Mark Feldstein’s new POISONING THE PRESS: RICHARD NIXON, JACK ANDERSON, AND THE RISE OF WASHINGTON”S SCANDAL CULTURE is an excellent, page-turning read about the long-running feud between newspaper reporter and columnist Jack Anderson and former, disgraced President Richard M. Nixon. It is such a page-turner that you almost forget you’re reading history at times, and it has twists and turns that I, quite frankly, didn’t expect.
What Feldstein did in this book is to contrast the upbringings of Nixon and Anderson, and Feldstein found many more similarities than I’d expected. Anderson was Mormon, and Nixon’s family were Quakers, so both had puritanical religious backgrounds. Neither of them was what you might call a “babe magnet,” though both had their own brand of personal magnetism that got stronger as they grew older; both were highly intelligent and driven men who wanted to be at the very top of their respective professions (politician, and journalist, respectively), and got it — but at an extremely high personal cost for both.
Nixon’s journey is the more well-known one, but even there Feldstein found many new revelations to explore. You see, Nixon was a man who employed dirty campaign tactics — not new, exactly, as this has always been something some candidates have lowered themselves to when trying to hang on to a position or gain it. But Nixon stooped to a new level of viciousness to gain his first seat against a respected woman Representative (Helen Gahagan Douglas); he called her a Communist, and at that point in history, even if a smear like that was unfounded (it was), that could bring you down more easily than anything else.
These dirty campaign tactics were just the start of Nixon’s checkered political career; he was a very smart man, and a gifted political strategist, but he was also paranoid, abusive, and extremely abrasive. Also, oddly enough, Nixon was an introvert, and not someone who dealt easily with the public, which made him profoundly unsuited to being a politician of any stripe. Yet he made up for all his bad qualities with the quality of his mind, somehow managing to serve his constituents in California well enough that he got re-elected as a United States Representative, then was elected to the United States Senate in 1950 before becoming Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Vice Presidential nominee in 1952, being elected as Vice President, then re-elected as VP in 1956.
Anderson, strangely enough, had some similar qualities to Nixon, though he was far less self-serving, at least at first. Anderson was an investigative journalist in a time very few journalists did anything other than regurgitate press releases from candidates or campaigns, and he learned at the feet of Drew Pearson — the two of them, for years, put out a column called the Washington “Merry-Go-Round,” which at its height was carried by over one thousand newspapers. (In the pre-Internet age, this was extremely significant; for many readers, the Pearson/Anderson column was the best source of news they were likely to get.) But to do his job, Anderson did some awful things — he obtained classified files through any means, fair or foul; as a young reporter under Pearson he personally went through people’s garbage; he blackmailed people, or didn’t, depending on what they were willing to tell him. All of these weaknesses were nearly canceled out by a passion for justice, and by his disgust with the sordid nature of Washington, DC’s political climate.
Feldstein ably shows that there was a time in politics before we had the highly-crafted political commercials we see today; before focus-groups; before push-polling; before obscene amounts of money were spent on campaigns. But the trade-off for all of that was that many things got done behind the scenes by big money that now is likely to get an airing — such as Howard Hughes managing to get tax breaks for his then-airline, TWA, or Nixon getting all sorts of kickbacks from well-heeled men (including Hughes) under the table, through his brother, or through other sources to keep his name out of it, all because Nixon came from a poor background and wanted more than he’d earned (or at least faster than he truly earned it).
But lest you think Anderson’s hands were clean in this quarter, they weren’t. Anderson would give good press to people who helped him out, even if they were dirty as sin, because he had nine children to raise and Pearson didn’t pay him overmuch. Anderson didn’t like doing this, and would sell out someone cheerfully if they failed to do things for him (like give him classified information), but the fact remains that Feldstein proves Anderson did do so — all because Anderson believed it was the only way to get the worst abuses before the public. (And, sad but true, after reading Feldstein’s excellent summation of the various things going on in the United States that very few people knew about save Anderson and the criminals themselves in the United States government, I cannot say that Anderson was wholly, or even partly, wrong.)
Feldstein shows that the Watergate trial, and the subsequent Congressional hearings, were the least of Nixon’s problems — there were at least five separate investigations going on at the time of Nixon’s resignation, and several key members of his Administration, including the CIA director, his Vice President, Spiro Agnew, and at least two of his aides, ended up being jailed due to their poor conduct and misdeeds during their time in Nixon’s administration, making Nixon’s White House the most scandal-ridden of the 20th century (and possibly the worst in history). And that while we remember Watergate as a low-water mark for the country, we should also remember the other scandals that laid Richard Nixon low — because there were a great many of them, and without Jack Anderson, who knows if any of them ever would’ve been stirred up? (Even the guys at the Washington Post, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, likely wouldn’t have kept digging if Anderson, and before him, Pearson, hadn’t said so much about Nixon’s dirty activities long before 1972.)
Feldstein does an exceptional job recounting the Nixon Administration, along with Anderson’s long-running (and well-justified) feud with Nixon, and shows how and why Anderson did what he did to try to bring Nixon down. Anderson was a key person in the events that led to Nixon’s resignation, yet Anderson’s conduct throughout were part of why Nixon had the belief that the press were the enemy — he was the first politician of the 20th century to openly come out and say so who’d ever obtained the office of President, and Nixon was the first politician who made hay by impugning the press in modern times — so Anderson was indeed part of the problem in Washington, though he was even more a part of the solution in how to clean Washington up.
The end of POISONING THE PRESS is stark in its sadness; both men fell out of favor, as Anderson stayed in the limelight too long to make whatever bucks he could from his transitory fame, and Nixon’s life ended with a whimper rather than a bang as our possibly-most disgraced President in history. This is because both men made bad decisions, and it cost them dearly — that Anderson eventually regained his composure, objectivity, and was less of a curmudgeon to friends and family was a credit to him, yet Nixon’s devotion to his wife, Pat, was never doubted, so there’s yet another parallel that Feldstein was able to exploit.
This book has a great deal to recommend it — stirring history. Excellent research. Outstanding writing, and a great narrative. But what I liked most about it was its heart — Feldstein shows both men’s virtues, not just their weak points, and shows how if things had been even slightly different (especially for Anderson) in their respective backgrounds, things might’ve been changed — on either side — for the better.
I couldn’t recommend this book more highly — go grab it, now!
— Reviewed by Barb.