved a path for Nixon to run in taking control of the prosecution of Alger Hiss. It was the Hiss case that made Nixon’s name national, and that made Nixon himself an attractive choice as Eisenhower’s vice-presidential running mate. Feldstein is not unreasonable in suggesting that, “without this unintentional assistance from his future enemy Jack Anderson, Richard Nixon might never have come to national attention in the first place.”
No matter where Nixon went from there until the end, Anderson was right there with him. Every good hero needs a worthy villain, and Nixon, though never at a loss for villains, was never at a loss for Anderson particularly, either. Anderson was there during the fund crisis in 1952, when Nixon just barely salvaged his place on Ike’s ticket with the Checkers speech (Anderson had played a role in uncovering the existence of Nixon‘s campaign fund, though not quite as large a role as Feldstein would have us believe); he was there during the 1960 presidential run against Kennedy, digging up not just the existence and exact amount of a large loan Howard Hughes had made to Nixon’s brother, but also the nature of that loan–namely, that it was almost certainly made as a de facto gift to Nixon himself (Anderson had a ne’er-do-well brother, too, who would give him at least as much grief as Nixon’s brother gave him, another neat parallel for which Feldstein has mustered plenty of fascinating material); and, when Nixon became president, Anderson was there like he had never been before.
By then the “Washington Merry-Go-Round” was his–Pearson was gone and Jack Anderson’s was the name in the by-line. He published secret documents pertaining to the India-Pakistan War (kind of a proto-Pentagon Papers affair) and leaked the memo that ITT employee Dita Beard had dispersed within the company, and which implicated the Nixon administration in anti-trust corruption. During all this, Nixon was spying on Anderson at least as fervently as Anderson was spying on Nixon, and with superior resources. Anderson did not break much news on Watergate, and when you read Feldstein on how many leads and tips Anderson sat on, it’s easy to see how it is he got scooped, along with everyone else in town, by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post. That being said, he was still cited twice, for misdeeds he’d uncovered, in the House Judiciary Committee’s impeachment report.
That’s one way to measure Anderson’s influence in bringing about Nixon’s ultimate impeachment. But Nixon’s end in a way brought about Anderson’s own, too, because as Brit Hume, who worked as an assistant for Anderson, tells Feldstein, “He had been one of a handful of investigative reporters in America and then Watergate made it all the rage. Every newspaper and television network began an investigative team. It took away Jack’s competitive advantage. He no longer had the field to himself.”
Although Nixon was gone from Washington after Watergate, Anderson was still around, and making a damned-fool parody of himself. Nixon may have still had his enemies, but Anderson was at a loss, and he went looking for them in some of the strangest places, even trying, in one case, to conjure them out of the nowhere of Jimmy Carter, claiming that “no two presidents were more alike” than Carter and Nixon, when of course the exact opposite was true. It wasn’t just his enemies he was finding in strange places. He asked President Reagan to start a “Young Astronauts” program, and then had two of his children on the program’s payroll even as he lobbied for donations from, among others, “old corporate benefactors [of Nixon’s] whom Anderson had investigated just a few years earlier. The obvious conflict of interest,” Feldstein notes wryly, “seemed to escape the newsman.”
But still Anderson never gave up. In his way, he was just as tenacious as Nixon (who in these years was still trying, in some ways successfully, to rehabilitate his credibility). He wrote for a supermarket tabloid, and did work for a television equivalent of the same, and even did this one show called Truth, wherein he interrogated guests hooked up to a polygraph on-air. He also did a much more courageous version of the sneaking-a-boxcutter-onto-an-airplane exposé by sneaking a handgun into the Capitol building. And he tried to get a greenlight for a movie and sitcom based on his life–a venture that was precisely as successful as his attempt to pitch Parker Brothers on a “Jack Anderson Board Game.”
Of all the chapters in Feldstein’s book, I found this chapter on Anderson’s “Final Years” the most fascinating, because it bothers to treat a phase in the Anderson legend we don’t often hear about. Like Nixon, Anderson had a lifelong devoted secretary, something of a surrogate wife, but unlike Rose Mary Woods, Opal Ginn did not see the marriage entirely through. She was fired after nearly forty years, and with little notice. “I wasn’t even given time to apply for Social Security,” she said. She had been always drunk and drinking, vulgar, irresponsible, unreliable. For that reason, the comparison to Woods lasts only as far as it goes, precisely there and no further, much like the comparison between their bosses.
It would have been a perfect ending, perfect in a way that history seldom is, if Anderson had been the one whose reporting had brought about Nixon’s resignation. But it was of course somebody else’s reporting, along with the testimony of Jim McCord and John Dean, and the work of Senate investigators. Even the story on the planned assassination of Jack Anderson was not broken by Jack Anderson. That one first got reported by Bob Woodward, in the Washington Post.
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