New Book Shows How Star Columnist Jack Anderson Cut Corners to Help LBJ, Ruin Nixon
On Tuesday, Washington Post media reporter Howard Kurtz publicized a forthcoming book by former TV producer/reporter Mark Feldstein on syndicated columnist Jack Anderson, a big star in the media firmament in the 1960s and 1970s. (He was an early featured player in ABC's Good Morning America.) Kurtz relayed how Feldstein found Anderson engaged in blackmail and bribery to get scoops, often designed to provide maximum embarrassment to Republicans.
People whose version of media history only includes the Woodwards and Bernsteins taking down Richard Nixon (for nothing more than their sheer love of country) might want to see just how Anderson worked hand in glove with Democrats, and cut a series of ethical corners:
Anderson's questionable tactics were visible as early as 1958, when he and a Democratic congressional investigator were caught with bugging equipment in the old Sheraton-Carlton Hotel, surreptitiously recording the businessman who bribed Sherman Adams, later forced to resign as President Dwight Eisenhower's chief of staff. This was a big break for Anderson, who was then the chief legman for columnist Drew Pearson.
During the 1960 campaign, Anderson worked with an operative for John F. Kennedy's campaign to uncover a secret $205,000 loan -- actually a gift that was never repaid -- from reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes to Vice President Nixon's brother, Donald. Pearson was reluctant to run the story on the eve of the election, so Anderson set a trap by letting a top Nixon aide know he was investigating the matter. That prompted the GOP campaign to leak a sanitized version to a conservative Scripps-Howard reporter, creating the opening for the columnists to "correct the record" with the seamy details.
Anderson and Pearson quickly took a partisan side, drafting a statement for their friend Lyndon Johnson, Kennedy's running mate, to demand Senate hearings on Nixon's finances. They even sent a telegram to Democratic congressman Jack Brooks -- headlined SUGGEST PRESS STATEMENT SOMEWHAT ALONG THESE LINES -- which Brooks faithfully followed.
Anderson sometimes hit Democrats, too. Weeks after Martin Luther King's assassination, he reported that Robert Kennedy had authorized FBI spying on the civil rights leader -- and later acknowledged that the leak had been timed by RFK's rival, President Johnson, who had given the story to Pearson. The bureau confirmed it to Anderson even though J. Edgar Hoover had called him "a flea-ridden dog" who was "lower than the regurgitated filth of vultures."
Legendary TV journalist Brit Hume was a cub reporter for Anderson's column, and upset Team Nixon by finding the corporation ITT had promised to put up $400,000 for the 1972 Republican National Convention in exchange for a favorable Justice Department antitrust ruling. The White House, in one of several discussed gay-smear plots, considered spreading the rumor that Hume was homosexual:
During another controversy, White House aides muttered about a young Anderson staffer. "Do we have anything on Hume?.... It'd be great if we could get him on a homosexual thing," Haldeman said.
"Is he married?" Nixon asked.
They should check because "he sure looks it," said top aide Chuck Colson.
The president then speculated that Pearson and Anderson were gay, too, which was inaccurate. They all shared a fierce anti-gay prejudice in an era when the discovery of homosexuality was a career-ender.
Hume now laughs off such talk, saying, "I thought that stuff was hilarious."
Worse than that, Feldstein reports that Nixon aides G. Gordon Liddy and E. Howard Hunt pondered ways to get Anderson killed, like slipping poison into his medicine bottles or putting LSD on his steering wheel. Kurtz added:
But just when one sympathizes with Anderson as the target of thugs and loons, the book serves up reminders that he could also play dirty -- even when that meant consorting with his nominal enemies. When George Wallace was gearing up for his 1972 campaign challenge to Nixon, Anderson asked for -- and received -- Internal Revenue Service files on the Alabama governor. White House aide Murray Chotiner provided the confidential tax records, which is a felony. The story damaged Wallace, and Feldstein concludes Anderson was being "disingenuous at best" by praising Nixon in his column for refusing to kill the investigation.
As a younger reporter, Anderson admitted in an unpublished manuscript obtained by Feldstein, "I would have regarded such dealings as evidence of a deplorable cynicism."
Like the old maxim says, power corrupts -- and that includes Washington reporters.