Nixon's Failed Attempts At 'Poisoning The Press'

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Richard M. Nixon, then seeking the Republican presidential nomination, addresses an audience in Oregon in May 1968. AP hide caption

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Richard Nixon

Richard M. Nixon, then seeking the Republican presidential nomination, addresses an audience in Oregon in May 1968.

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Richard Nixon is remembered as a ruthless politician driven at times by fear and hatred of his perceived enemies. But a new book suggests that Nixon's paranoia was based at least in part on his own experience.

In Poisoning the Press: Richard Nixon, Jack Anderson and the Rise of Washington's Scandal Culture, Mark Feldstein describes the epic battle between Nixon and the muckraking syndicated columnist Jack Anderson. Feldstein follows the rise of Anderson's investigative journalism career and explains how his decades-long face-off with Nixon would become emblematic of the relationship between the press and other politicians.

Feldstein tells Fresh Air's Dave Davies that the fight between the two men started shortly after Anderson first got his big break in 1947, when he moved to Washington, D.C., to become a researcher for the syndicated investigative journalist Drew Pearson.

Poisoning The Press
Poisoning the Press: Richard Nixon, Jack Anderson, and the Rise of Washington's Scandal Culture
By Mark Feldstein
Hardcover, 480 pages
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
List Price: $30

Read an Excerpt

"[Pearson] dominated Washington from the Great Depression until his death in 1969," Feldstein explains. "And [he] was this combative Quaker who used his column to smite his foes. He fought on the side of progressivism [and] pacifism and was an unusual left-wing voice in the nation's capital."

One of Pearson's foes was Richard Nixon, who had been elected to Congress in 1946 and became a Senator in 1950. In 1952, after Nixon was tapped to become Dwight Eisenhower's running mate, Anderson and Pearson wrote a column about the money Nixon may have taken from corporate interests. That led to Nixon delivering his famous "Checkers speech," in which he decried his opponents and stated that no matter what anyone said, he would not return his daughters' dog, Checkers, which had been given to them as a gift.

"That resonated emotionally with the public, and a huge base — particularly of hard-core Republican conservatives — swelled to his defense and pressured Eisenhower to keep Nixon on the ticket," Feldstein explains. "Meanwhile, liberal Democrats were nauseated by it and thought it was a maudlin speech. And the polarization that Nixon's career would have ever after was indelibly marked."

After Nixon effectively dodged the bullet by giving the Checkers speech, Anderson and Pearson stayed on his case, but were plagued by scandals of their own. The two men published a story about Nixon receiving payoffs from Union Oil that later turned out to be false. And in 1958, when Anderson was caught bugging the office of a man bribing Eisenhower's White House chief of staff, it was Nixon who helped stoke the flames to turn the public against Anderson.

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Mark Feldstein was an on-air correspondent and investigative reporter for CNN, ABC News and NBC News for more than 20 years. morgan-ashcom hide caption

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Mark Feldstein

Mark Feldstein was an on-air correspondent and investigative reporter for CNN, ABC News and NBC News for more than 20 years.

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"He plant[ed] letters and editorials criticizing Anderson," Feldstein says. "So from that beginning, you have Nixon now retaliating against Anderson, and you have this sense that these dirty tricks are the way Washington works."

In the two decades that followed, the conflict became so ferocious, Feldstein says, that Nixon ordered CIA surveillance of Anderson and his family — and White House operatives seriously considered assassinating the journalist.

"They actually conducted surveillance. They followed him from his work to his house," Feldstein says. "They staked out his house. They looked at it for vulnerabilities ... [and dicussed] how they could plant poison in his aspirin bottle. They talked about how they could spike his drink and they talked about smearing LSD on his steering wheel so that he would absorb it through his skin and die in a hallucination-crazed auto crash."

The plot was ultimately called off, Feldstein says, because Gordon Liddy and Howard Hunt, the two men who were supposed to assassinate Anderson, were instead tapped to break into Watergate.

"That led to their arrest and the downfall of the regime," Feldstein says. "[But] there are no smoking-gun tapes showing Nixon ordering the assassination of Anderson. What Hunt and Liddy both said was that the order came from [White House special counsel] Charles Colson. But what Hunt told me before his death was that he believed that Colson was acting at the behest of the president himself. ... I find it very difficult to believe that Colson and the other aides were acting without the implicit support of President Nixon. It defies logic to imagine that they would cook this up, the assassination of a journalist as prominent as Jack Anderson, unless they had the signal from above to do it."

President Nixon died in 1994. Jack Anderson died in 2005. Feldstein, who interned for Anderson in the 1970s, spent nearly 20 years as a television correspondent and investigative reporter for CNN, ABC and NBC, twice winning the Peabody Award for public service. He is now an associate professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University.

Excerpt: 'Poisoning the Press'

Poisoning The Press
Poisoning the Press: Richard Nixon, Jack Anderson, and the Rise of Washington's Scandal Culture
By Mark Feldstein
Hardcover, 480 pages
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
List Price: $30

PROLOGUE

It seemed an unlikely spot to plan an assassination. After all, the Hay-Adams was once one of Washington’s most venerable old mansions, adorned with plush leather chairs, rich walnut paneling, and ornate oil paintings, located on Lafayette Square directly across the street from the White House. But on a chilly afternoon in March 1972, in one of the most bizarre and overlooked chapters of American political history, the luxury hotel did indeed serve as a launching pad for a murder conspiracy. More surprising still was the target of this assassination scheme, syndicated columnist Jack Anderson, then the most famous investigative reporter in the United States, whose exposes had plagued President Richard Nixon since he had first entered politics more than two decades earlier. Most astonishing of all, the men who plotted to execute the journalist were covert Nixon operatives dispatched after the President himself darkly informed aides that Anderson was "a thorn in [his] side" and that "we’ve got to do something with this son of a bitch."

The conspirators included former agents of the FBI and CIA who had been trained in a variety of clandestine techniques, including assassinations, and who would later go to prison for their notorious break-in at Democratic Party headquarters in the Watergate building. According to their own testimony, the men weighed various methods of eliminating the columnist: by spiking one of his drinks or his aspirin bottle with a special poison that would go undetected in an autopsy, or by putting LSD on his steering wheel so that he would absorb it through his skin while driving and die in a hallucination-crazed auto crash.

In one sense, the White House plot to poison a newsman was unprecedented. Certainly no other president in American history had ever been suspected of ordering a Mafia-style hit to silence a journalistic critic. Yet it was also an extreme and literal example of a larger conspiracy to contaminate the rest of the media as well, a metaphor for what would become a generation of toxic conflict between the press and the politicians they covered. It was not just that Nixon’s administration wiretapped journalists, put them on enemies lists, audited their tax returns, censored their newspapers, and moved to revoke their broadcasting licenses. It was, more lastingly, that Nixon and his staff pioneered the modern White House propaganda machine, using mass-market advertising techniques to manipulate its message in ways that all subsequent administrations would be forced to emulate. Nixon simultaneously introduced the notion of liberal media bias even as he launched a host of spinmeisters who assembled a network of conservative news outlets that would drive the political agenda into the twenty-first century. At the same time, Nixon and subsequent presidents effectively bought off news corporations by deregulating them, allowing them to gorge themselves on a noxious diet of sensationalism and trivialities that reaped record profits while debasing public discourse.

How did all of this come to pass? In many ways, the rise of Washington’s modern scandal culture began with Richard Nixon and Jack Anderson, and their blistering twenty-five-year battle symbolized and accelerated the growing conflict between the presidency and the press in the Cold War era. This bitter struggle between the most embattled politician and reviled investigative reporter of their time would lead to bribery and blackmail, forgery and burglary, sexual smears and secret surveillance — as well as the assassination plot. Their story reveals not only how one president sabotaged the press, but also how this rancorous relationship continues to the present day. It was Richard Nixon’s ultimate revenge.

It was this very lust for revenge — Nixon’s obsession with enemies — that would destroy him in the end. In the President’s eyes, his antagonists in what he called the "Eastern establishment" were legion: liberals, activists, intellectuals, members of Congress, the federal bureaucracy. But none was more roundly despised than the news media, and none in the media more than Jack Anderson, a bulldog of a reporter who pounded out his blunt accusations on the green keys of an old brown manual typewriter in an office three blocks from the White House. Although largely forgotten today, Anderson was once the most widely read and feared newsman in the United States, a self-proclaimed Paul Revere of journalism with a confrontational style that matched his beefy physique. Part freedom fighter, part carnival huckster, part righteous rogue, the flamboyant columnist was the last descendant of the crusading muckrakers of the early twentieth century. He held their lonely banner aloft in the conformist decades afterward, when deference to authority characterized American journalism and politics alike.

At his peak, Anderson reached an audience approaching seventy million people — nearly the entire voting populace — in radio and television broadcasts, magazines, newsletters, books, and speeches. But it was his daily 750-word exposé, the "Washington Merry-Go-Round," that was the primary source of his power; published in nearly one thousand newspapers, it became the longest- running and most popular syndicated column in the nation. Anderson’s exposes — acquired by eavesdropping, rifling through garbage, and swiping classified documents — sent politicians to prison and led targets to commit suicide. He epitomized everything that Richard Nixon abhorred.

The President had always believed the press was out to get him, and in Anderson he found confirmation of his deepest anxieties. The newsman had a hand in virtually every key slash-and-burn attack on Nixon during his career, from the young congressman’s earliest Red-baiting in the 1940s to his financial impropriety in the White House during the 1970s. Even Nixon’s most intimate psychiatric secrets were fodder for Anderson’s column. The battle between the two men lasted a generation, triggered by differences of politics and personality, centered on the most inflammatory Washington scandals of their era. In the beginning, Anderson’s relentless reporting helped plant the first seeds of Nixonian press paranoia. In the end, Anderson’s disclosures led to criminal convictions of senior presidential advisers and portions of articles of impeachment against the Chief Executive himself. The columnist both exposed and fueled the worst abuses of the Nixon White House, which eventually reached their apogee in the Watergate scandal that ended his presidency in disgrace.

Excerpted from Poisoning The Press: Richard Nixon, Jack Anderson, And The Rise Of Washington's Scandal Culture by Mark Feldstein. Copyright 2010 by Mark Feldstein. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

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Richard Nixon, Jack Anderson, and the Rise of Washington's Scandal Culture

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