Saturday, December 17, 2005

Jack Anderson: A Remembrance

The columnist and muckraker Jack Anderson has died. He was 83, and suffering from Parkinson's.

From Joe McCarthy to Richard Nixon, he took on all of them, and was, despite all his shortcomings, when it came to his journalism, fearless. In the current day as the public has pushed back against insider, access journalism--whether it be that of Bob Woodward, Judith Miller, or Robert Novak--Anderson understood it was his role to be an outsider, not just in regards to the politicians he covered, but also to the established order of journalism, which has always been part of the problem.

I hope to blog and write about him some more in coming days, and link to some of the better articles, remembrances, and obituaries that are sure to come.

By way of disclosure, he was my first boss in journalism. He put me to work for him between my freshman and sophomore years in college. I was eighteen at the time. The power of his column was so great that I could get a Congressman or Deputy Secretary of Defense on the phone in ten minutes, the person I was calling always anxious as to why someone from Jack's office was phoning. The phone was always better than visiting in person: When I went out for interviews, the subjects often took one look at me and just laughed out loud. I may have been eighteen, but I was one of those kids who was eighteen looking like fifteen. The cherub, however, always got the last laugh in over 1,000 newspapers.

He always liked the kids like me that worked for him. The Times notes that Jack began his own journalism career at a very young age: "At 12, Jack began editing the Boy Scout Page of the Desert News, a [Mormon] church-owned newapaper. He soon progressed to a $7-a-week job with a local paper, the Murray-Eagle, where he bicycled to cover fires and traffic accidents."

"At 18, he landed a reporting job at the Salt Lake City Tribune."

In 1947, he was hired on as a "leg-man" for Drew Pearson. He took over the column from Pearson in 1969.

The Times says his column had more than forty million readers at its height. Still, he never took himself too seriously, nor did those of us who worked for him. Early on in my job, his famous secretary/gate-keeper Opal Ginn suggested that I go out and buy a beer for my new boss. A non-drinking, devout Mormon, he simply said thanks, and never mentioned it again.

He always enjoyed a good prank. In his memoirs, he wrote about how I once called up a notoriously pro-Richard Nixon columnist, Victor Lasky, and impersonated Nixon. Lasky never for a moment doubted that he was talking to the ex-President. What Jack left out of the story was that he put me up to the call in the first place, and he was listening in on the extension. The Times wrote this morning that he had forty million readers at the height of his column, but I have a... blog!.. and now too sadly, too sad for words, once again have the last word.

He paid me $75 a story to start, and he later raised my pay to $125 a column, until I started to write more than one a week, whereupon he decided I deserved something more "permanent" and a "raise": I was going to now make a regular salary of $125 a week!

Mark Feldstein, a friend, who currently is a journalism professor, and is writing a biography of Jack for FSG, told the AP earlier this morning: "He was a bridge for the muckrakers of a century ago and the crop that came out of Watergate." Feldstein somehow landed an internship with Jack while still in high school.

I think he thought it was in the highest traditions of constitutional democracy, simultaneously in a mischievious and high-minded League of Women's Voters kinda way, to have kids not old enough to legally drink to demand answers from the most powerful people who run our government. He had nine kids at home and he had just as many at the office, and time for all of us.

Among the other reporters who worked for Jack during the same period I did were Tony Cappacio, who has distinguished himself over the years with his reporting on the Pentagon; Gary Cohn, who went on to win a Pulitzer Prize and is currently an investigative reporter for the Los Angeles Times; Howard Rosenberg, a reporter and producer for CBS News; Howard Kurtz; the late Joe Spear; and Les Whiten, who for a while co-bylined Jack's column and later became a novelist. Simply working for the column, and him, was an education in and of itself, and had indelible impacts on the way we now go about our reporting.

His journalism was not without serious faults. As Mark Feldstein has written: "To be sure his flaws could be glaring. He was bombastic and self-righteous, even when retracting false stories, such as his false report that a Democratic Vice Presidential nominee [then-Sen. Tom Eagleton in 1972] had been arrested for drunk driving. The muckraker's unsavory techniques included threats, rifling through garbage, and financial relationships with sources.. His cliche-ridden evangelical style was an anachronism that sacrificed complex truths for simplistic but dramatic portrayals of good guys vs. bad."

But his body of work (although he would edit out my phrase "body of work" here as too pretentious)--his exposes of Joe McCarthy, his reporting on Nixon White House, Kissinger, and Watergate; and on the institutional abuses of the CIA and FBI--are clearly without parallel by any other investigative reporter of his era.

And those he wrote about pushed back. J. Edgar Hoover was fixated on evening scores with both Drew Pearson and Jack Anderson, at a time when there were virtually no checks on Hoover's power. Watergate burglar G. Gordon Liddy spoke of scheming to have Anderson murdered, after it was suggested that the Nixon presidency would be well served by the disappearance of the columnist from the Washington scene. Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed by Nixon's men, and Jack died peacefully in his sleep, in his own bed, at the age of 83.

Sometimes it was personal: The Washington Post's obit quoted him saying many years ago: "Contrary to popular theology, there is nothing that produces as much exhiliration and zest for living as an ugly, protracted, bitter-end vendetta that rages for years and comes close to ruining both sides." Hoover and Nixon did themselves in, long before, thankfully, they had a chance to do in Jack.

The pressures on journalists to do this type of work today are more from within than without: corporate bosses who do not view what we do as a public trust; an insular Washington press corps that does not tolerate anyone within its ranks deviating too far from the conventional wisdom; and the Bill O'Reilys and chattering cable class that are practicing something other than journalism, even as they hide behind its ever diminishing good name.

Forget pressures from without, as Michael Massing wrote in a recent essay in the New York Review of Books, "Today's Reporters: The Enemy Within." A foot race is taking place as to who will cause the public to lose whatever confidence they place in us: those in power who do not like the fact that a diminishing number of us continue to challnge them, or journalists themselves, journalists who themselves cluelessly lend the impression that self absorption and acceptance by the elites they cover are their driving values.

The "social calendar" is now the pervasive drive, Massing writes: "The most popular [event of the journalistic social calendar] is the White House Correspondents' Dinner. This year, hundreds of the nation's top journalists showed up at the Washington Hilton to mix with White House officials, military brass, Cabinet chiefs, diplomats, and actors. Laura Bush's naughty Desperate Housewives routine, in which she teased her husband for his early-to-bed habits and his attempt to milk a male horse, was shown over and over on the TV news; what wasn't shown was the journalists jumping to feet and applauding wildly.

"Afterward, many of the journalists and their guests went to the hot post-dinner party, hosted by Bloomberg News. On his blog, The Naton's David Corn described arriving with Newsweek's Mike Isikoff... Seeing the long line, Corn feared he wouldn't get in, but suddenly"--thank God!--he was "whisked" into the "entourage" of a media celebrity who had entry.

The key word here is "entree"--whether it be Judith Miller's entree to Scooter Libby, Michael Wolff getting the right table at Michael's or mention in the right gossip column, David Corn's entree to the right after-party, or the beat repeater's entry to the two o'clock briefing.

Jack never gave a damn about entry. That alone did not make him a truly great investigative journalist. But it is the first step along the way at even having a shot to become one.

Like all of us, Jack coveted acceptance by his peers, but even his one Pulitzer Prize for reporting about the Nixon's administration's secret diplomacy towards India and Pakistan was a reluctant nod by the journalistic establishment that it was more necessary for their own credibility to acknowledge him than he them.

One last personal note: Don't ever put off visiting those people who have been part of your life when they are seriously ill. You will very much regret it. Even though I knew that Jack was so ill, I kept putting off plans to go over to visit with him because of deadlines at work and family obligations.

I did have a nice chat with him over the phone not too long ago; he was enduring both the ravages of Parkinsons and of being bed-ridden with considerable grace and humor. We talked for a long, long while, and the conversation was mostly private. But then he grew tired, and he told me he was going to have a feeding tube replaced: "A great moment in history! Columnist to have feeding tube replaced," he said. But he was indeed there for so many great moments in history, even sometimes effecting changes of history all by himself.

And then as he grew tired, and as someone--a family member, a nurse, I am not sure who, was entering the room--he said he had to go. It was too soon. He had to go too soon, and he was gone too soon.

I will deeply miss him.

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