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Nixon's Failed Attempts At 'Poisoning The Press'
DAVE DAVIES, host:
This is FRESH AIR. Iâm Dave Davies, sitting in for Terry Gross.
Richard Nixon is remembered as a ruthless politician, driven at times by fear
and hatred of his perceived enemies. My guest, Mark Feldstein, suggests Nixonâs
paranoia was rooted at least in part in his own experience and that he wasnât
crazy to think his enemies were out to get him.
Feldsteinâs new book describes the epic battle between Nixon and muckraking
syndicated columnist Jack Anderson. Anderson, Feldstein writes, found plenty of
corruption to expose in Nixonâs career but bent plenty of ethical rules
himself, even to the point of breaking the law. Anderson won a Pulitzer Prize
for his exposes of the Nixon administration. But the conflict between the two
became so intense that Nixon ordered CIA surveillance of Anderson and his
family, and White House operatives seriously considered assassinating him.
Anderson died in 2005.
Mark Feldstein spent nearly 20 years as a television correspondent and
investigative reporter for CNN, ABC and NBC, twice winning the Peabody Award
for Public Service. He's now an associate professor of media and public affairs
at George Washington University. His book is called "Poisoning the Press:
Richard Nixon, Jack Anderson and the Rise of Washington's Scandal Culture."
Well, Mark Feldstein, welcome to FRESH AIR.
Mr. MARK FELDSTEIN (Author, "Poisoning the Press: Richard Nixon, Jack Anderson
and the Rise of Washington's Scandal Culture"): Thank you, Dave, I'm delighted
to be here.
DAVIES: This is about a battle between a politician and a journalist that was
personal and vicious, the details of which in some ways give no great credit to
either man. But you tell us some interesting things about their background,
which sort of equipped them for this battle. Let's just talk just a little bit
about Nixon first.
Mr. FELDSTEIN: Well, one of the ironies is that the two men, Richard Nixon and
Jack Anderson, had so much in common in their backgrounds, despite their mutual
hatred. Nixon was born in California, raised in a kind of lower-middle-class
family, son of the Great Depression. So was Jack Anderson.
They both were raised with devout Christian parents - in Nixon's case, he was a
Quaker. Anderson's a Latter Day Saint, Mormon. Strict, kind of unbending
fundamentalist religions is the way they were both brought up. Volatile fathers
with explosive tempers that they learned to either avoid or defy. And they both
served in sea duty during World War II and then came back afterwards to
Washington, D.C., where they engaged in a different kind of war against each
other for a generation.
DAVIES: Yeah, you said that Nixon sort of learned to seek power, Anderson
learned to subvert it. I was fascinated to read that Anderson's father was so
careful with money that he rented a house and made the family live in a
basement and use an outhouse, to rent it out.
Mr. FELDSTEIN: That's right. Jack Anderson's father had an ascetic streak that
was striking even by the typical values of the Great Depression. He even rode
his bicycle across from Utah to California while the rest of his family took
the train for vacation.
And so Anderson was brought up with this great sense of economic deprivation,
and it would dog him in terms of sort of financial scandals that he would be
involved in because he, like his father, had this kind of need for money that
would dog him as a journalist, lead to, you know, payoffs, essentially.
DAVIES: Anderson becomes a journalist at an early age, has a knack for stories,
gossip and news, and in 1947 gets his big break when he moves to Washington and
becomes a researcher for the syndicated columnist Drew Pearson. Just tell us
where Pearson was in the American landscape of his day.
Mr. FELDSTEIN: Well, in his day, Drew Pearson was the most famous and feared
investigative reporter in the nation. He dominated Washington from World War â
really, the Great Depression, 1932, he started his column, until his death in
And his column the Washington Merry-go-Round, was unlike any other in the
country. It had nationwide reach that prohibited it from being censored by any
single editor or single publisher. And Pearson was this combative Quaker who
used his column to smite his foes. And he fought on the side of progressivism,
pacifism and was an unusual left-wing voice, investigative voice, in the
DAVIES: And Anderson was one of his researchers or leg men, as they called them
in the day. And in 1952, when Richard Nixon, then a young senator, was the
Republican vice presidential candidate, along with Dwight Eisenhower, Jack
Anderson and Drew Pearson went after him. They'd found some compromising
information about money he might have gotten, and this led to a big moment in
Nixon's career. What happened?
Mr. FELDSTEIN: What happened is they uncovered Nixon's slush fund, as it was
called, that Congressmen and Senator Nixon was pocketing money from corporate
interests whose water he was carrying in Congress. So they'd discovered this
and while they were investing it, Nixon decided to preempt the scandal that
they were about to break.
And he gave what has since become known as his infamous Checkers speech. This
was a speech live to the nation, where he defended his honor, made sort of
selective financial disclosure and culminated in his emotional invoking of how
his daughters had received a little gift from a man in Texas, a cocker spaniel
named Checkers, and he doesn't care what they say, his daughters are going to
And that resonated emotionally with the public, and a huge base, particularly
of hardcore Republican conservatives, swelled to his defense and pressured
Eisenhower to keep Nixon on the ticket.
Meanwhile, liberal Democrats were nauseated by it, thought it was a maudlin
speech. And the polarization that Nixon's career would have there ever after
was indelibly marked.
DAVIES: And the interesting thing is that he didn't really answer the questions
of impropriety that were raised. He slipped the noose, in effect, from Anderson
and Pearson and left them infuriated.
Mr. FELDSTEIN: Yes, they did because they were able to show that Nixon was, in
fact, contrary to what he said, doing all kinds of favors for the people who
gave money to his fund. But Nixon had already won the PR battle with that
emotional speech, and at that point, nobody else wanted to hear the details.
DAVIES: Pearson and Anderson stayed right after him, after Nixon really
effectively dodged the bullet in that Checkers speech, wrote a hard-hitting
series of columns but kind of overreached in a way, didn't they?
Mr. FELDSTEIN: They did. Soon thereafter, after Nixon was elected vice
president, they published a false story based on a forged document that claimed
that Nixon was getting payoffs from Union Oil, one of the biggest oil
companies, now Chevron, and it turned out to have been a fraudulent document,
distributed by the Democratic National Committee.
And not only did they do a story on this, but they worked behind the scenes,
hand in glove with Democrats, to orchestrate congressional hearings to try to
keep Nixon from being seated as vice president.
So Nixon's paranoia really goes back to the very beginning, and the paranoia
that would ultimately bring his destruction in Watergate had some basis in
fact. And it goes back to, among other things, this forged memo that Jack
Anderson and Drew Pearson publicized.
DAVIES: Right, and this blood feud continues right through the 1950s, as Nixon
is vice president. And in 1958, Anderson himself is snared in a bugging
controversy. What happened?
Mr. FELDSTEIN: In 1958, Anderson was caught red-handed with a Democratic
congressional investigator bugging the fellow who was kind of the Jack Abramoff
of his day, the crooked businessman who was bribing President Eisenhower's
White House chief of staff.
And the police were summoned to the scene. There were banner headlines across
the country, photos of Anderson looking very embarrassed plastered across the
front pages of the newspaper.
And even though Anderson had dug up this incredible scandal about the bribery
of the White House chief of staff, Nixon helped stoke the flames to turn it
against Anderson and plant editorials and letters to the editor criticizing
Anderson and turn it around.
So from that beginning, you have Nixon now retaliating against Anderson, and
you have this sense that these kind of dirty tricks are the way Washington
DAVIES: Now, this is an amazing tale to read. I mean, why wasn't Anderson
arrested and charged?
Mr. FELDSTEIN: Well, there was actually no crime he committed. Because he was
with a congressional investigator, he argued that he was just there as a
reporter covering the story.
In fact, behind the scenes, he was really the principal mover and shaker. And
indeed, they could have nailed him on perjury because he did, in fact, perjure
himself when asked under oath where he got the bugging equipment. He feigned
amnesia, as he later admitted, decades later, in some oral history interviews.
But he got away with saying I don't know.
And the lesson that Anderson learned from that escapade, a normal reporter, if
you will, would have been scared off, backed away. Not Anderson. He relished
the limelight, and he learned to up the ante, and he and Drew Pearson both
threatened to investigate the Eisenhower administration, hold hearings on this,
gin up the Democrats in Congress, and the Eisenhower administration backed off.
And the lesson Jack Anderson took away was to raise, rather than lower, the
ante when caught, to go all the way up to bribery and blackmail, and he learned
to be a high-stakes riverboat gambler.
DAVIES: There was another Nixon-related story about a payoff from the
millionaire Howard Hughes that Anderson was working on for Drew Pearson. And
Nixon believed that the Kennedys were involved in this. What did you find out
Mr. FELDSTEIN: Well, that's absolutely right. On the verge of the 1960
election, when it was neck and neck between John Kennedy and Richard Nixon,
Jack Anderson and Drew Pearson broke this story that Nixon's people believed,
and Nixon himself believed, cost him that narrow loss in 1960.
They discovered that Nixon and his family were the recipient of a $205,000
loan, as it was called, from billionaire Howard Hughes, who had this vast
business empire that was heavily dependent on federal contracts, federal
regulation, and that the Nixon family disguised this loan through a series of
middlemen to try to hide the fingerprints of Howard Hughes.
Well, it turned out the whole thing was leaked to them by the Kennedys. And in
fact, there was a break-in at the office of an accountant to get the paperwork
that was given to Jack Anderson documenting all this, a break-in, by the way,
very much like the Watergate break-in that would occur just a dozen years
So again, this fuels Richard Nixon's sense of victimization, this sense that
burglary, like bugging, is routine in Washington politics. This furthers his
He always believed he was the true winner of the 1960 election, that it was
stolen from him. And he carried this enormous grudge about the dirty tricks
Jack Anderson and the Kennedys were involved in to, as he saw it, deprive him
of his rightful place as being president instead of John Kennedy.
DAVIES: And just to be clear, we don't know for a fact that the Kennedys were
behind the break-in, right?
Mr. FELDSTEIN: We can't say that the Kennedys themselves were behind the break-
in. What we can say is that the Kennedys' bagman, if you will, a fellow by the
name of James McInerney, Joseph P. Kennedy's personal lawyer, paid off the
accountant who provided these documents. And we know that these documents were
crucial in exposing the scandal and that the accountant received these
documents thanks to a mysterious package he received that his partners said was
a break-in, a burglary, and that they filed a police report stating such.
So it's â we know there was a burglary and a break-in. We know the Kennedys
paid the man who supplied the documents that resulted from that break-in, and
we know the Kennedys benefitted from this dirt on Richard Nixon that Jack
DAVIES: We're speaking with Mark Feldstein. His new book is "Poisoning the
Press." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: If you're just joining us, our guest is George Washington University
journalism professor Mark Feldstein. He's written a new book about the battle
between journalist Jack Anderson and Richard Nixon. It's called "Poisoning the
DAVIES: You know, there's a view of Richard Nixon that he may have been
ruthless, and he may have been power hungry, but he wasn't personally corrupt.
After looking at all you've looked at, what's your view?
Mr. FELDSTEIN: I don't share that belief. That was Nixon's primary defense,
that, you know, yes he abused his power, but it was only for the good of the
country. In fact, a close look at the record suggests he did personally benefit
financially from his time in office. Not that that was exceedingly unusual for
his time, but he was a modest man who spent almost all of his life in public
office, and yet he accumulated a small fortune well before he left the
How did he do it? Well, the record shows and much of the new information I've
dug up suggests that he was essentially taking payoffs along the way. Jack
Anderson also told me about yet another alleged payoff, this from the Somoza
regime, the dictatorship in Nicaragua, that Nixon pocketed $5,000 in cash from
a bagman who was one of his sources, a Washington lobbyist named Irving
And then finally, during Watergate, Anderson broke the story of how Nixon
pocketed yet another $100,000 in cash from Howard Hughes while he was in the
White House, funneled through his best friend Bebe Rebozo.
So all of these things add up to a politician who was not just abusing power
the way we're all familiar with - the Watergate cover-up, the payoffs, the hush
money to the burglars, the obstruction of justice, the misuse of his office -
but also on the take.
DAVIES: I'm glad you mentioned Irving Davidson, this lobbyist who may have
funneled these payments from the Nicaraguan dictator to Nixon, because Jack
Anderson himself had essentially a corrupt relationship with this same
Mr. FELDSTEIN: Well, that's the great irony here, and perhaps one of the
reasons why Anderson never exposed Nixon's corruption with Davidson is that,
yes, indeed, Anderson himself was pocketing money from this lobbyist who
represented not only Somoza, the Duvaliers and other foreign dictators but also
the mafia in Washington, Carlos Marcello(ph), the mob boss of New Orleans, and
Jimmy Hoffa, who was mobbed-up.
And Anderson was getting cash from Davidson for years. He was getting hotel
bills paid by Davidson. I have the checks. And in fact, when I went and
interviewed Irv Davidson, he pulled out a file on Anderson, proudly showed me
the columns Anderson wrote that were favorable to these clients of his, these
rather sleazy and unsavory clients.
And when he pulled out these files, out from the files spilled a copy of a
check that he had written to Jack Anderson for I think it was $30,000, just
So these payments extended from the 1950s through the late 1980s at the very
least. Davidson told me he was also paying the Anderson children. So yes,
Anderson, like Nixon, was not a wealthy man, and Irv Davidson, this unsavory
lobbyist who was paying off Nixon, was also Anderson's financial angel. And
each must have known about the other's payoff. Neither could expose it without
DAVIES: You spoke to Anderson at some length before he died, didn't you?
Mr. FELDSTEIN: Yes, I did. I interviewed him extensively over a number of
DAVIES: So help us understand how he viewed this. I mean, he's this crusading
journalist in Washington, unearthing corruption and impropriety, just engaging
in all this unscrupulous stuff himself. How did he see himself?
Mr. FELDSTEIN: Well, he didn't see it that way. People have an amazing ability
to rationalize what they want to rationalize. And like Nixon, he was actually a
very righteous Christian, and he really believed he was doing the Lord's work.
I actually believe that the good Jack Anderson did far outweighed the bad he
did. But he never was able to reconcile this. I mean, I asked him about the
payoffs from Irv Davidson, for example, and he said it wasn't a conflict of
interest because at the time he was accepting the money, he wasn't actually
writing about Davidson's clients.
That was a not a very convincing defense, given the fact that the payments
spanned decades, and over those decades, Anderson was writing about it.
I think the real answer is in his own mind, the moral calculus made it worth
it. That he got more from Davidson in the way of information and money than he
lost by the compromises he made in taking this money. I think that's the way he
rationalized it. And mostly he saw himself as doing the Lord's work here on
earth. The Mormon religion believes that the Constitution, including the First
Amendment, is divinely inspired.
And he saw the larger good of all of the other crooks he exposed as being worth
the occasional compromises and tradeoffs he had to make. That's his
explanation, not mine.
DAVIES: Richard Nixon, of course, loses the 1960 election to John Kennedy. Two
years later, he runs and loses for governor of California and then manages to
rehabilitate his career and win the presidency in 1968.
And Jack Anderson takes over Drew Pearson's column shortly thereafter. And so,
once Nixon is president, you have Anderson, who is this, you know, leading
syndicated columnist and he just tormented Nixon. Give us some sense of some of
the scoops he got and what they meant for the Nixon administration.
Mr. FELDSTEIN: You know, 1969 becomes the apogee of both of their careers.
Nixon finally assumes the highest office in the land, the presidency. Anderson
finally inherits the Washington Merry-go-Round column for himself.
And this battle now between the president and the columnist, who is running the
most widely read column in the world, now continues with each of them having
much more power at their disposal to go after each other.
And Anderson begins the battle just a few months after Nixon is inaugurated,
when he trumps up a bogus charges that there is a gay sex ring in the White
It was complete nonsense, disinformation planted by one of Nixon's aides,
Murray Chotiner, who is seeking revenge against some other Nixon aides, H.R.
Haldeman and John Ehrlichman, who have supplanted him in being in proximity to
So Anderson goes by the FBI, tells them this rumor he's heard, and J. Edgar
Hoover, the FBI director, immediately jumps on this and uses it essentially to
blackmail Nixon. He calls in Haldeman; he calls in Ehrlichman. He gets their
denials that they're gay under oath. He vows to lock it up in his safe so no
one in the FBI will ever find out about it. And he uses it as leverage,
basically, so that Nixon feels compelled to keep him on.
And Anderson, who's just having a little bit of fun and maybe trying to shake
down another story out of the FBI, starts rattling Nixon's cages, you know,
even before the glow of his inauguration has worn off.
DAVIES: Mark Feldstein's book is called "Poisoning the Press: Richard Nixon,
Jack Anderson and the Rise of Washington's Scandal Culture." He'll be back in
the second half of the show. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. Iâm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross.
We're speaking with Mark Feldstein, whose new book, "Poisoning the Press,"
chronicles the long-running battle between Richard Nixon and investigative
journalist Jack Anderson.
Feldstein writes that Anderson could be as determined as Nixon, at times
bending ethical rules to get his scoops. When we left off, we were talking
about how Anderson tormented the Nixon White House with a series of
He got secret memos involving the Vietnam War, involving the American role in
the India-Pakistan War in 1971, and Nixon and his aides and Kissinger were just
beside themselves with fury. Youâve done a lot of research on this and looked
at some newly released Nixon tapes, how did Nixon and his people respond to
Mr. FELDSTEIN: Well, youâre absolutely right. Fury is indeed the word to
describe the reaction in the White House, and there are all these new White
House tapes that have not come out yet before that shows the extent to which
Nixon and his aides were absolutely obsessed by Jack Anderson and his scoops.
Jack Anderson, he was kind of the WikiLeaks of his day. He was an investigative
reporter publishing and distributing classified documents before anybody else
did, before "The Pentagon Papers," as a journalist. And his scoops on the
Vietnam War were real-time exclusives about all kinds of top secret
information, secret bombing raids, secret tapping of the president of South
Vietnam, our ostensible ally. And the Nixon tapes and documents show that his
aides were talking about hanging him, bringing him to trial, trying him for
espionage, all these things.
And then he followed that up just a few months later with, again, explosive
real-time documents from the top levels of inside the White House and the
Pentagon, showing how the Nixon administration was secretly arming Pakistan in
its war with India, even though Nixon was professing U.S. neutrality in the
war, and how Nixon and Kissinger were deceiving Congress, deceiving the
American people about our tilt toward Pakistan, which brought us to the brink
of confrontation with the Soviets. And all of this was kept from the American
people at the time until Anderson exposed those documents and the White House
DAVIES: They, at one point, had the CIA tailing him, right?
Mr. FELDSTEIN: They did. They did everything. They drew up plans to prosecute
Anderson. The Nixon CIA sent a team of 16 covert agents that surveilled
Anderson and his family and his staff around the clock for weeks, months at a
time. And there are hilarious documents that I found, under the Freedom of
Information Act and in the Anderson archives, showing the kind of Keystone Cop
mentality as these agents try to follow Anderson around trying to discover who
his sources are. And they're so inept at it that they're easily spotted by
Anderson's and his children, and he has nine children all, you know, mostly
teenagers, and they had a ball making sport of the CIA agents.
They would go up to them and wave. They would take their pictures. They would
sneak up from behind and let the air out of their tires. They would dress up
like their father in trench coats and hats, several of them, and jump into
several different cars and screech off in different directions to drive the CIA
agents nuts, because they didnât know which one was really Anderson and which
one to follow.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. FELDSTEIN: They had high-speed chases in their suburban Washington
neighborhood. I mean this was, you know, an adolescent dream of getting out
your high jinks.
DAVIES: In a lot of the tapes, Nixon seems obsessed with homosexuality and
whether his enemies were gay. You see this over the years. Did he think
Anderson and Drew Pearson, his, the columnist that he worked for earlier, that
they were gay too?
Mr. FELDSTEIN: He did. And, in fact, there are White House tapes where he talks
about it. It really seems bizarre to us now, but Nixon did indeed have a phobia
about homosexuality. You know, you have to remember that in the 1950s, when he
was sort of coming of age - 1940s - not much was known about homosexuality and
Communists and queers were what Joe McCarthy campaigned against. So they were
both seen as the other as this sort of foreign dangerous threat. And Nixon
became convinced that homosexuality was behind a lot of the subversion that was
going on. And the Nixon tapes show that Nixon believed that Drew Pearson and
Jack Anderson were gay. He believed that Anderson's source of the classified
India-Pakistan papers was gay - that they must be gay lovers and he ordered
aides to surveil them in the hopes of catching them in bed together.
So he was obsessed by this homosexual angle and he ordered his investigators to
probe for homosexuality. They never found it, but he even went so far as to
order them to smear Anderson as gay anyway, even though they found no evidence
of it. The irony is Anderson himself was homophobic, as so many men of that
DAVIES: The scandal that brought Nixon down, the Watergate scandal, kind of
left Anderson behind in some ways. I mean other reporters really took the lead
on that as well as, of course, congressional investigators and federal
prosecutors. But it was fascinating to read in your book that Anderson himself
was almost way ahead of this story.
Mr. FELDSTEIN: Yes. Jack Anderson was ahead of the Watergate story in two
respects. First, he exposed what was really the precursor to Watergate, which
is known as the ITT scandal. This was a scandal where he got a smoking gun
document from Dita Beard, the Washington lobbyist for ITT, one of the largest
corporations, International Telephone and Telegraph, of its time, and he and
his young leg man at the time, Brit Hume, who, of course, later became famous
as an anchor man for Fox News, they broke this story in essence of how the
Nixon administration took a bribe - or how the Republican Convention took a
bribe, $400,000 was pledged by ITT, and in exchange they dropped antitrust
action, watered down antitrust action, against ITT. And Anderson and Hume
obtained the smoking gun document that proved it, which the lobbyist herself
This threatened Nixon more than any of Anderson's national security secrets
because it got to the heart of the corruption at the center of the Nixon re-
election campaign. And Nixon's men went into overdrive trying to contain this
scandal. They decided to plant false documents with Anderson, they plotted
about breaking into his office, typing up documents on White House stationery
on his typewriter, leaking it to him so that when he published it they could
trace it to his typewriter and accuse him of forging documents. They, according
to testimony I have in my book, concocted false photographs to put Anderson in
photos to implicate him in wrongdoing. They engaged in all kinds of dirty
tricks to try to stop Anderson from this - punish Anderson for this expose. And
this was really the precursor to Watergate. And this was when they, you know,
came up with a plot to actually assassinate Jack Anderson.
DAVIES: Well, I wanted to talk about that, because after Nixon's re-election in
1972, they decided they really had to deal with Anderson. And the notion that
there had been talk of assassinating Anderson, that was revealed a couple of
decades ago. What did you learn about how serious an effort this was to kill
Mr. FELDSTEIN: The plot to assassinate Anderson turned out to have been much
more serious than anyone realized. There are documents in the National Archives
that have never been released before in which prosecutors discuss this,
investigated this. And I got what amounted to a confession from one of the
conspirators, Howard Hunt, the Watergate burglar, before his death in 2003,
where he admitted for the first time what his co-conspirator, Gordon Liddy, had
already admitted - that the two of them plotted to assassinate Anderson.
In fact, they went beyond merely plotting. They actually conducted surveillance
of Anderson. They tailed him from his work spot, garage, to his house. They
staked out his house. They looked at it for vulnerabilities, how they could
break in, how they could plant poison in his aspirin bottle - that was one of
the methods they discussed using. They talked about how they could spike his
drink and they talked about smearing LSD on his steering wheel so that he would
absorb it through his skin and die in a hallucination-crazed auto crash. They
met with an agent from CIA who was a specialist in poisons. They met just a
block from the White House at the Hay-Adams Hotel on March 24th 1972, and they
pumped this CIA operative - former CIA operative - for information about what
kind of toxins, what kind of poisons would be best to use so it would not be
discovered in an autopsy. So the plot to assassinate Jack Anderson that
emanated from the Nixon White House was very real.
And it was ultimately called off because they decided instead that they needed
Hunt and Liddy to break into the Watergate apartment complex and office
building and that, of course, led to their arrest and the downfall of the
DAVIES: You were never able to determine that this order came from Nixon
Mr. FELDSTEIN: No. There are no smoking-gun tapes proving that Richard Nixon
ordered Anderson's assassination. What Hunt and Liddy both say is that the
order came from Charles Colson. And Hunt told me before this death in this
taped interview that he believes Colson was acting at the behest of the
president himself, that Colson would never have done this without Nixon's
I find that a very convincing explanation. I find it very difficult, based on
everything I know about how the White House worked - how Colson implemented
what Nixon wanted, I find it very difficult that Colson and the other aides
were acting without at least the implicit support of President Nixon. It defies
logic to imagine that they would cook this up, the assassination of a
journalist as prominent as Jack Anderson on their own, unless they had the
signal from above to do it.
DAVIES: Colson is still around. I assume he has denied this?
Mr. FELDSTEIN: Colson has amnesia about the entire thing. Wouldnât talk to me.
I tried repeatedly. And that explanation is just not very convincing.
DAVIES: Our guest is Mark Feldstein. His book is "Poisoning the Press." We'll
talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: If youâre just joining us, we're speaking with Mark Feldstein. He's a
journalism professor at George Washington University, and he's written a book
about the long-term battle between Richard Nixon and columnist Jack Anderson.
It's called "Poisoning the Press."
Nixon went down in Watergate, of course, and I have to say, reading about the
closing years of Jack Anderson's journalistic career is kind of sad. He really
just cashed in on his celebrity status, didnât he?
Mr. FELDSTEIN: Yes he did. I think he never really got over the loss of
prominence that Watergate brought him. You know, there was this incredible
irony, here he was like Ahab, stalking the great whale of Nixon for most of his
career and responsible more than any other reporter for uncovering the scandals
that led up to Watergate and, yet, when Watergate itself occurred, he was
eclipsed. He eclipsed by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the Washington
Post, by Seymour Hersh of The New York Times and other journalists. He simply
could no longer catch up.
And even though he had actually a couple of early leads on Watergate, he was
warned in advance - believe it or not - about the break-in, and he actually ran
into the burglars at the airport a few hours before they committed their
burglary at the Watergate. But he basically, you know, lost that story to his
competitors. And after Watergate, a whole new younger generation of
investigative reporters supplanted him and pushed him off his perch as
America's number one investigative reporter.
DAVIES: Let me just back up here. You said he ran into the Watergate burglars
at the airport on their way to commit the crime?
Mr. FELDSTEIN: Yes. As strange a coincidence as it is, he did. Remember,
Washington was a pretty small town back then and he knew almost everybody. And
one of the burglars, Frank Sturgis, was a long-time source of his. In fact, the
Nixon White House was going to use these - Sturgis and the other burglars to
assassinate Anderson. But then they had some reservations because it turned out
Anderson knew a couple of them from previous stories and they thought maybe the
execution would be better carried out by somebody else.
Anyway, Anderson just happened to be heading off to speak to a journalism
fraternity in Ohio, was catching a plan at National Airport when he ran into
Frank Sturgis, who tried to hide and there was Frank Sturgis with one of his
co-conspirators and a suitcase full of bugging equipment that they would use
just a few hours later at the Watergate. And the next morning in the newspaper,
Anderson read about their arrest, realized what those guys had been up to and
hurried on over to the jailhouse to try to pump them for information about what
was really going on.
DAVIES: Youâve spoken about how Anderson, even when he was such a crusading
investigative reporter, did, you know, things on the edges of ethics - well,
not even on the edges of ethics; he was taking, you know, payments from a
lobbyist who didnât want certain clients written about and was caught in a
bugging incident as far back as 1958. But at the end of it, he really seemed to
lose all of his journalistic moorings, didnât he?
Mr. FELDSTEIN: Yeah, I'm afraid he did. It pains me to say that, but he did. I
think once history passed him by, once he was eclipsed as the number one
investigative reporter in America, once he really could no longer compete
successfully now that the Washington Post and The New York Times and other
mainstream outlets were doing his kind of journalism, investigative reporting,
he really turned into a celebrity and he really kind of cashed in on that with
various financial schemes of dubious prominence, with tabloid shows. It was
kind of his low - the low point in his career, and unfortunately that low point
lasted for the last couple decades of his life.
DAVIES: You know, it's interesting, people sort of think of the media today as
being so superficial and in some cases unscrupulous, but you know, having
worked myself in a daily newspaper for 20 years, when I read some of the stuff
that Jack Anderson did, I mean engaging in a bugging operation, taking payoffs
from lobbyists, and in a lot of cases that we donât have time to detail in this
interview kind of publishing stuff that was sort of half made up - I mean there
was a story he wrote about the Democratic vice presidential nominee in 1972,
Thomas Eagleton - I think that a lot of the stuff that he did, if any reporter
I worked with were caught doing, it would end their career.
Is journalism more professional and fairer today or was Anderson just one of a
Mr. FELDSTEIN: Well, he certainly was one of a kind. He was an absolute outlier
for better and for worse. You know, in the pantheon of journalistic history, he
will be remembered as the sort of missing link between the muckrakers of a
century ago - Lincoln Steffens, Ida Tarbell, Upton Sinclair - and the post-
Watergate generation: Woodward, Bernstein, Hersh and the rest. And you know,
part of the reason I think his story is so fascinating is it's about power.
It's about more than Jack Anderson. It's about more than Richard Nixon. It's
about the use and abuse of power.
He knew how to expose it, but he also knew how to use it and abuse it. And
there's no pretty way to paint a picture of this. He and Nixon both learned its
true, raw, coarse price of wielding power in Washington. It was nothing like
those civics textbooks, history textbooks they learned when they were growing
up in the 1930s and '40s in the West. And that ultimately is what their story
is about, whether that's political power or journalistic power, and they were
practitioners of it, users of it, and abusers of it.
DAVIES: Did you know Anderson well?
Mr. FELDSTEIN: You know, I was an intern, a barely paid college intern for
Anderson in the summers of - two summers in the 1970s, and then I lost touch
with him for several decades and reconnected with him when I started writing my
book 10 years ago. And I got to know him pretty well at the end, doing
literally dozens of interviews with him. But I also tried to keep an author's
detachment while writing this book. I'll leave it to the reader to decide
whether or not I succeeded.
DAVIES: Do you know how he felt about the fact that you were going to expose
his warts as well as his achievements?
Mr. FELDSTEIN: Well, he admitted to me that he was sure the book would not
portray him as nobly as he himself would like to see him portrayed - that no
book ever could - but I think he respected that I was a journalist and a
scholar trying to present a fair account of his career. And I think that his
warts aside, the fact is he was an important pivotal figure, really, in
American journalism and investigative history, and for all of his faults, he
was out there exposing wrongdoing by politicians and institutions when nobody
else was and he had the guts and the courage to do that when the rest of the
press, by and large, was timorous, merely repeating what people in power told
them, not willing to challenge them on behalf of the public. And nobody can
ever take that away from Jack Anderson, whatever his faults - that was a
crucially important role he played at a time in American journalism when nobody
else really was doing it.
DAVIES: Well, Mark Feldstein, thanks so much for speaking with us.
Mr. FELDSTEIN: Thank you, Dave, itâs been a pleasure.
DAVIES: Mark Feldstein's book is called "Poisoning the Press: Richard Nixon,
Jack Anderson and the Rise of Washington's Scandal Culture."
You can read an excerpt on our website, freshair.npr.org.
*** TRANSCRIPTION COMPANY BOUNDARY ***
A Kafkaesque Spy Thriller Straddles Two Koreas
DAVE DAVIES, host:
The writer Young-Ha Kim burst onto the South Korean literary scene with "I Have
the Right to Destroy Myself," a novel available in English about a
sophisticated young man who helps other people commit suicide. It became an
international sensation, and since then Kim has published a series of prize-
winning books that neatly mesh high and low culture.
His thriller, "Your Republic Is Calling You," has just been released in a new
translation by Chi-Young Kim and our critic-at-large, John Powers, says it
offers a gripping look inside a culture that's moving at a dizzying pace.
JOHN POWERS: When I was growing up, there was no more famous symbol of the Cold
War than the Berlin Wall. But in fact, the Wall could never really compare to
the demilitarized zone that divides North and South Korea. Still going strong
after 57 years, it has created a parallel reality worthy of Philip K. Dick.
By now, most people know that North Korea may be the strangest country on Earth
- an Orwellian dystopia complete with starving citizens, nuclear weapons, a
goofball dictator, and public displays seemingly choreographed by Busby
Berkeley. But in the West, it's less well-known that South Korea is a booming
modern democracy with an infrastructure more advanced than our own. It's also
an outward-looking cultural player. Even as South Korea's TV soaps dominate
Asia, it also boasts one of the world's most exciting movie cultures - it had
five films at Cannes last May.
From the outside, the split between the Koreas is usually seen in terms of
geopolitical menace. But from the inside, it's lived as a bizarre form of
identity crisis. This is precisely the subject of "Your Republic Is Calling
You," a smart new literary thriller by Young-Ha Kim, who at 41 is one of South
Korea's best and most worldly writers, with a knack for Kafkaesque surrealism
Taking place over a single day, the novel tells the story of Ki-yong, who seems
to be an ordinary, middle-class guy in his 40s. He imports foreign films, has
an attractive wife, Ma-ri, who sells VWs, and a brainy daughter who is just
discovering boys. But Ki-yong has a secret: He's a North Korean spy who has
been sleeping with the enemy for the last two decades. And on this day, he gets
a chilling message from his masters back in Pyongyang. He has 24 hours to
liquidate everything and return home. Terrified, Ki-yong doesn't know whether
he's been found out by the South Korean authorities or whether the North is
calling him back to liquidate him.
Unsure whether to go back, Ki-yong spends the day wandering around Seoul and
remembering his time there, basking in what he calls premature nostalgia for
the city he may be leaving. He doesn't have a clue that his wife Ma-ri also has
secrets - she's trying to decide whether to partake in a threesome with her
Fueled by paranoia, "Your Republic Is Calling You" pulls you along like a
thriller, yet Kim is after more than suspense. A keenly observant writer, he
turns his story into an amusingly bleak X-ray of present-day Korea, whose
people are as interested in Bart Simpson as Kim Jong Il. Along the way, we meet
a huge array of sharply drawn social types - comedians and tax cheats, porn
addicts and schoolteachers, spoiled college kids and former student radicals
like Ma-ri, who find their generational dreams of national reunification
curdling into desperate adulteries. She wonders how it all went wrong.
Nobody is more lost than Ki-yong, who we see living in three different
countries. He spends his first 21 years in North Korea being force-fed
ideology, eventually training to be a spy in a crazy underground simulacrum of
Seoul. The second country is '80s South Korea, starting to prosper but not yet
democratic - it was exploding with protests like the American '60s. The third
country is today's go-go South Korea, devoured by a run-amok selfishness and
materialism that Ki-yong both enjoys and holds in contempt. Adapting to these
very different realities, Ki-yong feels less like a spy than a cyborg, one
programmed to adopt whatever self the society of the moment demands.
He feels trapped, and so do those around him. Although South Korea is wealthier
and freer than ever before, the novel suggests that the country's apparent
freedom is far from liberating. Like the Berglund family in Jonathan Franzen's
new novel, its characters wind up buffeted by confusion and regret, boundless
yearning and fierce isolation.
It would spoil things to say what Ki-yong winds up doing, but suffice it to say
that by the end he and Ma-ri have gained a cruel wisdom. They discover that the
choices they think they're making freely aren't really free after all. In fact,
they are hostage to forces - personal, historical and existential - that they
can't control and don't fully understand. They're adrift. Children of a
fractured republic, they forever hear something calling them back home, but
they no longer know where home is.
DAVIES: John Powers is film critic for Vogue and Vogue.com. He reviewed "Your
Republic Is Calling You," by Young-Ha Kim.
You can read an excerpt at our website, freshair.npr.org, where you can also
download podcasts of the show. You can join us on Facebook and follow us on
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