The Merry-Go-Round: On Jack Anderson

The Merry-Go-Round: On Jack Anderson

Poisoning the Press tells the tale of Jack Anderson’s fall from muckraking hero to blustering pundit.


You’ll be forgiven if you only pretend to know who Jack Anderson was. If you have a vague notion of a jowly reporter in baggy pants, well, you are probably ahead of the pack. Anderson was once read and revered by millions—in its heyday, his "Washington Merry-Go-Round" column ran in almost a thousand papers—but by the time Anderson retired in 2004, a year before he died, he was long past his days as a household name. Indeed, less than a decade after he’d won a Pulitzer Prize for his exposure of Nixon’s secret favoring of Pakistan during the India-Pakistan war of 1971, Anderson was ranked last for "accuracy and integrity" in a survey rating American columnists. By the mid-’90s, he’d lost his spot in the Washington Post and had slid from Good Morning America to Inside Edition. When Anderson finally pulled out of a documentary on the aftermath of the Exxon Valdez spill—a film that was to be partially funded by Exxon—the conflict of interest probably surprised only a few. At the turn of the twenty-first century, Jack Anderson was no longer a muckraking hero; he was a blustering pundit playing a caricature of himself on TV.

In retrospect, it’s easy to see that the germ of Anderson’s deterioration had been there all along. Working alongside Drew Pearson, the originator of the "Merry-Go-Round," Anderson had already proven to be relentless, fearless and more than a little ruthless by the time he inherited the column in 1969. Eleven years earlier, he’d broken the news that Eisenhower’s chief of staff, Sherman Adams, had accepted expensive gifts from Bernard Goldfine, a businessman then under investigation by the Federal Trade Commission. But soon after, Anderson was caught using an alias, trying to bug Goldfine’s room at a Washington hotel. Though embarrassed, and nearly indicted, Anderson later claimed his highly publicized mistake worked in his favor by assuring readers he was providing what he jovially called "keyhole evidence."

With glee, Anderson and Pearson dropped a bomb into the presidential campaign of 1960. Just two weeks before the election, their column exposed Howard Hughes’s $205,000 loan to Nixon’s brother Don. Their sources—stolen documents that had been an expensive purchase made by Kennedy aides—were left untouched by several more cautious journalists before they made it into the "Merry-Go-Round." With this scoop, a modus operandi was set: using unsavory methods and propelled by questionable motives, Anderson would, for the next fifteen years, bark, growl and bite at the Nixon administration. For a pit bull like Anderson, Nixon was a juicy bone.

The two shared more than mutual animosity. Nixon and Anderson were both born in California, the sons of distant, religious fathers. Both moved to Washington in 1947. Both were charismatic, vociferously righteous and motivated by vendetta; and each used every dirty trick available to discredit the other. The struggle between them culminated in a Pulitzer for Anderson and, in the estimation of Mark Feldstein, author of Poisoning the Press, led Nixon straight to the doors of the Watergate building.

In Feldstein’s telling, the war between the Nixon White House and the "Merry-Go-Round" was part sophisticated public relations maneuvering, part frat house antic. Both Anderson and Nixon used the shadow of homosexuality to threaten, pressure and taint their enemies. When Nixon’s staff identified the anonymous source of Anderson’s classified information, Nixon directed investigators to find out if Anonymous and Anderson were "sexual up the ass." In an effort to "get" Herbert Hoover, Anderson and his "legmen" (no word of "leg women") followed the FBI chief to lunch with his handsome young deputy, Clyde Tolson. They staked out his home and went through his garbage. Unable to find direct evidence of an affair, Anderson made do with innuendo, reporting to readers that Hoover took heartburn medication and had secretly sought psychiatric help, and that he and Tolson, "both bachelors," had taken an expensive vacation together.

The struggle between Nixon and his nemesis reached a climax in the early ’70s, in two separate, damaging leaks. The first hit in December 1971, in the wake of the war between India and Pakistan. Charles Radford, a Navy stenographer who was drafted by the Pentagon to spy on the White House, slipped his cache of stolen documents directly to Anderson, meeting him in an alley in downtown Washington. These were the "Anderson Papers," a series of highly sensitive memos revealing the president’s biased but decisive opinions on delicate matters of diplomacy. In contrast to the neutral stance publicly adopted by the administration and supported by Congress, the notes Anderson obtained revealed presidential directives that directly favored Pakistan at India’s expense. "Anderson, who is a skunk, has become a hero," lamented Henry Kissinger to his boss.

* * *

Nixon and Kissinger’s credibility was damaged by the leaks, but Anderson’s was restored: this was his Pulitzer moment, and he followed it with another success. Yet again, a shocking document came his way—but this time it came anonymously and in the mail. It was a copy of a memo from ITT lobbyist Dita Beard trumpeting that ITT’s $400,000 contribution to the Republican National Convention had indeed worked its intended magic. The Justice Department would settle anti-trust litigation in ITT’s favor, and the company would be able to proceed with its purchase of Hartford Fire Insurance.

A scandal exploded, putting Anderson on the cover of Time and leaving a paranoid Nixon huddled with his aides, hoping there was evidence somewhere that Anderson’s co-reporter (Brit Hume, as it turns out) was gay. "Attack the goddamn media!" Nixon railed. "The press corps is anti-us." Unable to substantiate their rumor that Hume was gay, the administration focused on Beard, implying that she and Anderson had concocted the memo together and that their conspiracy was an effect of a lesbian affair Beard was allegedly having with Anderson’s secretary, Opal Ginn. Enjoying his moment in the sun, Anderson the teetotaling Mormon was as salty as Nixon the homophobic Quaker, calling the president a "dogpatch style politician, who always aims his knee at the groin."

Ironically, despite all the leaked memos and vituperative bluster, it was not Anderson who chased Nixon out of office. Anderson’s only significant Watergate scoop came from a random source who had combed through the trash and walked into Anderson’s office with a handful of stenographic carbons from the sealed Watergate grand jury testimony. In April 1973 Ginn hung the sheets on a lampshade and set to work retyping nearly 500 pages of transcripts. Anderson published page after page until the Justice Department persuaded him to stop. As the Watergate investigations widened, though, his competitors overtook him. Feldstein blames the format of Anderson’s column—a four-day lag meant that he couldn’t keep up on fast-breaking competitive stories. Those delays "effectively killed Anderson’s scoops," he writes, and ultimately, "Watergate destroyed Anderson’s muckraking monopoly in Washington."

Feldstein is really being kind. A syndicated column might have been limiting on a competitive story, but when it came to breaking stories Anderson was his own worst enemy. The summer after the Watergate break-in, Anderson took on George McGovern’s vice presidential pick, Senator Thomas Eagleton, claiming to have "photostats" of Eagleton’s multiple arrests for "drunken and reckless" driving. It was a lie he compounded day after day until he was forced to apologize to Eagleton on national television. Having become front-page news, Anderson was no longer able to hide his wilder accusations among the comic strips (where his column often ran). His old habit of relying on sensational innuendo now earned him more scrutiny than his reporting methods could support. Time and again, he made salacious and egregious claims against his enemies (or those he decided to "get") that damaged his reputation far more than those of his targets. And, Feldstein notes, Anderson’s friendships were equally destructive: his close relationship with Ronald Reagan, for instance, led him to ignore what he knew of the Iran/Contra deals. In the early ’90s the Washington Post stopped running the "Merry-Go-Round."

* * *

Like Brit Hume and Howard Kurtz, Feldstein worked briefly under Jack Anderson as an intern before going on to become a network correspondent and lately a professor at George Washington University. That might be one of the reasons his story, for all its research and punch, is tinged with a romantic melancholy. At times, Feldstein paints a portrait of Anderson that strains against the facts. He explains away Anderson’s pocketing of money from the legislators he covered by referring to the difficulty of feeding nine children, and at one point he even applauds Anderson for being "willing to report about homosexuality" instead of taking him to task for launching the same kind of sexual witch hunt that excited Hoover and Nixon.

Indeed, Feldstein attributes the currently "poisoned press" of his title mainly to the "dirty tricks" and vengeful paranoia of the Nixon administration, which paved the way for what Lanny Davis calls "gotcha politics." But to me, Anderson seems a direct progenitor of our contemporary pundits, the ancestral patriarch of "gotcha." He frequently reached out to his ideal reader—a haloed "Kansas City Milkman"—and perfected a tone of conspiracy and outrage that allied him with the milkman against the Washington elite he had promised to pillory. When facts were scarce, he was happy to use an explosive mixture of innuendo and anger to make his point, even volunteering to testify at Senate hearings to make sure no one missed it.

Though the book recounts Anderson’s breaches of journalistic ethics, and the ways he became a story unto himself, Feldstein characterizes them as personal peccadilloes, or a willingness to sacrifice ideals for the greater good. To a gripping, well-told narrative history Feldstein has appended a jeremiad about the lost days of investigative journalism: once there was a noble muckraker named Jack Anderson, who tirelessly fought the evil administration of Richard Nixon, and now, well, there’s nobody. The Nixon administration’s manipulative media strategies have been honed to perfection by his successors, and all that’s left of a once hearty journalistic landscape is a capital awash in "media-driven scandal mania." Instead of a reliable press corps devoted to public service, we have an "instantaneous cacophony of infotainment" abetted by attention-splintering media and government secrecy.

It’s a weak argument, but Feldstein’s is a common plaint. It seems that every age must decry the new low to which its reporters have sunk. Yet I wonder if our collective dream of the old days of "objective" (nonpartisan, unbiased, scandal-less) journalism isn’t really a mirage. Partisan journalism, replete with innuendo and sexual scandal, is not just what we’re left with after deregulation has made celebrities out of the loudest asses in the barn. Historically, it has been an essential engine of political discourse. It was, as even Feldstein notes, the lifeblood of the early Republic. When he was secretary of state, Thomas Jefferson used government funds to start up a newspaper sympathetic to his views. Back home, a Virginia paper dug into the third president’s private life, noting, "It is well known that the man…keeps…as his concubine, one of his slaves. Her name is SALLY."

Like many who professionally take stock of our contemporary media, Feldstein laments journalism’s "abdication of its watchdog role on issues of substance" like "accounting, banking, and investment fraud." But I am not sure we should be alarmed. Even at a time when the bean counters are tracking web hits, investigative and enterprise journalism live and flourish at a number of institutions, including the readily accessible New York Times. And the "cacophonous" explosion of new media has given an eager audience to the voices of gossipmongers and whistleblowers alike. Indeed, we might be in the midst of a golden age of public discourse. Think about it: every night our airwaves and computer screens are filled with people talking and writing passionately about politics, and millions of people are listening and reading!

Perhaps that is the real discomfort. Passion in the news makes certain people nervous—it seems undignified. We’ve mistakenly allied the ideal of journalism with loftier, "drier" topics, and an emotionless presentation. Compared with accounting fraud, "scandal mania" sounds naughty and frivolous. Feldstein has given his late, lamented watchdog a depressingly narrow purview, if he is to be, by definition, more interested in savings and loan fraud than "lower" or more titillating forms of misdeed. The truth is, matters of passion and state have never been mutually exclusive. And why shouldn’t journalists have prejudices and emotions? I challenge anyone to find a more meaningful moment in broadcast history than the thirty seconds it took for Walter Cronkite to digest the news of President Kennedy’s assassination and choke back tears on the air. Back in the early nineteenth century, there was no alternative model, no hazy memory of better days, to keep some hands clean. Everyone had a cause, and everyone got dirty. Say what you will about Jack Anderson, but he was a guy who wasn’t afraid to take a stand in the muck.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
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