Review: ‘Poisoning the Press’ by Mark Feldstein

Poisoning the Press: Richard Nixon, Jack Anderson, and the Rise of Washington's Scandal CulturePoisoning the Press: Richard Nixon, Jack Anderson, and the Rise of Washington’s Scandal Culture by Mark Feldstein

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I am fascinated by Richard Nixon.

The man is straight out of Shakespeare — sometimes Iago, sometimes Lear, sometimes (in his better, though rare, moments) Prince Hal himself. (Never Falstaff, though.) Nobody doubts his brilliance or cunning, but oh, what venality. He could never get over the contempt he had for the kinds of people LBJ called “the Harvards” — those golden boys who effortlessly controlled the levers of power and sneered at awkward ladder-climbers like Richard Nixon.

Mark Feldstein’s “Poisoning the Press” pairs Nixon with one of his fiercest critics, muckraking columnist Jack Anderson. In Anderson, Nixon had more than a foe in the media — he had someone who was surprisingly like the 37th president himself. Like Nixon, Anderson had a ne’er-do-well brother and a fractious relationship with his father; like Nixon, Anderson was a working-class striver; like Nixon, Anderson grew fond of a wealthy lifestyle at the expense of his ethics. (One of Anderson’s early gets had to do with payoffs Nixon received from rich benefactors. Anderson would later sacrifice much of his regard for money.)

Naturally, the two became mortal enemies.

Perhaps it was always to be. Anderson started off as an assistant to Drew Pearson, the patrician columnist of the “Washington Merry-Go-Round.” Pearson disliked Nixon; Anderson, more willing to get into the dirt, took the cue. Nixon, a lightning rod during the Eisenhower administration, found himself the subject of investigations, exposes and tidbits in the widely read column.

Pearson died in 1969 and the “Merry-Go-Round” became Anderson’s. The same year, Nixon became president and was determined to keep the press at bay (or worse). Anderson, ever the bulldog, would not let go of the president’s leg. There was a lot of meat to be had, and it infuriated Nixon.

I thought I knew a lot about Ol’ Iron Butt, but there was much in Feldstein’s book that surprised me. Anderson broke a 1971 story about administration overtures to Pakistan, including a move by the Seventh Fleet into the Bay of Bengal, that could have led to World War III, thanks to India’s friendship with the USSR. If the Russians had gotten itchy trigger fingers, “We will be finished,” the toadying Henry Kissinger told the president. (Kissinger does not come off well, something to keep in mind, since he’s still around and apparently still advising presidents.)

The “Anderson Papers,” which came out not long after the Pentagon Papers, helped win Anderson a Pulitzer.

He wasn’t done. Every day he had something to embarrass the president, whether major — he uncovered funds that conglomerate ITT had given Nixon — or minor. The leaks to the well-connected Anderson from administration insiders, and all the loose money flowing to the president and his re-election campaign, became part and parcel of Watergate. (The Plumbers, after all, were named because they were supposed to plug leaks.)

Ironically, Watergate was a story Anderson didn’t get. In fact, he actually knew about the DNC break-in beforehand, but couldn’t nail it down and decided it was a “bum tip.” (Amazingly, Anderson ran into Watergate burglar Frank Sturgis and his colleagues in the airport just hours before the crime, but didn’t have the time to ask what they were doing in town.) Eventually the scandal led to his decline. Who needed Jack Anderson when every paper and TV network were hiring Woodwards and Bernsteins? (One of Anderson’s top men, Brit Hume, soon jumped to ABC; he’s now at Fox News.) Though the “Merry-Go-Round” was still a much-read column, Anderson couldn’t readjust to new times, making Nixonian mountains out of Carter administration molehills and then finding himself weakened during the Reagan years.

Meanwhile, Nixon was rehabilitating his image … though he never could leave behind the pettiness of his character. (Hunter S. Thompson’s obituary of Nixon, coming after a pageant of tributes to the man, was a sobering corrective.) And Anderson? He never could recover his Nixon-era fame and died in 2005.

Feldstein’s book is full of jar-droppers, whether about Nixon or Anderson’s pursuit of him. At times I wondered if he was a little tough on both his protagonists — I mean, Nixon could be hopeful and even thoughtful as well as darkly cunning, and Anderson, as Feldstein shows, did have an occasional sense of humor to go along with his indefatigable drive — but when you’ve got Nixon underlings Charles Colson, Howard Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy considering an assassination of Anderson on Nixon’s nod, well, maybe he wasn’t tough enough.

Feldstein, a former investigative reporter who now teaches at the University of Maryland, is also an able writer; “Poisoning the Press” sometimes reads like a thriller, though one devoid of heroes. The book was released in 2010 and seems even more relevant these days, a time when the country is fiercely divided and another president is railing about leaks coming from within his administration. This is Feldstein’s larger theme — that the press never did let go of its taste for Washington scandals, and presidents and their men long ago ceased to trust the press to be honorable — and though sometimes it seems like a stretch, well, here we are.

I wonder what Jack Anderson in his prime would make of it all.

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