Richard Nixon is remembered as a ruthless politician driven at times by fear and hatred of his perceived enemies. But a new book suggests that Nixon's paranoia was based at least in part on his own experience.
In Poisoning the Press: Richard Nixon, Jack Anderson and the Rise of Washington's Scandal Culture, Mark Feldstein describes the epic battle between Nixon and the muckraking syndicated columnist Jack Anderson. Feldstein follows the rise of Anderson's investigative journalism career and explains how his decades-long face-off with Nixon would become emblematic of the relationship between the press and other politicians.
Feldstein tells Fresh Air's Dave Davies that the fight between the two men started shortly after Anderson first got his big break in 1947, when he moved to Washington, D.C., to become a researcher for the syndicated investigative journalist Drew Pearson.
"[Pearson] dominated Washington from the Great Depression until his death in 1969," Feldstein explains. "And [he] was this combative Quaker who used his column to smite his foes. He fought on the side of progressivism [and] pacifism and was an unusual left-wing voice in the nation's capital."
One of Pearson's foes was Richard Nixon, who had been elected to Congress in 1946 and became a Senator in 1950. In 1952, after Nixon was tapped to become Dwight Eisenhower's running mate, Anderson and Pearson wrote a column about the money Nixon may have taken from corporate interests. That led to Nixon delivering his famous "Checkers speech," in which he decried his opponents and stated that no matter what anyone said, he would not return his daughters' dog, Checkers, which had been given to them as a gift.
"That resonated emotionally with the public, and a huge base — particularly of hard-core Republican conservatives — swelled to his defense and pressured Eisenhower to keep Nixon on the ticket," Feldstein explains. "Meanwhile, liberal Democrats were nauseated by it and thought it was a maudlin speech. And the polarization that Nixon's career would have ever after was indelibly marked."
After Nixon effectively dodged the bullet by giving the Checkers speech, Anderson and Pearson stayed on his case, but were plagued by scandals of their own. The two men published a story about Nixon receiving payoffs from Union Oil that later turned out to be false. And in 1958, when Anderson was caught bugging the office of a man bribing Eisenhower's White House chief of staff, it was Nixon who helped stoke the flames to turn the public against Anderson.
"He plant[ed] letters and editorials criticizing Anderson," Feldstein says. "So from that beginning, you have Nixon now retaliating against Anderson, and you have this sense that these dirty tricks are the way Washington works."
In the two decades that followed, the conflict became so ferocious, Feldstein says, that Nixon ordered CIA surveillance of Anderson and his family — and White House operatives seriously considered assassinating the journalist.
"They actually conducted surveillance. They followed him from his work to his house," Feldstein says. "They staked out his house. They looked at it for vulnerabilities ... [and dicussed] how they could plant poison in his aspirin bottle. 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."
The plot was ultimately called off, Feldstein says, because Gordon Liddy and Howard Hunt, the two men who were supposed to assassinate Anderson, were instead tapped to break into Watergate.
"That led to their arrest and the downfall of the regime," Feldstein says. "[But] there are no smoking-gun tapes showing Nixon ordering the assassination of Anderson. What Hunt and Liddy both said was that the order came from [White House special counsel] Charles Colson. But what Hunt told me before his death was that he believed that Colson was acting at the behest of the president himself. ... I find it very difficult to believe that Colson and the other aides were acting without 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, unless they had the signal from above to do it."
President Nixon died in 1994. Jack Anderson died in 2005. Feldstein, who interned for Anderson in the 1970s, 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 is now an associate professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University.