In 1947, two young men born in small Western towns arrived in Washington, D.C. One was an investigative reporter, the other a freshman Republican congressman. In the decades that followed, they would clash in battles that ultimately would reshape the relationship between the press and the presidency.
This is the provocative thesis laid out in Mark Feldstein's Poisoning the Press: Richard Nixon, Jack Anderson and the Rise of Washington's Scandal Culture, which offers a fresh and sometimes startling look at the powerful muckraking journalist and the politician he so often pursued.
Again and again, Anderson displayed an uncanny ability to reach inside the Nixon White House to grab hold of embarrassing secrets, such as covert cash collected from billionaire Howard Hughes and a CIA plot to sabotage the elected government of Chilean President Salvador Allende. All of these disclosures enraged Nixon and inspired plots to discredit or silence the columnist.
In January 1972, the CIA, violating the law against domestic spying, assigned agents to follow Anderson to and from his home in a failed effort to discover his sources.
In March of that year, covert Nixon operatives, including G. Gordon Liddy (who now hosts a radio talk show), met at a hotel across from the White House. There, they discussed various scenarios to murder Anderson, including spiking his aspirin bottle with poison or putting LSD on the steering wheel of the columnist's car in hopes of spurring a fatal crash.
There are many such fly-on-the-wall scenes in the book, which reflects a gargantuan amount of research by author Feldstein, including the use of Nixon's White House recordings that had not previously been transcribed.
I got my own start as a journalist with Jack Anderson, working at his office from 1976 to 1979 as an intern, and then a young staff reporter. In those years, Jack was butting heads with President Jimmy Carter, a Democrat whom the Watergate scandal helped propel to the White House.
I initially questioned why Feldstein had focused so narrowly on the relationship between Anderson and Nixon. But as I waded into the book, that skepticism faded, as Feldstein chronicled the often intersecting arcs of their careers.
The Washington influence of both men peaked in the early 1970s and then declined. Nixon, less than two years after winning re-election to the presidency in a landslide victory, would resign after revelations that he obstructed justice by paying hush money to cover up the Watergate burglary.
Anderson, in a drive for headlines, would win a Pulitzer Prize in 1972, but that same year would recklessly accuse presidential candidate Thomas Eagleton of a half-dozen arrests for drunken and reckless driving. Anderson would later retract the charge, admitting an error that did serious damage to his reputation.
In the book's epilogue, Feinstein concludes that the ghosts of Nixon and Anderson continue to haunt modern Washington in the often corrosive relationship between the press and presidents.
Two of Nixon's young aides, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, felt that the presidency had been gravely weakened — and the media dangerously empowered — by Watergate and the scandals that enveloped the Nixon White House. These two players would resurface in the administration of a 21st century presidency, when press scrutiny was muted by the trauma of 9/11. Secret intelligence about alleged weapons of mass destruction in Iraq helped steer the nation to war, and only after the war began would that intelligence be thoroughly discredited.