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.