Jack Anderson: An Appreciation


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.

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.

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.

When Leonard Downie, the editor of the Washington Post, decided to kill the column after it had run in the paper for several decades, he disrespectfully commented: “I think it has run its course.” A colleague of Jack’s, whom the Post informed because Anderson was overseas at the time, had to scurry to find Anderson so that he would not find out the news by reading it in the newspaper. It is sad to say, but to take on the powers to be before the pack has joined in means you will always also be disdained by some of your peers.

One last personal note: Don’t ever put off visiting those people who have been part of your life when they are seriously ill. You will very much regret it. Though I knew that Jack was so sick, I kept putting off plans to go over to his home to visit with him because of deadlines at work and family obligations.

I did have a nice chat with him over the phone not too long ago; although he was bed-ridden, he sounded like he was enduring the ravages of Parkinson’s with considerable grace and humor. We talked for a long, long while, and the conversation was, and will remain, mostly private.

But one thing sticks out, and he would not mind me sharing. After I stopped working for him, he was somewhat disappointed, but always left the door open to come back. I had a college degree to try to earn, and, later, jobs that paid real money. Virtually every time we spoke, he would say, “So, I haven’t seen you in the office in the while.” He said it a year after I had left. And then he said it a decade after I had left. Halfway through our very last conversation, he said once again: “So, I haven’t seen you around the office for a while.”

Then Jack grew tired, and he told me quite ceremoniously that he was going to have his feeding tube replaced. “A great moment in history! Columnist to have feeding tube replaced,” he said. But he was indeed there for so many great moments in history, even sometimes shaping history itself.

And then someone—a family member, a nurse, I’m not sure—entered the room. Jack said he had to go. It was too soon. He had to go too soon, and he was gone too soon.

I will deeply miss him.

Murray Waas is a Washington journalist. He blogs at