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Monday, Sept. 20, 2010

Richard Nixon and ‘The Rise of Washington’s Scandal Culture’

Mark Feldstein examines relationship between White House and the press

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When Richard Nixon declared to a gathering of editors in 1973, “I am not a crook,” he was wrong. He was a crook, and columnist Jack Anderson did more than anyone to expose his manifold crookedness.

Anderson, meanwhile, was the Rodney Dangerfield of journalists. Even worse, actually: While Dangerfield’s lack of respect was an act, Anderson really got no, or little, respect from his colleagues. Like Dangerfield, however, he was no slouch at delivering the goods to his audience.


Mark Feldstein details Nixon’s misdeeds in his superb Poisoning the Press: Richard Nixon, Jack Anderson, and the Rise of Washington’s Scandal Culture (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). All of the actions involved Nixon directly or indirectly and were first brought to light in the syndicated newspaper column “Washington Merry-Go-Round,” created by Drew Pearson. Anderson worked for Pearson from 1947 until Pearson’s death in 1969, when Anderson took over the column. The following is a partial list of the many instances of Nixonian corruption:

In 1952, Nixon’s secret personal slush fund, which resulted in the famous, maudlin “Checkers” speech that rescued his career.

  • In 1956, contributions to the Nixon campaign from Mafia members.

  • Also in 1956, but not revealed until 1960, Howard Hughes’ $205,000 “loan” to Nixon’s brother Donald as a way of obtaining contracts and favors from the administration. From it Nixon learned the cutthroat tactics that “would become not his salvation but his ruin.”

  • In 1971, another secret payment from Hughes, this time to Nixon for $100,000.

  • Also in 1971, exposure of covert operations in Vietnam and the sham of peace talks. That the rest of the press did not follow up shows Anderson’s low status and the White House’s ability to control events and the perception of them.

This exposé was considerably more damaging than the better-known “Pentagon Papers” case, for the latter was about historical matters while Anderson’s was about ongoing operations. But it was the “Pentagon Papers” that brought about the creation of the White House unit—known as “the Plumbers” for their mission of plugging leaks—that led to the Watergate scandal and Nixon’s downfall and resignation.

  • In 1972, the largest financial scandal of all: ITT’s pledge of $400,000 to the Republican National Convention in return for Justice Department approval of ITT’s takeover of other companies.

  • Around the same time, a conspiracy between the CIA and ITT to overthrow Salvador Allende, the Marxist president of Chile.

But Anderson did not cover the most egregious outrage: his own assassination plot. In March 1972 Nixon aide Charles Colson orchestrated a meeting, which G. Gordon Liddy and E. Howard Hunt have admitted attending, to discuss plans to kill the columnist. The extent of Nixon’s involvement is unknown, but the author and others claim that Colson never did anything without Nixon’s OK.

Although largely forgotten today, Anderson once was the most widely read newsman in the United States. At its peak his daily 750-word exposé was published in nearly 1,000 newspapers, and it became the longest-running and most popular syndicated column in the nation.

Feldstein, an award-winning journalist and member of the faculty of George Washington University, notes several parallels between the lives of Nixon and Anderson. Anderson was a journalistic pariah because his muckraking investigative technique, though highly effective, was looked down upon by establishment journalists. Nixon, likewise, felt himself scorned by the political establishment.

Both came out of the West and from severe religious traditions, Nixon from California and Quakerism, Anderson from Utah and Mormonism. Both had disapproving fathers and ne’er-do-well, embarrassing brothers. Both had longtime, extremely devoted secretaries, Nixon’s Rose Mary Woods and Anderson’s Opal Ginn.

And Anderson’s hands were not entirely clean, either. With nine children to feed and a parsimonious boss in Pearson, he took money from Washington news sources he covered and moonlighted by writing speeches for a senator he also praised in the column.

Feldstein makes a strong case for his chief contention, 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.” The struggle between Nixon and the press “reveals not only how one president sabotaged the press, but also how this rancorous relationship continues to the present day,” creating the “Scandal Culture” of the book’s subtitle.

For those of us who experienced those exhilarating, perilous times, Poisoning the Press lets us relive them. For those who did not, it is a reminder that their government lied then, it is lying today and it will lie in the future. And to Jack Anderson it gives some respect.