Anderson, Jack Northman

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Anderson, Jack Northman

(b. 19 October 1922 in Long Beach, California; d. 17 December 2005 in Bethesda, Maryland), crusading investigative reporter and Pulitzer Prize–winning columnist whose exposés sent politicians to prison and upheld the banner of muckraking journalism in Washington, D.C., between World War II and the 1970s Watergate scandal.

Anderson was the eldest son of Orlando N. Anderson, a postal clerk, and Agnes (Mortensen) Anderson, a homemaker. He was raised in Cottonwood, Utah, on the outskirts of Salt Lake City, in a strict Mormon family that eschewed alcohol, tobacco, caffeine, and cursing. Anderson began working as a reporter at the age of twelve, writing first for the Boy Scout News, then for the Murray (UT) Eagle and for the Deseret News. He bicycled to news events, learned typing and shorthand at an early age, and graduated from Granite High School in 1940.

After attending the University of Utah for one year while working full-time for the Salt Lake Tribune, Anderson engaged in missionary work for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. From 1941 to 1944 he searched for converts across the rural South, preaching the Book of Mormon on a wooden soapbox. After being drafted in 1944 he joined the merchant marine and was stationed in the South Pacific. Afterward, he became a foreign correspondent in Asia and filed stories for the Associated Press and the Shanghai edition of Stars and Stripes, covering the Chinese Communist guerrilla campaign and meanwhile befriending China’s future premier Chou En-lai.

In 1947 Anderson moved to Washington, D.C., and was hired as a legman, a junior reporter, for the syndicated columnist Drew Pearson. Anderson covered the Senate and the Pentagon for Pearson’s daily column “Washington Merry-Go-Round” and for his popular nationwide radio program. Pearson, a crusader for progressive causes whose folksy writing style belied his hard-edged muckraking, was then the most powerful and feared investigative reporter in Washington, and Anderson quickly learned to uncover the sort of behind-the-scenes information on official wrongdoing that readers prized. Through the quarter century after World War II, when Washington journalists were largely deferential to politicians, Pearson and Anderson maintained a virtual monopoly on exposing misbehavior by government officials. They especially targeted right-wing congressmen and inept bureaucrats.

Anderson provided Pearson with the raw information that the columnist used to denounce administration cold warriors, from Lewis Strauss, the head of the Atomic Energy Commission, to the defense secretary James Forrestal, whose suicide many blamed on the muckrakers’ articles. Their receipt of classified government documents frequently made them subjects of surveillance by federal investigators. In time, the Wisconsin senator Joseph McCarthy, once a friend and source of Anderson’s, became the target of the young reporter, whose first book, McCarthy: The Man, the Senator, the “Ism” (1952), written with Ronald W. May, uncovered financial impropriety committed by the Communist-hunting senator. McCarthy, who had attended Anderson’s wedding reception, took the attack personally and thenceforth refused to allow Anderson to ride in the Senate elevator with him so as to prevent his “stinking it up.” In 1958 Anderson revealed that President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s chief of staff, Sherman Adams, had received vicuña coats and other gifts from the businessman Bernard Goldfine, and Eisenhower’s powerful aide was then forced from office. However, Anderson himself was also touched by scandal when he was caught red-handed with bugging equipment while eavesdropping on Goldfine in his suite at a Washington hotel.

Richard Nixon was a special bête noire of Pearson and Anderson. The columnists helped expose his secret slush fund in 1952, leading the Republican vice presidential nominee to give his celebrated “Checkers speech” in defense of his honor. In the speech, Nixon gained sympathy by declaring that his family would not relinquish its dog, named Checkers. On the eve of the closely fought 1960 election, the columnists revealed that the Nixon family had received a suspicious $205,000 “loan” from the billionaire government contractor Howard Hughes. Many believed that the story led to Nixon’s defeat by John F. Kennedy.

Anderson’s exposé of corruption on the part of Senator Thomas Dodd in 1966 and 1967 led to the Connecticut Democrat’s censure by the Senate and his failure to gain reelection. Anderson broke the story by cultivating a network of disillusioned Dodd staff members and persuading them to spend a year copying and smuggling out of their office incriminating internal files. The result was a series of more than 125 columns that destroyed Dodd personally and professionally and sent a collective chill down the spines of many other members of Congress.

In September 1969 Anderson inherited the “Washington Merry-Go-Round” column when Pearson died of a heart attack. Because he had labored in Pearson’s shadow for so many years, Anderson feared losing newspaper clients whose loyalty was to the better-known Pearson. However, Anderson proved more accurate and careful than his predecessor, and he soon started breaking major exposés of his own, thus increasing his newspaper client base.

In 1970 President Nixon tried wooing Anderson by having a longtime aide leak the confidential tax returns of the Alabama governor George Wallace to the reporter. Indeed, Anderson happily disclosed how the papers reflected corruption on the part of Nixon’s rival for the presidency, but Anderson also then revealed his source and continued his own attacks on the Nixon administration. In the spring of 1971 he published highly classified government documents that revealed the Nixon administration’s secret escalation of the Vietnam War at a time when the White House had claimed that the war was winding down. The revelations led to a massive internal government investigation, entailing polygraph tests, in an unsuccessful effort to locate the reporter’s source. The secret documents obtained by Anderson proved less famous but were in fact more sensitive than the Department of Defense study provided to the New York Times a few months later by the whistle-blower Daniel Ellsberg; the Pentagon Papers, as the study was widely known, were historical records, not contemporaneous documents of ongoing military action.

In December 1971 Anderson published still more classified government documents, this time revealing how the Nixon White House had deceived Congress and the public about its role supporting Pakistan in its ongoing war with India, as the administration had professed to be taking a neutral stance. Anderson went so far as to wave the classified papers at a press conference and hand them out to other reporters. The columnist won the 1972 Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting for these disclosures. Once again, the White House conducted a massive investigation in an attempt to locate Anderson’s sources, and at length an enraged Nixon reportedly ordered his staff to frame the reporter and the suspected source as homosexual lovers. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in fact began an illegal domestic surveillance operation against Anderson, renting an office across the street from his. However, Anderson discovered the spying and turned his nine children loose on the CIA agents; the Anderson children began taunting the sleuths, and the columnist made sport of it all in his column, turning the incident into a public-relations bonanza.

In March 1972 Anderson disclosed a secret memo written by a Washington lobbyist for the International Telephone and Telegraph (ITT) corporation. In the memo, the lobbyist pledged a contribution of $400,000 to the Republican convention in exchange for the Justice Department’s dropping antitrust litigation against ITT. The revelation led to protracted Senate hearings and eventually to criminal convictions against Attorney General Richard Kleindienst and CIA director Richard Helms for false testimony before Congress.

In the midst of the ITT scandal, two Nixon campaign aides, E. Howard Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy, plotted various methods of assassinating Anderson, such as by poison, by knifing, or by the staging of a fatal auto accident, in order to stop his muckraking. The plot was canceled at the last minute. Two and a half months later, Hunt and Liddy were arrested for breaking into the Watergate office headquarters of the Democratic Party, igniting the scandal that would eventually force Nixon’s 1974 resignation.

After Watergate, Anderson’s monopoly on investigative scoops in Washington came to an end, as mainstream media began offering alternative outlets for such journalism. Anderson continued to rack up exclusives, but he then occupied a less hallowed position in the eyes of the nation. Even before Watergate, in 1972, Anderson’s reputation was badly damaged when he was obligated to retract a false story alleging that the Democratic Missouri senator Thomas Eagleton had covered up drunk-driving arrests. In the 1980s Anderson grew close to President Ronald W. Reagan and withheld the publication of information regarding the Iran-Contra scandal, in which members of Reagan’s administration sold arms to Iran and used the money to illegally fund the Contras, a guerrilla group in Nicaragua. Anderson later admitted that his self-censorship, which symbolized the decline of the independence and power of his column, had been a mistake. Anderson developed Parkinson’s disease in 1986, and beginning around that time he brought aboard a series of collaborators, including Les Whitten, Dale Van Atta, Joseph Spear, Mike Binstein, and Jan Moller, in unsuccessful attempts to restore his column to its glory days.

Anderson retired in 2004, bringing to an end after seventy-three years the longest-running syndicated column in American history. He died of complications from Parkinson’s disease in December 2005 at his home in suburban Washington, D.C. Two months later his family successfully resisted a heavy-handed effort by the Federal Bureau of Investigation to rummage through his uncataloged archives at George Washington University. Anderson, by some deemed the last of the old-fashioned muckrakers, is buried in a family graveyard in southwest Virginia. He was survived by his wife, Olivia (Farley) Anderson, whom he married on 10 August 1949, and nine children.

For information on Anderson’s life, see his memoirs Confessions of a Muckraker: The Inside Story of Life in Washington During the Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson Years (1979), written with James Boyd, and Peace, War, and Politics: An Eyewitness Account (1999), written with Daryl Gibson. For analyses of his impact on the political world, see Timothy Chambless’s University of Utah doctoral dissertation, “Muckraker at Work: Columnist Jack Anderson and the Watergate Scandal” (1987); and Mark Feldstein, “The Last Muckraker,” Washington Post (28 July 2004). Obituaries are in the Washington Post (17 Dec. 2005) and New York Times (18 Dec. 2005).

Mark Feldstein

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Anderson, Jack Northman

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