Jack Anderson: An Appreciation

The muckraking outsider never gave a damn about entree

Jack’s journalism was not without serious fault. As Mark Feldstein wrote upon Jack’s retirement in July 2004: "To be sure his flaws could be glaring. He was bombastic and self-righteous, even when retracting false stories, such as his false report that a Democratic Vice Presidential nominee had been arrested for drunk driving. The muckraker's unsavory techniques included threats, rifling through garbage, and financial relationships with sources. His cliche-ridden evangelical style was an anachronism that sacrificed complex truths for simplistic but dramatic portrayals of good guys vs. bad."

The false allegation, concerning then Senator Thomas Eagleton, was hardly the only time he got a story wrong. I was working late one night, the only person left in the office, when the fugitive Robert Vesco called looking for Jack. I wasn’t sure whether it was a crank call or really Vesco. "If this is his real phone number, am I going to be in trouble for harboring a fugitive?" I asked with some real concern.

I soon wished I had never taken the phone message. Vesco passed along to Jack documents seemingly indicating that he had bribed then President Jimmy Carter’s chief of staff, Hamilton Jordan, to improperly intercede on the fugitive’s behalf. Hamilton was investigated by a federal grand jury, and offered his resignation to Carter, who declined to accept it, before the documents were shown to be forgeries. Two decades later, Jordan spoke to me of the pain he still felt from the incident.

But Jack’s body of work (although he would edit out my phrase "body of work" here as too pretentious)—his exposes of Joe McCarthy, his reporting on the Nixon White House, Henry Kissinger, the ITT scandal, and Watergate, and perhaps most importantly of all, the institutional abuses by, and lawlessness of, the FBI and CIA—were unparalleled by any other investigative reporter of his era. I think it can even be argued that he and Pearson might have been among the most influential journalists of their time.

Seymour Hersh, perhaps the only contemporary of Anderson’s who is today carrying on the same tradition of journalism, says: "Nowadays people think it is a hard time to do what we do. But it was a harder time during Watergate. You had to be hardcore to do this kind of work then, and Jack was as hardcore as you can get." Although Anderson was his "fierce competitor," Hersh says, he was at the "same time a generous colleague."

Those Jack wrote about often pushed back. J. Edgar Hoover, at a time when there were virtually no checks on his power, was fixated on evening scores with both Drew Pearson and Jack Anderson. Hoover once famously said Jack was "lower than the regurgitated filth of vultures."

Watergate burglar G. Gordon Liddy spoke of scheming to have Anderson murdered, after it was suggested that the Nixon presidency would be well served by the disappearance of the columnist from the Washington scene. Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed and Libby was told to stand down.

Sometimes things turned personal for Jack as well: The Washington Post's obit quoted him saying many years ago: "Contrary to popular theology, 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." Hoover and Nixon did themselves in, thankfully, long before they had a chance to do in Jack.

That Jack died peaceably in his own bed might attest that we live in a democracy and that sometimes the system works. But no government is absolutely free or democratic; it is dependent on a free and independent press, and on individual journalists like Drew Pearson and Jack Anderson. Unfortunately, it is all but impossible to practice their kind of journalism today, and democracy is thus at greater risk.

Take for example for the faulty pre-war intelligence that led up to the war in Iraq. The Washington bureau of the Knight Ridder newspapers, the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, and the New Yorker have all distinguished themselves with their reporting on this issue. However, no single news organization took on the issue in a sustained and serious way prior to the run up to war.

And worse, the pressures on journalists to do this type of work today are more from within than without. An investigative reporter today has less to fear from some modern-day Spiro Agnew or J. Edgar Hoover than from his or her own corporate bosses who do not view what we do as a public trust; an insular Washington press corps that does not tolerate anyone within its ranks deviating too far from the conventional wisdom; and the Bill O'Reillys and chattering cable class that are practicing something other than journalism, even as they hide behind its ever-diminishing good name.

Forget pressures from without, as Michael Massing wrote in a recent essay in the New York Review of Books, "Today's Reporters: The Enemy Within." It remains to be seen who will cause the public to lose their remaining confidence in the press: those in power who fear the few watchdog reporters still at work, or journalists who themselves who give the impression that ego-gratifying acceptance by the elites they cover is their driving force.

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