Fifty years ago, at the apex of Richard Nixon’s ignominious political career, the Pulitzer Prize for national reporting went to the president’s worst nemesis — a portly father of nine who taught Sunday School on the Sabbath and brought presidents and dictators to their knees on weekdays.
Jack Anderson’s 1972 Pulitzer Prize reporting, which exposed just one of Nixon’s scandals, came after three decades of building his reputation as a Washington outsider. He was proudly despised by his colleagues in the press who openly called him primitive, unsophisticated and crass, with the bombast of a carnival barker and polyester suits held up by suspenders from cheap haberdashers. Newsweek dubbed him a “pitiless self-appointed judge of human propriety” whose socks drooped. Time implied that some members of his Latter-day Saint congregation would “choke on the words” when they called him Brother Anderson. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover said he was “lower than the regurgitated filth of vultures.”
Yet, a jury of his peers could not withhold their greatest prize from him because, as history judges him 50 years later, the irascible Anderson from Utah was the father of unflinching investigative journalism.
He was a second-generation “muckraker,” proudly inheriting the title from his mentor, Washington syndicated columnist Drew Pearson. Other muckrakers had preceded them, but it was perhaps Anderson who grew the business into full flower and won himself journalistic respect in the process. Anderson’s column, called the Washington Merry-Go Round, was a strange hybrid in the press — a daily column that was syndicated in hundreds of newspapers, produced by a small team of usually rookie investigative reporters specializing in bringing down public servants who forgot their public trust.
In an era of contentious politics and journalism, Jack Anderson’s career still casts a long shadow.
For Anderson, born in 1922, the journey to the top of Nixon’s very real “enemies list” began in Salt Lake City at the age of 12 when he skipped out on the beet-thinning job imposed by his father Orlando and volunteered to gather news for the Murray Eagle. His first and enduring reportorial technique was to declare he knew nothing about a topic, because he didn’t, and then wait for his sympathetic sources to spill their secrets to the pre-teen who arrived on a bicycle.
His first and enduring reportorial technique was to declare he knew nothing about a topic, because he didn’t, and then wait for his sympathetic sources to spill their secrets to the pre-teen who arrived on a bicycle.
His concurrent gratis job was to write a weekly Boy Scout column for the Deseret News which gave him the opportunity to hang out with and observe real reporters.
At 18, however, Anderson heard through the family gossip mill that a distant cousin had acquired a second wife without dismissing the first, thus sending Anderson on his investigative trajectory into the underworld of Utah polygamists. The cousin gave Anderson entrée to that world and the young reporter was soon infiltrating Sunday meetings and Saturday socials, arriving in his father’s old Plymouth. He had hoped to sell his stories to the Deseret News, but his plan was thwarted when his upstanding father was called in by church elders to explain why the car had been frequently spotted at polygamist hangouts.
Orlando Anderson made sure his son’s next career move was a church mission to Alabama and Georgia. For two years, in addition to preaching the gospel, Elder Anderson agitated for public relations programs, radio spots and press releases promoting the church’s message. On the way home he stopped in Washington, D.C., and, using a Utah connection, begged his first invitation to a White House press conference with President Franklin Roosevelt. The seasoned Utah reporters in the room told Anderson to keep his mouth shut. He fondly recalled it was the first and last time he sat in the Oval Office in silence.
With the Murray draft board awaiting his return, Anderson instead joined the Merchant Marine in 1944 and served on ships ferrying military supplies across the Pacific during the waning days of World War II. Whenever he could, he hung out with war correspondents, and persuaded the Deseret News to give him press credentials in trade for writing feature stories about Utah boys at war. After the war, he was finally drafted while still in China, and ended up on the staff of the Stars and Stripes in Shanghai. As he awaited discharge, Anderson took every opportunity to learn from reporters in China. One of them told him to get a job in Washington with Drew Pearson because, “He knows where the bodies are buried.”
Soon Anderson was working with Pearson, and building his own little register of buried bodies. He went after communist-hunter Joe McCarthy, billionaire Howard Hughes, Hoover, mob bosses in Chicago and decamped Nazis hiding out in South America. All the while he kept his eye on an up-and-coming politician from California, Richard Nixon, in whom Anderson saw all the dangers of hubris.
Wherever he went, Anderson earned the taint of showman. When the staid press corps covered congressional hearings from the gallery, Anderson demanded hearings on his own stories and elbowed his way in to testify. When lawmakers would skulk past a bank of microphones outside the hearing room, offering “no comment” on his exposés, Anderson would commandeer the cameras and hold his own press conferences deploying an ease with words learned as a street-corner missionary. While hunting Nazis hiding in Argentina, Anderson befriended Nicholas Eichmann, the son of Adolph Eichmann, the imprisoned architect of the Holocaust. Anderson invited Nick to spend a few weeks in the family home in the D.C. suburbs, where he settled comfortably in with the Anderson kids while Jack pumped Nick for stories about his father.
By day Anderson wielded the most feared pen in Washington. By night, he went home to nine rowdy children and his wife Olivia “Libby” Farley, a Latter-day Saint girl from a coal-mining town in West Virginia, who preferred sweat pants over Washington couture. Once when the Andersons were vacationing in Atlantic City, they happened to be staying at a hotel where President Lyndon Johnson was partying with the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. The president recognized Anderson and invited him to join the party. Libby was already in their room, changing out of her evening wear for a promised walk on the boardwalk. Jack called up to the room to invite her to the party, and she arrived in her favorite uniform — casual slacks, a cheap blouse and scuffed shoes. Jack whispered, “Libby, we’re guests of the president of the United States. Why didn’t you wear your dress?” She quietly reminded him that they were supposed to be going for a walk, with or without the president. LBJ kept Libby by his side the rest of the evening, charmed by her lack of pretense.
LBJ was one of the handful of powerful people in Washington who was wise enough to develop a warm give and take with the muckraker. Richard Nixon did not, perhaps because Anderson had already made up his mind about Nixon.
For Anderson, his Pulitzer Prize series about Nixon began in a drugstore in Washington one afternoon in 1971 where he stood pretending to peruse the greeting cards. Soon his contact arrived and stood close enough to whisper a tip; in the growing hostility between India and Pakistan, which was a proxy Cold War battle between the United States and the Soviet Union, Nixon was publicly maintaining neutrality but secretly tilting dangerously toward Pakistan, and thus toward war with Russia. “Tilting” is not a word that wins Pulitzer Prizes. But in this case, the “tilt” involved Nixon secretly sending a nuclear-armed U.S. armada for maneuvers in the Bay of Bengal as a message to India, and by proxy Russia, not to mess with Pakistan.
Anderson, eager to expose Nixon, pressed his source for proof and soon had a stash of secret documents pilfered from Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and the National Security Council. As was often the case with the outsider Anderson, his initial columns on the “tilt” were ignored by the rest of the press. Uncharacteristically, Anderson had been using muted verbiage to describe what was happening, in deference to the explosive national security implications of the facts. But after his initial columns went unnoticed, he impatiently pulled out all the stops and began lambasting Nixon in the column for pushing America to the brink of nuclear war. Other reporters started calling, and Anderson shared his proof. The Nixon administration pushed back, first by denying the documents were real, then calling the leak a risk to national security, and then blaming the mysterious messenger.
East Pakistan, which had begun the war, eventually surrendered, and history judged the episode as a serious blunder by Nixon that could have led to war. Some historians would later point to the presence of American nuclear warships in the Bay of Bengal as an early provocation for both India and Pakistan to develop their own nuclear arsenals.
Anderson’s dogged work on the story could not be ignored, and the Pulitzer committee gave him the 1972 prize for national reporting, but not without some grousing. The trustees of Columbia University, which awarded the prizes, publicly expressed doubts about Anderson’s “suitability.” He didn’t care. He stuffed the prize in an office closet.
As with every Anderson scoop, the curiosity about his secret sources obsessed the Washington establishment, even more than the story itself. Anderson would go to jail rather than betray a source, but because of the well-known Latter-day Saint network inside the Beltway, some church members had to defend themselves against accusations of slipping him information, even as Anderson swore, for the record, that he barely knew his sources, and vice versa.
But, the most enduring mystery surrounding Anderson’s sources in his church community involved Utah’s Jon Huntsman Sr., who, before he was a billionaire, was an aide to Nixon’s chief of staff H.R. Haldeman as the Watergate scandal unfolded. In his later years, Anderson owned up to having a source in the White House, a principled fellow church member, who fed him information. Anderson said at one point the source became so disillusioned with Nixon that he decided to quit, but Anderson persuaded him to stay three months more, saying, “You owe it to the public.” As Anderson told it, the source got out just in time to keep his own skirts clean of the Watergate scandal.
Anderson hinted to at least two interviewers in his last years that Huntsman had been that source, but never confirmed it for the record. When the topic surfaced in 2010 after Anderson’s death, Huntsman seemed affronted by the idea. “I never saw Jack Anderson and couldn’t have talked to him more than twice in my life while I was in the White House, or anywhere else. It’s hard to believe Jack actually said such a thing, but I absolutely deny it,” he said in a statement to the Salt Lake Tribune.
Navy Yeoman Charles Radford, a fellow Latter-day Saint, found himself falsely caught up in the intrigue that eventually led to Anderson’s Pulitzer Prize. It began when Radford met Anderson’s globetrotting parents at a Latter-day Saint church service in New Delhi. Radford was assigned to the American Embassy and he offered to show Orlando and Agnes Anderson around the city. They kept up a correspondence and when Radford was assigned to the Pentagon, Agnes insisted that Libby Anderson invite Charles and his wife Tonne over for dinner. Tonne and Libby bonded over a shared interest in family history.
During the dinner, Jack learned the tantalizing news that Radford was assigned to the Joint Chiefs of Staff as a liaison to Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, and had accompanied Kissinger on his first secret trip to China to open diplomatic relations. Anderson tried his considerable reportorial wiles on Radford, but went to his death swearing that the yeoman gave him nothing.
The rest of the story only filtered out after Anderson was gone. Behind the scenes Radford endured hot lights, phone taps and the eventual destruction of his Navy career.
When National Security Council documents were leaked to Anderson about the India-Pakistan controversy, someone made the church connection between Radford and Anderson and Attorney General John Mitchell put a tap on Radford’s phones. The tap yielded nothing, so Radford was strapped to a polygraph machine and subjected to the harshest verbal interrogation that Nixon’s men could spew.
In the end, Radford confessed he was indeed spying on Kissinger for someone, but not Jack Anderson; Radford had been slipping NSC documents to the Joint Chiefs. This took place during a time when Nixon mistrusted everyone but his closest aides, and if the Joint Chiefs wanted to know what Kissinger was planning, they apparently had to resort to skullduggery. Radford was transferred to a backwater post in Oregon, where the story had a typically Andersonian conclusion — unsatisfactory and full of contradictions.
Anderson, who maintained Radford had not been the source he met in the drugstore, bought a piece of property from the yeoman who was struggling financially in the aftermath of a career destroyed by a Washington scandal. Some Anderson critics saw that as bribery of a source — something the columnist swore he would never do. In Radford’s case, when the yeoman was still in Washington being hounded by investigators, Anderson had promised he would help the family if they suffered financially because of their connection to him.
Nixon wanted Radford prosecuted criminally, but to prosecute him would have led to a messy revelation of why the yeoman was copying Kissinger’s secret memos in the first place; The Joint Chiefs, who were being kept in the dark by Nixon, had ordered him to send the memos. Revealing his reasons would have exposed the dangerously dysfunctional relationship between the military and the White House.
If Anderson was obsessed with hounding Nixon, the reverse was also true. Anderson’s name was at the top of Nixon’s actual enemies list. Anderson demurred that he topped the list only because it was alphabetical. After the Pulitzer Prize was awarded, the Central Intelligence Agency, livid about the spilling of national security secrets, began spying on Anderson. Men in black with binoculars took up a post in a parking lot with a view of the Anderson home, so Anderson turned his children loose on them. The kids would pull up in the family station wagon, snap photos of the CIA crew, and pretend to take notes and wave until the agents were forced to fold up that location. Still, the CIA trailed Anderson by car and foot for six weeks.
If Anderson was obsessed with hounding Nixon, the reverse was also true. Anderson’s name was at the top of Nixon’s actual enemies list.
A source later smuggled the report of “Operation Mudhen” to Anderson. His code name was “Brandy,” although he thought “Ice Cream” would have been more appropriate. From the secret report, Anderson learned that the vaunted CIA had been unable to identify the “females” (his wife and daughters) who went to church with him. They were also not able to confirm the basics of his early life — that he had served in the Merchant Marine and the Army, and worked for Stars and Stripes. The CIA did document that Anderson had been a Boy Scout and a missionary, and that he occasionally drove too fast. Operation Mudhen proved “unproductive” according to the final CIA report, and did not accomplish its goal of revealing Anderson’s sources.
The FBI also took a stab at Anderson with an investigation that, among other things, tried to prove a favorite trope of both Nixon and J. Edgar Hoover, that Anderson was a homosexual and that his sources must be gay also. Again, Anderson retaliated, sending his own staff of reporters to “spy” on Hoover with a nuisance operation, staking out his house and going through his trash cans, mimicking the FBI’s own modus operandi. The Anderson junior staffer on trash duty ended the operation the day he was caught on film by an ABC news crew also loitering at the Hoover residence. Hoover’s chauffeur flew out of the house to scold Anderson’s man, who flashed a “V” for victory sign at the cameras, threw the trash in his car and sped away.
Not content to merely spy on Anderson, Nixon’s minions — the same oddball crew that launched the Watergate scandal — tried to plant defamatory stories about Anderson in the press, imbedded an “intern” in his office, and produced fake documents to try to lure him into bogus reporting. All of it failed. Finally the most unconventional men in Nixon’s secret inner circle –— E. Howard Hunt, Charles Colson and Gordon Liddy — plotted the final, disturbing solution. In court testimony, FBI files, late-life interviews and even to Anderson himself, the crew eventually described a time when they debated various ways to kill him.
Although Nixon himself was never tied to those machinations, his henchmen had their own way of interpreting the president’s frustrated orders to “stop Anderson at all costs!” They reached out to a CIA consultant who had once mixed potions to poison Fidel Castro. They considered staging a fatal car accident. They thought about planting laced pills in his house, but backed away from the plan, fearing collateral damage to the large family and frequent hangers-on in the chaotic Anderson home.
Anderson learned of the scheming one day when Nixon’s special assistant Jeb Stuart Magruder came to the columnist’s office to apologize for a possible misunderstanding. Someone had groused about Anderson at a staff meeting, saying Nixon “would sure like to get rid of that guy.” Gordon Liddy had abruptly left the room. Moments later another staffer rushed into the meeting and said, “Liddy just walked past my desk and said you’d told him to rub out Jack Anderson.” Liddy was stopped before he left the building and was told that “get rid of” was just a figure of speech. “Where I come from, that means a rubout,” he sneered.
Although Liddy and the other Nixon “plumbers” were the architects of the break-in at the Democratic National Headquarters in the Watergate office complex, and Anderson was well aware of their potential for mischief, he missed the initial Watergate story when it was right under his nose.
Frank Sturgis had long been a friend and a source for Anderson. An anti-communist Don Quixote, Sturgis was frequently embroiled in plots-for-hire to overturn dictatorships, including the Bay of Pigs fiasco in Cuba. That was the story where Anderson first crossed paths with him. Occasionally Sturgis would share other plots with the columnist, most of which were too wacky to print. When Anderson bumped into Sturgis in Washington’s National Airport on June 16, 1972, the soldier of fortune was uncharacteristically mum. Surrounded by men whom Anderson took to be Cuban vigilante buddies, Sturgis would only say he was on his way to some “private business.”
The next morning Anderson read in the newspapers that five middle-aged men in business suits had been arrested after breaking into the Democratic offices at the Watergate. He immediately surmised what Sturgis’ “private business” had been. Anderson hurried to the jail and talked his way into seeing Sturgis, who was still not forthcoming. Failing to get the story, Anderson requested to have his friend “Frankie” released into the columnist’s keeping. “It was only a cheap burglary. I hate to see him in jail,” he told the amused judge. His request was denied.
Anderson was not completely on the sidelines as the Watergate news spooled out. He broke several scoops, the biggest of which was scoring the secret transcripts of the grand jury investigating the cover-up. A source brought Anderson copies of the testimony. Clerks were typing the transcripts using carbon paper. The typed pages were closely guarded, but the inky carbon sheets went into the trash, from whence they found their way to Anderson. His staff spent hours holding the sheets up to lamplight and retyping them until there were more than 500 pages of testimony. The transcripts revealed shocking evidence of how far Nixon had gone — hush money, campaign slush funds and wiretapping to name a few offenses. Anderson kept up a drumbeat of columns publishing the findings until he had exhausted the subject.
Anderson frequently said he never wanted to hurt anyone, and he reconciled with many with whom he had done battle, including Colson who had once plotted to kill him. When Colson went to prison for his Watergate offenses, Anderson offered to help the family should they need money. They didn’t take him up on the offer, but Colson was touched and the two men became friends.
There was no detente between Anderson and Nixon, however. Their last encounter was in 1985 at the funeral of hotel magnate J. Willard Marriott Sr., Anderson’s church acquaintance and longtime friend. The Marriott family asked Anderson to be the head usher at the funeral held at the Washington D.C. Stake Center. Anderson’s job was to stand at the door and show dignitaries to their reserved seats. Nixon was among them. When his eyes met Anderson’s, “his face contorted into that old hunted adversary expression,” Anderson said. Nixon growled, “Hrrumph,” and walked away.
Post-Nixon, there were more scoops that kept Anderson at the top of his game, until that game began to be watered down by budding investigative reporters flooding out of journalism schools looking to become the next big thing. That new era of aggressive investigative reporting, for good or ill, engendered a mistrust of government institutions and bred the media that exists today.
As Anderson got older, his staff took up the crusade under his watchful eye. He turned the column over to another Utah crusader and fellow Deseret News alum, Dale Van Atta. The two of them traveled the world scoring important interviews with infamous characters of the 1980s.
In 1982 they went to war-torn Lebanon to interview Palestine Liberation Organization chief Yasser Arafat. One night, on the roof of their hotel, they watched Israeli jets bomb locations where Arafat was known to hide. Anderson and Van Atta quickly retreated to the hotel restaurant for a conversation Van Atta has never forgotten. Anderson revealed that early in his career he had had a brush with death and had prayed for deliverance. “He explained that, as he was praying, he came to understand that being a crusader against evil was to be his life, and he wasn’t to be fearful,” Van Atta said. Anderson felt like he had God’s “mantle of protection.”
That was the night Anderson asked Van Atta to take over the reins of the column eventually, because, as a fellow Latter-day Saint, Van Atta “understood what was truly important in this life.” Anderson counseled him, “Do the best you can, and only what you need to do to get a story, and you will be protected by the Lord as I have been.”
For those like Van Atta who knew Anderson’s spiritual roots, that claim of divine protection was no surprise. The tales of good versus evil told in his faith’s scripture filled his speeches. For decades, Anderson’s volunteer job in the church was to teach an adult Sunday school class which, by dictate from church headquarters, rotated curriculum between the Bible and the Book of Mormon. No matter what Anderson was supposed to be teaching, it always came back to the Book of Mormon and the battle between good and evil. At every opportunity, he would speak up eloquently for his faith.
Although Van Atta and then others eventually took over management of the Washington Merry-Go-Round column, there was never going to be a true succession. The staff dwindled along with the newspapers that subscribed to the column. Oddly, Anderson who spent his life identifying cons in high places, turned out to be a softy when it came to people who brought him dubious business ventures. He had spent his career listening courteously to everyone who came through the door, and that extended even to those with sketchy proposals. He was unfailingly empathetic, gentlemanly and ever open to possibilities.
Anderson was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 1986, and then eventually prostate cancer that metastasized to his bones. His last days were spent in pain, but he rejected most painkillers so he could stay clear-headed. In his heyday, he could type 125 words a minute, but he was reduced by Parkinson’s to hunting and pecking with one finger on his left hand. “I take two hours every morning to feel sorry for myself,” he told his family, “then I get on with life.”
The once-feared crusader spent his last days bedridden, attached to a feeding tube and watching Disney movies with his grandchildren. He died Dec. 17, 2005, at the age of 83. His Pulitzer Prize, once discarded in his office, was found by Mike Binstein, one of the last inheritors of the column. Binstein had it framed and gave it to the family. Anderson’s daughter Tanya Neider said it was the first his family had ever seen the actual award.
“He never talked about it.”
Daryl Gibson served as managing editor of Jack Anderson’s Washington Merry-Go-Round from 1987 to 1992 and co-authored Anderson’s 1999 autobiography “Peace, War and Politics: An Eyewitness Account.”