Converse's Reviews > Poisoning the Press: Richard Nixon, Jack Anderson, and the Rise of Washington's Scandal Culture

Poisoning the Press by Mark Feldstein
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's review
Oct 12, 2010

really liked it
bookshelves: biography, history, non-fiction, politics
Read in October, 2010 , read count: 1

Its not every American politician who seriously asks his subordinates to find a way to kill a pesky journalist without getting caught. But then not every American politician has the likes of G. Gordon Liddy and Howard Hunt on the payroll.

Jack Anderson's interactions with Richard Nixon when back over a decade by the early 1970s. His serious journalistic career began when started working with the columnist Drew Pearson in the late 1940s. He and Pearson revealed just before the 1960 election that Nixon had received money from Howard Hughes, the money being laundered through Nixon's brother Don.

Anderson took over the column when Pearson died in 1969. His most important exposes were during the Nixon presidency just before Watergate became a major issue. Anderson revealed from various sources that the conglomerate ITT had paid $400,000 towards the Republican convention in return for favorable consideration in an anti-trust case, that the ITT and the CIA were conspiring to overthrow the government of the Maxist Allende in the South American nation of Chile, and that the Nixon administration had despite congressional bans found ways to support Pakistan during its war with India over Bangledesh becoming an independent nation, separate from Pakistan. The latter event, involving the dispatch of a large American fleet to the Bay of Bangledesh, had some prospects of becoming a second Cuban Missile Crisis, in the sense that a dispute over proxy nations could have lead to a second nuclear confrontation.

Before thinking of assassination, Nixon did think of some less final ways of dealing with Anderson. One of these means was getting the CIA to spy on him, which is apparently illegal. For about a month the spying went unnoticed by Anderson, until a neighbor noticed men looking down at the Anderson home from a church parking lot and tipped Anderson off. After some delay Anderson was able to determine from license plates that it was the CIA, rather than the numerous other federal agencies who had cause to be displeased with him, was the one doing the spying. Once made aware of the spying, the older of Anderson's nine (!) children showed remarkable skill in thwarting the CIA's efforts. This event did rather shake my confidence in our nation's spooks.

Ironically, the Watergate affair was the one major scandle Anderson did little to expose. This is especially ironic, because it was apparently Anderson's earlier work which encourage Nixon to order the break in at the Democratic National Committee offices, if only to change the subject. Once Watergate became the subject of several official probes by Congressional Committees and special prosecutors, Anderson's column was unable to keep up with the rapidly dissemination of more information about the scandal.

As a tribune of the people, Jack Anderson had several blemishes. He was found trying to bug a hotel room in the 1950s, but escape serious legal trouble due to a suddenly weak memory. He took money from some of his sources, in particular Irv Davidson, a lobbyist whose clients mostly seem to have been members of the mafia. He also sometimes published stories that were not true, as when he said that Donald Rumsfeld, in an earlier job as an anti-poverty czar in the White House, had spent a good deal of money intended for anti-poverty efforts in improving his own office. Anderson also had a strong homophobic streak, as revealed during a mid-1960s scandal over homosexuals allegedly employed by then Governer Ronald Reagan. After the Watergate years, he seems to have rapidly moved away from serious journalism to cashing in on his celebrity. A low point was when he was working on a documentary on the Exxon Valdez oil spill funding with money from Exxon, which unsurpisingly concluded that sea life was quickly bouncing back from this event. This documentary doesn't seem to have been made public, as a revolt by Anderson's journalistic staff convinced him not to continue with the project. These flaws contrast oddly with another aspect of Anderson's life, his devout membership in the Mormon church and his decades long marriage to his wife Olivia.

The main thing political operatives learned from dealing with Anderson was to follow the (nonviolent!)less extreme aspects of Nixon's media manipulation, but do it better. These tactics included devising a daily media message, giving speeches mainly to invited groups of supporters, supporting friendly journalists, and restricting access to administration officials in order to reduce those leeks not authorized by the President. They have had remarkable success with these tactics. In the Republican party there have been a remarkable succession of people who had personal experience of Nixon's methods, such as Karl Rove, Richard Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld, who have gone on to use them with more finess. The Democrats have been slower to catch up.


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