Jack Anderson: An Appreciation

The muckraking outsider never gave a damn about entree

Former columnist and muckraker Jack Anderson died on Saturday, quietly at his home. He was 83 years old, and suffering from Parkinson's.

From Joe McCarthy to Richard Nixon, he took them all on. Despite all his shortcomings, when it came to his journalism, he was fearless. In the current day, the public has pushed back against insider, access journalism—whether practiced by Bob Woodward, Judith Miller, or Robert Novak. Anderson always understood it was his role to be an outsider, not just in regard to the politicians he covered, but also vis-a-vis the established order of journalism, that established order having always been part of the problem.

By way of disclosure, I should say he was my first boss in journalism. He put me to work between my freshman and sophomore years in college. I was 18 at the time. The power of his column, "The Washington Merry-Go-Round," was so great that I could get a congressman or deputy secretary of defense on the phone in 10 minutes; the person was always anxious to hear that someone from Jack's office was calling. The phone was always better than visiting in person: When I went out for interviews, the subjects took one look at me and just laughed out loud. I was one of those 18-year-old kids who looked 15. The cherub, however, always got the last laugh, and in more than 1,000 newspapers.

He always liked the kids like me who worked for him. The New York Times notes in its obit that Jack began his own career at a very young age: "At 12, Jack began editing the Boy Scout Page of the Deseret News, a [Mormon] church-owned newspaper. He soon progressed to a $7-a-week job with a local paper, the Murray Eagle, where he bicycled to cover fires and traffic accidents."

During World War II, he served as a foreign correspondent. In 1947, he was hired on as a "leg-man" for newspaper columnist Drew Pearson. He took over Pearson’s column in 1969.

His column reportedly had more than 40 million readers at its peak. Still, Jack never took himself too seriously, nor did those who worked for him. Early on, his famous secretary/gatekeeper Opal Ginn suggested I go out and buy a beer for my new boss. A nondrinking, devout Mormon, he simply said thanks, and never mentioned it again. But the beer did not go wasted. Jack almost encouraged drinking in the office, an indirect way of sending the message to his staff that he wasn’t going to push his faith on others—employees or readers.

He always enjoyed a good prank. In his memoirs, Peace, War, and Politics: An Eyewitness Account, published in 1999, Anderson wrote about how I once called up a notoriously pro-Richard Nixon columnist, Victor Lasky, and impersonated Nixon. Lasky never for a moment doubted that he was talking to the ex-president. What Jack left out of the story was that he put me up to the call in the first place, and that he was listening in on the extension the whole time.

Jack paid me $75 a story to start, and he later raised my pay to $125 a column, until I started to write more than one a week. At that point, he decided I deserved something more "permanent" and a "raise": a regular salary of $125 a week.

Mark Feldstein, a friend who is currently a journalism professor and is writing a biography of Jack for Farrar Straus and Giroux, earlier said of him: "He was a bridge for the muckrakers of a century ago and the crop that came out of Watergate."

Still in braces, Feldstein somehow landed an internship with Jack when he was 16 and still in high school. Feldstein had on the tie he had worn on his bar mitzvah day as he accompanied Gary Cohn, then another young Anderson reporter, to interview a congressman. The congressman called security on them, believing them to be impostors.

I think Jack believed it was in the highest tradition of constitutional democracy, in both a mischievous way and high-minded League-of-Women's-Voters kind of way, to have kids not old enough to legally drink demanding answers from senators and Cabinet secretaries. He had nine kids at home and innumerable of us wayward ones at the office.

Some of those wayward kids who worked for Jack alongside me were Tony Cappacio, who has distinguished himself over the years with his reporting on the Pentagon and now works for Bloomberg; Cohn, who went on to win a Pulitzer Prize and is currently an investigative reporter for the Los Angeles Times; Howard Rosenberg, a reporter and producer for ABC News; Tom Rosentiel, a former national correspondent for the Los Angeles Times and now executive director for the Project for Excellence in Journalism; and Howard Kurtz, the Washington Post media writer.

Another young reporter working for Jack around that time was Jim Grady, the novelist and screenwriter, who had written his novel Six Days of the Condor, while living in a converted garage in Missoula, Montana. The book was made into a movie starring Robert Redford, but despite the success, Grady found the idea for working for Anderson so enticing that he initially did it for free, and stayed on for four years.

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