Jack Anderson: An Appreciation

The muckraking outsider never gave a damn about entree

The "social calendar" is now among the foremost pervasive journalistic drives, Massing writes: "The most popular [event] is the White House Correspondents' Dinner. This year, hundreds of the nation's top journalists showed up at the Washington Hilton to mix with White House officials, military brass, Cabinet chiefs, diplomats, and actors. Laura Bush's naughty Desperate Housewives routine, in which she teased her husband for his early-to-bed habits and his attempt to milk a male horse, was shown over and over on the TV news; what wasn't shown was the journalists jumping to feet and applauding wildly.

"Afterward, many of the journalists and their guests went to the hot post-dinner party, hosted by Bloomberg News. On his blog, The Nation's David Corn described arriving with Newsweek's Mike Isikoff. Seeing the long line, Corn feared he wouldn't get in, but suddenly"—thank God!—he was "whisked" into the "entourage" of a media celebrity who had entree.

It was left to current-day muckraker Jon Stewart to speculate what the media celebrities and the political elite might be saying to each other: "Deep down, we’re both entrenched oligarchies with a stake in maintaining the status quo—enjoy your scrod."

The key word here, I believe, is "entree"—whether it is Judith Miller's entree to Scooter Libby, Michael Wolff getting the right table at Michael's or being mentioned on Page Six, David Corn's entree to the right after-party, or the beat repeater's entree to the two o'clock briefing. Entree at the cost of honest journalism. Entree as an end in itself.

Jack never gave a damn about entree. That alone cannot make you a truly great investigative journalist. But it is the first step toward even having a shot at becoming one.

The irony was that without seeking it, indeed disdaining it, Jack always had entrée anyway. But unlike the Judith Millers and Bob Woodwards he never had to give anything up in return. He gained access through secretaries, assistants, and anonymous staffers. He gained entree, and entry—and taught us how to gain them—through obtaining the confidential papers of those who would not talk to us. He gained entree through seduction and intimidation. One of the most outside journalists got us the most inside.

He may have gained entry through the back door instead of the front door, but he gained entree for us.

People simply feared to deny him in any case. Everyone called him back. Everybody called you back simply because you worked for him. One time, when I was reporting and writing a series of columns about American corporations doing business with the genocidal regime of then Ugandan dictator Idi Amin, someone associated with a group of anti-Amin exiles brought me an interesting cache of documents from inside Amin’s regime, including minutes of the dictator’s cabinet meetings.

Howard Rosenberg, now an intrepid producer at CBS News, was at the time frustrating then President Jimmy Carter by somehow obtaining the confidential minutes of Carter’s cabinet meetings. It was hard to have a better story. Still, I remember teasing Rosenberg: "You have Jimmy Carter’s, I have Idi Amin’s!" But I thought there might not be a way to authenticate the Ugandan papers.

"I’ll get Frank Church on the phone," Jack told me. Frank Church, the senator, chair of the Intelligence Committee, and former presidential candidate, was that rare politician Jack really liked: a muckraker posing as a statesman, and one with subpoena power at that. Not long after, Anderson called me into his office to say he had just spoken to Church, and Church would send our documents over to the CIA to authenticate them.

And then a guy from the CIA called. The papers were real, the CIA guy told me. We went with the story.

The CIA called Jack back because they were afraid of him. And the lesson for the Judith Millers and Bob Woodwards is that you don’t have to compromise at the expense of truth for entree.

In the end he gave us entree into how government really works, into what was going on in our names but without our consent and knowledge.

The series of columns we produced regarding the role of U.S. companies doing business with Idi Amin were instrumental in leading to the imposition of U.S. economic sanctions against the Amin regime, according to the congressman who originally sponsored legislation seeking the sanctions, and other key congressional staffers who worked on the issue. Some historians in turn say the sanctions may have played an instrumental role in Amin’s subsequent overthrow.

Like all of us, Jack coveted acceptance by his peers, but even his one Pulitzer Prize in 1972 for reporting about the Nixon's administration's secret diplomacy with India and Pakistan was a reluctant nod by the journalistic establishment that finally realized it looked foolish ignoring him. A Pulitzer jury had actually recommended an award several years earlier, but the prize’s board pulled it back, afraid it would provide Anderson a platform to criticize the media.

What was always striking to me was the virtual contempt that many in the establishment press had for him. As he aged and the Parkinson’s set in, he attempted to continue the column, perhaps too long. When one of Jack’s columns went unnoticed, Slate blogger Mickey Kaus disdainfully wrote that the silence demonstrated "how unseriously Jack Anderson is taken these days." Kaus’s quote was resuscitated in Jack’s New York Times obit. Since Jack is no longer here to defend himself, I would simply respond by saying that it is better to have been taken seriously for four decades than never at all.

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