Nixon's Failed Attempts At 'Poisoning The Press' Writer Mark Feldstein says muckraking columnist Jack Anderson cut ethical corners to get Nixon exposes, and the president responded with fury. He recounts surprising details of the long-running battle between the journalist and the politician in Poisoning the Press.
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Nixon's Failed Attempts At 'Poisoning The Press'

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Nixon's Failed Attempts At 'Poisoning The Press'

Nixon's Failed Attempts At 'Poisoning The Press'

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This is FRESH AIR. Im Dave Davies, sitting in for Terry Gross.

Richard Nixon is remembered as a ruthless politician, driven at times by fear and hatred of his perceived enemies. My guest, Mark Feldstein, suggests Nixons paranoia was rooted at least in part in his own experience and that he wasnt crazy to think his enemies were out to get him.

Feldsteins new book describes the epic battle between Nixon and muckraking syndicated columnist Jack Anderson. Anderson, Feldstein writes, found plenty of corruption to expose in Nixons career but bent plenty of ethical rules himself, even to the point of breaking the law. Anderson won a Pulitzer Prize for his exposes of the Nixon administration. But the conflict between the two became so intense that Nixon ordered CIA surveillance of Anderson and his family, and White House operatives seriously considered assassinating him. Anderson died in 2005.

Mark Feldstein 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's now an associate professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University. His book is called "Poisoning the Press: Richard Nixon, Jack Anderson and the Rise of Washington's Scandal Culture."

Well, Mark Feldstein, welcome to FRESH AIR.

Mr. MARK FELDSTEIN (Author, "Poisoning the Press: Richard Nixon, Jack Anderson and the Rise of Washington's Scandal Culture"): Thank you, Dave, I'm delighted to be here.

DAVIES: This is about a battle between a politician and a journalist that was personal and vicious, the details of which in some ways give no great credit to either man. But you tell us some interesting things about their background, which sort of equipped them for this battle. Let's just talk just a little bit about Nixon first.

Mr. FELDSTEIN: Well, one of the ironies is that the two men, Richard Nixon and Jack Anderson, had so much in common in their backgrounds, despite their mutual hatred. Nixon was born in California, raised in a kind of lower-middle-class family, son of the Great Depression. So was Jack Anderson.

They both were raised with devout Christian parents - in Nixon's case, he was a Quaker. Anderson's a Latter Day Saint, Mormon. Strict, kind of unbending fundamentalist religions is the way they were both brought up. Volatile fathers with explosive tempers that they learned to either avoid or defy. And they both served in sea duty during World War II and then came back afterwards to Washington, D.C., where they engaged in a different kind of war against each other for a generation.

DAVIES: Yeah, you said that Nixon sort of learned to seek power, Anderson learned to subvert it. I was fascinated to read that Anderson's father was so careful with money that he rented a house and made the family live in a basement and use an outhouse, to rent it out.

Mr. FELDSTEIN: That's right. Jack Anderson's father had an ascetic streak that was striking even by the typical values of the Great Depression. He even rode his bicycle across from Utah to California while the rest of his family took the train for vacation.

And so Anderson was brought up with this great sense of economic deprivation, and it would dog him in terms of sort of financial scandals that he would be involved in because he, like his father, had this kind of need for money that would dog him as a journalist, lead to, you know, payoffs, essentially.

DAVIES: Anderson becomes a journalist at an early age, has a knack for stories, gossip and news, and in 1947 gets his big break when he moves to Washington and becomes a researcher for the syndicated columnist Drew Pearson. Just tell us where Pearson was in the American landscape of his day.

Mr. FELDSTEIN: Well, in his day, Drew Pearson was the most famous and feared investigative reporter in the nation. He dominated Washington from World War really, the Great Depression, 1932, he started his column, until his death in 1969.

And his column the Washington Merry-go-Round, was unlike any other in the country. It had nationwide reach that prohibited it from being censored by any single editor or single publisher. And Pearson was this combative Quaker who used his column to smite his foes. And he fought on the side of progressivism, pacifism and was an unusual left-wing voice, investigative voice, in the nation's capital.

DAVIES: And Anderson was one of his researchers or leg men, as they called them in the day. And in 1952, when Richard Nixon, then a young senator, was the Republican vice presidential candidate, along with Dwight Eisenhower, Jack Anderson and Drew Pearson went after him. They'd found some compromising information about money he might have gotten, and this led to a big moment in Nixon's career. What happened?

Mr. FELDSTEIN: What happened is they uncovered Nixon's slush fund, as it was called, that Congressmen and Senator Nixon was pocketing money from corporate interests whose water he was carrying in Congress. So they'd discovered this and while they were investing it, Nixon decided to preempt the scandal that they were about to break.

And he gave what has since become known as his infamous Checkers speech. This was a speech live to the nation, where he defended his honor, made sort of selective financial disclosure and culminated in his emotional invoking of how his daughters had received a little gift from a man in Texas, a cocker spaniel named Checkers, and he doesn't care what they say, his daughters are going to keep it.

And that resonated emotionally with the public, and a huge base, particularly of hardcore Republican conservatives, swelled to his defense and pressured Eisenhower to keep Nixon on the ticket.

Meanwhile, liberal Democrats were nauseated by it, thought it was a maudlin speech. And the polarization that Nixon's career would have there ever after was indelibly marked.

DAVIES: And the interesting thing is that he didn't really answer the questions of impropriety that were raised. He slipped the noose, in effect, from Anderson and Pearson and left them infuriated.

Mr. FELDSTEIN: Yes, they did because they were able to show that Nixon was, in fact, contrary to what he said, doing all kinds of favors for the people who gave money to his fund. But Nixon had already won the PR battle with that emotional speech, and at that point, nobody else wanted to hear the details.

DAVIES: Pearson and Anderson stayed right after him, after Nixon really effectively dodged the bullet in that Checkers speech, wrote a hard-hitting series of columns but kind of overreached in a way, didn't they?

Mr. FELDSTEIN: They did. Soon thereafter, after Nixon was elected vice president, they published a false story based on a forged document that claimed that Nixon was getting payoffs from Union Oil, one of the biggest oil companies, now Chevron, and it turned out to have been a fraudulent document, distributed by the Democratic National Committee.

And not only did they do a story on this, but they worked behind the scenes, hand in glove with Democrats, to orchestrate congressional hearings to try to keep Nixon from being seated as vice president.

So Nixon's paranoia really goes back to the very beginning, and the paranoia that would ultimately bring his destruction in Watergate had some basis in fact. And it goes back to, among other things, this forged memo that Jack Anderson and Drew Pearson publicized.

DAVIES: Right, and this blood feud continues right through the 1950s, as Nixon is vice president. And in 1958, Anderson himself is snared in a bugging controversy. What happened?

Mr. FELDSTEIN: In 1958, Anderson was caught red-handed with a Democratic congressional investigator bugging the fellow who was kind of the Jack Abramoff of his day, the crooked businessman who was bribing President Eisenhower's White House chief of staff.

And the police were summoned to the scene. There were banner headlines across the country, photos of Anderson looking very embarrassed plastered across the front pages of the newspaper.

And even though Anderson had dug up this incredible scandal about the bribery of the White House chief of staff, Nixon helped stoke the flames to turn it against Anderson and plant editorials and letters to the editor criticizing Anderson and turn it around.

So from that beginning, you have Nixon now retaliating against Anderson, and you have this sense that these kind of dirty tricks are the way Washington works.

DAVIES: Now, this is an amazing tale to read. I mean, why wasn't Anderson arrested and charged?

Mr. FELDSTEIN: Well, there was actually no crime he committed. Because he was with a congressional investigator, he argued that he was just there as a reporter covering the story.

In fact, behind the scenes, he was really the principal mover and shaker. And indeed, they could have nailed him on perjury because he did, in fact, perjure himself when asked under oath where he got the bugging equipment. He feigned amnesia, as he later admitted, decades later, in some oral history interviews. But he got away with saying I don't know.

And the lesson that Anderson learned from that escapade, a normal reporter, if you will, would have been scared off, backed away. Not Anderson. He relished the limelight, and he learned to up the ante, and he and Drew Pearson both threatened to investigate the Eisenhower administration, hold hearings on this, gin up the Democrats in Congress, and the Eisenhower administration backed off.

And the lesson Jack Anderson took away was to raise, rather than lower, the ante when caught, to go all the way up to bribery and blackmail, and he learned to be a high-stakes riverboat gambler.

DAVIES: There was another Nixon-related story about a payoff from the millionaire Howard Hughes that Anderson was working on for Drew Pearson. And Nixon believed that the Kennedys were involved in this. What did you find out about that?

Mr. FELDSTEIN: Well, that's absolutely right. On the verge of the 1960 election, when it was neck and neck between John Kennedy and Richard Nixon, Jack Anderson and Drew Pearson broke this story that Nixon's people believed, and Nixon himself believed, cost him that narrow loss in 1960.

They discovered that Nixon and his family were the recipient of a $205,000 loan, as it was called, from billionaire Howard Hughes, who had this vast business empire that was heavily dependent on federal contracts, federal regulation, and that the Nixon family disguised this loan through a series of middlemen to try to hide the fingerprints of Howard Hughes.

Well, it turned out the whole thing was leaked to them by the Kennedys. And in fact, there was a break-in at the office of an accountant to get the paperwork that was given to Jack Anderson documenting all this, a break-in, by the way, very much like the Watergate break-in that would occur just a dozen years later.

So again, this fuels Richard Nixon's sense of victimization, this sense that burglary, like bugging, is routine in Washington politics. This furthers his paranoia.

He always believed he was the true winner of the 1960 election, that it was stolen from him. And he carried this enormous grudge about the dirty tricks Jack Anderson and the Kennedys were involved in to, as he saw it, deprive him of his rightful place as being president instead of John Kennedy.

DAVIES: And just to be clear, we don't know for a fact that the Kennedys were behind the break-in, right?

Mr. FELDSTEIN: We can't say that the Kennedys themselves were behind the break-in. What we can say is that the Kennedys' bagman, if you will, a fellow by the name of James McInerney, Joseph P. Kennedy's personal lawyer, paid off the accountant who provided these documents. And we know that these documents were crucial in exposing the scandal and that the accountant received these documents thanks to a mysterious package he received that his partners said was a break-in, a burglary, and that they filed a police report stating such.

So it's we know there was a burglary and a break-in. We know the Kennedys paid the man who supplied the documents that resulted from that break-in, and we know the Kennedys benefitted from this dirt on Richard Nixon that Jack Anderson publicized.

DAVIES: We're speaking with Mark Feldstein. His new book is "Poisoning the Press." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: If you're just joining us, our guest is George Washington University journalism professor Mark Feldstein. He's written a new book about the battle between journalist Jack Anderson and Richard Nixon. It's called "Poisoning the Press."

DAVIES: You know, there's a view of Richard Nixon that he may have been ruthless, and he may have been power hungry, but he wasn't personally corrupt. After looking at all you've looked at, what's your view?

Mr. FELDSTEIN: I don't share that belief. That was Nixon's primary defense, that, you know, yes he abused his power, but it was only for the good of the country. In fact, a close look at the record suggests he did personally benefit financially from his time in office. Not that that was exceedingly unusual for his time, but he was a modest man who spent almost all of his life in public office, and yet he accumulated a small fortune well before he left the presidency.

How did he do it? Well, the record shows and much of the new information I've dug up suggests that he was essentially taking payoffs along the way. Jack Anderson also told me about yet another alleged payoff, this from the Somoza regime, the dictatorship in Nicaragua, that Nixon pocketed $5,000 in cash from a bagman who was one of his sources, a Washington lobbyist named Irving Davidson(ph).

And then finally, during Watergate, Anderson broke the story of how Nixon pocketed yet another $100,000 in cash from Howard Hughes while he was in the White House, funneled through his best friend Bebe Rebozo.

So all of these things add up to a politician who was not just abusing power the way we're all familiar with - the Watergate cover-up, the payoffs, the hush money to the burglars, the obstruction of justice, the misuse of his office -but also on the take.

DAVIES: I'm glad you mentioned Irving Davidson, this lobbyist who may have funneled these payments from the Nicaraguan dictator to Nixon, because Jack Anderson himself had essentially a corrupt relationship with this same lobbyist, right?

Mr. FELDSTEIN: Well, that's the great irony here, and perhaps one of the reasons why Anderson never exposed Nixon's corruption with Davidson is that, yes, indeed, Anderson himself was pocketing money from this lobbyist who represented not only Somoza, the Duvaliers and other foreign dictators but also the mafia in Washington, Carlos Marcello(ph), the mob boss of New Orleans, and Jimmy Hoffa, who was mobbed-up.

And Anderson was getting cash from Davidson for years. He was getting hotel bills paid by Davidson. I have the checks. And in fact, when I went and interviewed Irv Davidson, he pulled out a file on Anderson, proudly showed me the columns Anderson wrote that were favorable to these clients of his, these rather sleazy and unsavory clients.

And when he pulled out these files, out from the files spilled a copy of a check that he had written to Jack Anderson for I think it was $30,000, just 1989.

So these payments extended from the 1950s through the late 1980s at the very least. Davidson told me he was also paying the Anderson children. So yes, Anderson, like Nixon, was not a wealthy man, and Irv Davidson, this unsavory lobbyist who was paying off Nixon, was also Anderson's financial angel. And each must have known about the other's payoff. Neither could expose it without exposing themselves.

DAVIES: You spoke to Anderson at some length before he died, didn't you?

Mr. FELDSTEIN: Yes, I did. I interviewed him extensively over a number of years.

DAVIES: So help us understand how he viewed this. I mean, he's this crusading journalist in Washington, unearthing corruption and impropriety, just engaging in all this unscrupulous stuff himself. How did he see himself?

Mr. FELDSTEIN: Well, he didn't see it that way. People have an amazing ability to rationalize what they want to rationalize. And like Nixon, he was actually a very righteous Christian, and he really believed he was doing the Lord's work.

I actually believe that the good Jack Anderson did far outweighed the bad he did. But he never was able to reconcile this. I mean, I asked him about the payoffs from Irv Davidson, for example, and he said it wasn't a conflict of interest because at the time he was accepting the money, he wasn't actually writing about Davidson's clients.

That was a not a very convincing defense, given the fact that the payments spanned decades, and over those decades, Anderson was writing about it.

I think the real answer is in his own mind, the moral calculus made it worth it. That he got more from Davidson in the way of information and money than he lost by the compromises he made in taking this money. I think that's the way he rationalized it. And mostly he saw himself as doing the Lord's work here on earth. The Mormon religion believes that the Constitution, including the First Amendment, is divinely inspired.

And he saw the larger good of all of the other crooks he exposed as being worth the occasional compromises and tradeoffs he had to make. That's his explanation, not mine.

DAVIES: Richard Nixon, of course, loses the 1960 election to John Kennedy. Two years later, he runs and loses for governor of California and then manages to rehabilitate his career and win the presidency in 1968.

And Jack Anderson takes over Drew Pearson's column shortly thereafter. And so, once Nixon is president, you have Anderson, who is this, you know, leading syndicated columnist and he just tormented Nixon. Give us some sense of some of the scoops he got and what they meant for the Nixon administration.

Mr. FELDSTEIN: You know, 1969 becomes the apogee of both of their careers. Nixon finally assumes the highest office in the land, the presidency. Anderson finally inherits the Washington Merry-go-Round column for himself.

And this battle now between the president and the columnist, who is running the most widely read column in the world, now continues with each of them having much more power at their disposal to go after each other.

And Anderson begins the battle just a few months after Nixon is inaugurated, when he trumps up a bogus charges that there is a gay sex ring in the White House.

It was complete nonsense, disinformation planted by one of Nixon's aides, Murray Chotiner, who is seeking revenge against some other Nixon aides, H.R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman, who have supplanted him in being in proximity to Nixon.

So Anderson goes by the FBI, tells them this rumor he's heard, and J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI director, immediately jumps on this and uses it essentially to blackmail Nixon. He calls in Haldeman; he calls in Ehrlichman. He gets their denials that they're gay under oath. He vows to lock it up in his safe so no one in the FBI will ever find out about it. And he uses it as leverage, basically, so that Nixon feels compelled to keep him on.

And Anderson, who's just having a little bit of fun and maybe trying to shake down another story out of the FBI, starts rattling Nixon's cages, you know, even before the glow of his inauguration has worn off.

DAVIES: Mark Feldstein's book is called "Poisoning the Press: Richard Nixon, Jack Anderson and the Rise of Washington's Scandal Culture." He'll be back in the second half of the show. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. Im Dave Davies in for Terry Gross.

We're speaking with Mark Feldstein, whose new book, "Poisoning the Press," chronicles the long-running battle between Richard Nixon and investigative journalist Jack Anderson.

Feldstein writes that Anderson could be as determined as Nixon, at times bending ethical rules to get his scoops. When we left off, we were talking about how Anderson tormented the Nixon White House with a series of embarrassing exposes.

He got secret memos involving the Vietnam War, involving the American role in the India-Pakistan War in 1971, and Nixon and his aides and Kissinger were just beside themselves with fury. Youve done a lot of research on this and looked at some newly released Nixon tapes, how did Nixon and his people respond to Anderson?

Mr. FELDSTEIN: Well, youre absolutely right. Fury is indeed the word to describe the reaction in the White House, and there are all these new White House tapes that have not come out yet before that shows the extent to which Nixon and his aides were absolutely obsessed by Jack Anderson and his scoops.

Jack Anderson, he was kind of the WikiLeaks of his day. He was an investigative reporter publishing and distributing classified documents before anybody else did, before "The Pentagon Papers," as a journalist. And his scoops on the Vietnam War were real-time exclusives about all kinds of top secret information, secret bombing raids, secret tapping of the president of South Vietnam, our ostensible ally. And the Nixon tapes and documents show that his aides were talking about hanging him, bringing him to trial, trying him for espionage, all these things.

And then he followed that up just a few months later with, again, explosive real-time documents from the top levels of inside the White House and the Pentagon, showing how the Nixon administration was secretly arming Pakistan in its war with India, even though Nixon was professing U.S. neutrality in the war, and how Nixon and Kissinger were deceiving Congress, deceiving the American people about our tilt toward Pakistan, which brought us to the brink of confrontation with the Soviets. And all of this was kept from the American people at the time until Anderson exposed those documents and the White House went berserk.

DAVIES: They, at one point, had the CIA tailing him, right?

Mr. FELDSTEIN: They did. They did everything. They drew up plans to prosecute Anderson. The Nixon CIA sent a team of 16 covert agents that surveilled Anderson and his family and his staff around the clock for weeks, months at a time. And there are hilarious documents that I found, under the Freedom of Information Act and in the Anderson archives, showing the kind of Keystone Cop mentality as these agents try to follow Anderson around trying to discover who his sources are. And they're so inept at it that they're easily spotted by Anderson's and his children, and he has nine children all, you know, mostly teenagers, and they had a ball making sport of the CIA agents.

They would go up to them and wave. They would take their pictures. They would sneak up from behind and let the air out of their tires. They would dress up like their father in trench coats and hats, several of them, and jump into several different cars and screech off in different directions to drive the CIA agents nuts, because they didnt know which one was really Anderson and which one to follow.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FELDSTEIN: They had high-speed chases in their suburban Washington neighborhood. I mean this was, you know, an adolescent dream of getting out your high jinks.

DAVIES: In a lot of the tapes, Nixon seems obsessed with homosexuality and whether his enemies were gay. You see this over the years. Did he think Anderson and Drew Pearson, his, the columnist that he worked for earlier, that they were gay too?

Mr. FELDSTEIN: He did. And, in fact, there are White House tapes where he talks about it. It really seems bizarre to us now, but Nixon did indeed have a phobia about homosexuality. You know, you have to remember that in the 1950s, when he was sort of coming of age - 1940s - not much was known about homosexuality and Communists and queers were what Joe McCarthy campaigned against. So they were both seen as the other as this sort of foreign dangerous threat. And Nixon became convinced that homosexuality was behind a lot of the subversion that was going on. And the Nixon tapes show that Nixon believed that Drew Pearson and Jack Anderson were gay. He believed that Anderson's source of the classified India-Pakistan papers was gay - that they must be gay lovers and he ordered aides to surveil them in the hopes of catching them in bed together.

So he was obsessed by this homosexual angle and he ordered his investigators to probe for homosexuality. They never found it, but he even went so far as to order them to smear Anderson as gay anyway, even though they found no evidence of it. The irony is Anderson himself was homophobic, as so many men of that generation were.

DAVIES: The scandal that brought Nixon down, the Watergate scandal, kind of left Anderson behind in some ways. I mean other reporters really took the lead on that as well as, of course, congressional investigators and federal prosecutors. But it was fascinating to read in your book that Anderson himself was almost way ahead of this story.

Mr. FELDSTEIN: Yes. Jack Anderson was ahead of the Watergate story in two respects. First, he exposed what was really the precursor to Watergate, which is known as the ITT scandal. This was a scandal where he got a smoking gun document from Dita Beard, the Washington lobbyist for ITT, one of the largest corporations, International Telephone and Telegraph, of its time, and he and his young leg man at the time, Brit Hume, who, of course, later became famous as an anchor man for Fox News, they broke this story in essence of how the Nixon administration took a bribe - or how the Republican Convention took a bribe, $400,000 was pledged by ITT, and in exchange they dropped antitrust action, watered down antitrust action, against ITT. And Anderson and Hume obtained the smoking gun document that proved it, which the lobbyist herself admitted it.

This threatened Nixon more than any of Anderson's national security secrets because it got to the heart of the corruption at the center of the Nixon re-election campaign. And Nixon's men went into overdrive trying to contain this scandal. They decided to plant false documents with Anderson, they plotted about breaking into his office, typing up documents on White House stationery on his typewriter, leaking it to him so that when he published it they could trace it to his typewriter and accuse him of forging documents. They, according to testimony I have in my book, concocted false photographs to put Anderson in photos to implicate him in wrongdoing. They engaged in all kinds of dirty tricks to try to stop Anderson from this - punish Anderson for this expose. And this was really the precursor to Watergate. And this was when they, you know, came up with a plot to actually assassinate Jack Anderson.

DAVIES: Well, I wanted to talk about that, because after Nixon's re-election in 1972, they decided they really had to deal with Anderson. And the notion that there had been talk of assassinating Anderson, that was revealed a couple of decades ago. What did you learn about how serious an effort this was to kill him?

Mr. FELDSTEIN: The plot to assassinate Anderson turned out to have been much more serious than anyone realized. There are documents in the National Archives that have never been released before in which prosecutors discuss this, investigated this. And I got what amounted to a confession from one of the conspirators, Howard Hunt, the Watergate burglar, before his death in 2003, where he admitted for the first time what his co-conspirator, Gordon Liddy, had already admitted - that the two of them plotted to assassinate Anderson.

In fact, they went beyond merely plotting. They actually conducted surveillance of Anderson. They tailed him from his work spot, garage, to his house. They staked out his house. They looked at it for vulnerabilities, how they could break in, how they could plant poison in his aspirin bottle - that was one of the methods they discussed using. 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. They met with an agent from CIA who was a specialist in poisons. They met just a block from the White House at the Hay-Adams Hotel on March 24th 1972, and they pumped this CIA operative - former CIA operative - for information about what kind of toxins, what kind of poisons would be best to use so it would not be discovered in an autopsy. So the plot to assassinate Jack Anderson that emanated from the Nixon White House was very real.

And it was ultimately called off because they decided instead that they needed Hunt and Liddy to break into the Watergate apartment complex and office building and that, of course, led to their arrest and the downfall of the regime.

DAVIES: You were never able to determine that this order came from Nixon himself.

Mr. FELDSTEIN: No. There are no smoking-gun tapes proving that Richard Nixon ordered Anderson's assassination. What Hunt and Liddy both say is that the order came from Charles Colson. And Hunt told me before this death in this taped interview that he believes Colson was acting at the behest of the president himself, that Colson would never have done this without Nixon's approval.

I find that a very convincing explanation. I find it very difficult, based on everything I know about how the White House worked - how Colson implemented what Nixon wanted, I find it very difficult that Colson and the other aides were acting without at least 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 on their own, unless they had the signal from above to do it.

DAVIES: Colson is still around. I assume he has denied this?

Mr. FELDSTEIN: Colson has amnesia about the entire thing. Wouldnt talk to me. I tried repeatedly. And that explanation is just not very convincing.

DAVIES: Our guest is Mark Feldstein. His book is "Poisoning the Press." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: If youre just joining us, we're speaking with Mark Feldstein. He's a journalism professor at George Washington University, and he's written a book about the long-term battle between Richard Nixon and columnist Jack Anderson. It's called "Poisoning the Press."

Nixon went down in Watergate, of course, and I have to say, reading about the closing years of Jack Anderson's journalistic career is kind of sad. He really just cashed in on his celebrity status, didnt he?

Mr. FELDSTEIN: Yes he did. I think he never really got over the loss of prominence that Watergate brought him. You know, there was this incredible irony, here he was like Ahab, stalking the great whale of Nixon for most of his career and responsible more than any other reporter for uncovering the scandals that led up to Watergate and, yet, when Watergate itself occurred, he was eclipsed. He eclipsed by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post, by Seymour Hersh of The New York Times and other journalists. He simply could no longer catch up.

And even though he had actually a couple of early leads on Watergate, he was warned in advance - believe it or not - about the break-in, and he actually ran into the burglars at the airport a few hours before they committed their burglary at the Watergate. But he basically, you know, lost that story to his competitors. And after Watergate, a whole new younger generation of investigative reporters supplanted him and pushed him off his perch as America's number one investigative reporter.

DAVIES: Let me just back up here. You said he ran into the Watergate burglars at the airport on their way to commit the crime?

Mr. FELDSTEIN: Yes. As strange a coincidence as it is, he did. Remember, Washington was a pretty small town back then and he knew almost everybody. And one of the burglars, Frank Sturgis, was a long-time source of his. In fact, the Nixon White House was going to use these - Sturgis and the other burglars to assassinate Anderson. But then they had some reservations because it turned out Anderson knew a couple of them from previous stories and they thought maybe the execution would be better carried out by somebody else.

Anyway, Anderson just happened to be heading off to speak to a journalism fraternity in Ohio, was catching a plan at National Airport when he ran into Frank Sturgis, who tried to hide and there was Frank Sturgis with one of his co-conspirators and a suitcase full of bugging equipment that they would use just a few hours later at the Watergate. And the next morning in the newspaper, Anderson read about their arrest, realized what those guys had been up to and hurried on over to the jailhouse to try to pump them for information about what was really going on.

DAVIES: Youve spoken about how Anderson, even when he was such a crusading investigative reporter, did, you know, things on the edges of ethics - well, not even on the edges of ethics; he was taking, you know, payments from a lobbyist who didnt want certain clients written about and was caught in a bugging incident as far back as 1958. But at the end of it, he really seemed to lose all of his journalistic moorings, didnt he?

Mr. FELDSTEIN: Yeah, I'm afraid he did. It pains me to say that, but he did. I think once history passed him by, once he was eclipsed as the number one investigative reporter in America, once he really could no longer compete successfully now that the Washington Post and The New York Times and other mainstream outlets were doing his kind of journalism, investigative reporting, he really turned into a celebrity and he really kind of cashed in on that with various financial schemes of dubious prominence, with tabloid shows. It was kind of his low - the low point in his career, and unfortunately that low point lasted for the last couple decades of his life.

DAVIES: You know, it's interesting, people sort of think of the media today as being so superficial and in some cases unscrupulous, but you know, having worked myself in a daily newspaper for 20 years, when I read some of the stuff that Jack Anderson did, I mean engaging in a bugging operation, taking payoffs from lobbyists, and in a lot of cases that we dont have time to detail in this interview kind of publishing stuff that was sort of half made up - I mean there was a story he wrote about the Democratic vice presidential nominee in 1972, Thomas Eagleton - I think that a lot of the stuff that he did, if any reporter I worked with were caught doing, it would end their career.

Is journalism more professional and fairer today or was Anderson just one of a kind?

Mr. FELDSTEIN: Well, he certainly was one of a kind. He was an absolute outlier for better and for worse. You know, in the pantheon of journalistic history, he will be remembered as the sort of missing link between the muckrakers of a century ago - Lincoln Steffens, Ida Tarbell, Upton Sinclair - and the post-Watergate generation: Woodward, Bernstein, Hersh and the rest. And you know, part of the reason I think his story is so fascinating is it's about power. It's about more than Jack Anderson. It's about more than Richard Nixon. It's about the use and abuse of power.

He knew how to expose it, but he also knew how to use it and abuse it. And there's no pretty way to paint a picture of this. He and Nixon both learned its true, raw, coarse price of wielding power in Washington. It was nothing like those civics textbooks, history textbooks they learned when they were growing up in the 1930s and '40s in the West. And that ultimately is what their story is about, whether that's political power or journalistic power, and they were practitioners of it, users of it, and abusers of it.

DAVIES: Did you know Anderson well?

Mr. FELDSTEIN: You know, I was an intern, a barely paid college intern for Anderson in the summers of - two summers in the 1970s, and then I lost touch with him for several decades and reconnected with him when I started writing my book 10 years ago. And I got to know him pretty well at the end, doing literally dozens of interviews with him. But I also tried to keep an author's detachment while writing this book. I'll leave it to the reader to decide whether or not I succeeded.

DAVIES: Do you know how he felt about the fact that you were going to expose his warts as well as his achievements?

Mr. FELDSTEIN: Well, he admitted to me that he was sure the book would not portray him as nobly as he himself would like to see him portrayed - that no book ever could - but I think he respected that I was a journalist and a scholar trying to present a fair account of his career. And I think that his warts aside, the fact is he was an important pivotal figure, really, in American journalism and investigative history, and for all of his faults, he was out there exposing wrongdoing by politicians and institutions when nobody else was and he had the guts and the courage to do that when the rest of the press, by and large, was timorous, merely repeating what people in power told them, not willing to challenge them on behalf of the public. And nobody can ever take that away from Jack Anderson, whatever his faults - that was a crucially important role he played at a time in American journalism when nobody else really was doing it.

DAVIES: Well, Mark Feldstein, thanks so much for speaking with us.

Mr. FELDSTEIN: Thank you, Dave, its been a pleasure.

DAVIES: Mark Feldstein's book is called "Poisoning the Press: Richard Nixon, Jack Anderson and the Rise of Washington's Scandal Culture."

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