These are some personal observations about crusading columnist Jack Anderson who died December 17. He was my boss, my co-byliner, my infuriator and my dear friend over the course of 35 tumultuous years. I believe I knew him as well, maybe better, than anyone outside his family. As a fellow egotist, I had to try to understand him in order to stay with him, particularly in the eight years when we worked full-time together. He was an American original.
I joined Jack in 1969 after the death of Drew Pearson, a Quaker and the founder in the 30s of the crusading Washington Merry-Go-Round. Jack had the same concern for the underdog that Pearson had. For whatever reason, my feelings matched that passion. He was the perfect boss for me.
What Jack gave all of us who worked for him was leeway to try to tell the truth. This ideal was everything for investigative reporters trying to function in a world where most newspaper owners were (and are) in love with power and position, or more often, simply wimps revoltingly catering to their advertisers or personal friends. Mainline reporters were (and are) not much better. We knew. Jack and I worked against the most famous of them.
Jack was contemptuous of these fake devotees of the First Amendment who cared more about what their country club pals thought of them than about helping poor Blacks, the mentally ill, dirt scrabble Native Americans, abused crazy prisoners, tormented wives, diseased children, and the hopeless, helpless rest...
Jack was in love with his family first, then he was in love with the Jesus of the New Testament and the, to me and to put it mildly, often confusing Book of Mormon. He was in love with the Constitution, the Authentic Scoop, laughter, danger, his own brand of catchy writing, ice cream...
For me the most important thing he loved was Jesus, and we often talked about it, me the Episcopalian wine-loving atheist and Jack the devout Mormon who never cursed or drank coffee or tea or "knowingly" touched alcohol. (His longtime secretary Opal Ginn would suggest he have a parfait for desert when we three ate at the Madison Hotel – and then told him afterwards it contained Kahlua or some other liquor. He caught on and the next time he still let us order him a parfait.)
Getting back to Jesus, the one he loved was the one who read from the scroll of Isaiah in the synagogue. It said that the Lord "...has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free..." And in one way or another everyone we brought aboard felt that same way.
All that said, Jack was loaded, as most of us are, with faults. He almost ruined himself when he let his compulsive desire to come up with a gigantic exclusive overpower him. Here was a guy who preached in his stentorian voice to every new reporter or intern, "No story is acceptable unless it is backed up by a second source."
Well, one day an old friend of Jack's came to our office on K street with a story about multiple drunken driving arrests of the Democratic Vice Presidential candidate. Jack asked Brit Hume, at that time a fine young reporter, to check it out. Brit could not confirm it. But Jack went anyway to Mutual Broadcasting where he had a radio show and put the story on. I was sitting next to him doing my minor part of the program and when the break came, I asked, "are you sure of that story?" "Two hundred per cent sure," he said. He had to publicly eat massive poop on it (but in his heart he always believed it was true so heavy into denial was he.)
At other times, Jack simply said "Yes," to people he liked.
One day several Mormon leaders came in and spoke against what was then called "bra-burners." Jack had a young reporter write a story denouncing feminism and it was on the desk of our secretary awaiting faxing to New York for publication – with my name on the joint byline. Luckily, another young reporter saw it, told me and I confronted Jack saying, "Good God, Jack, what would Drew say about this," and raved on. Abashed, Jack pulled the column.
I could go on about such lapses, but why? They were buried beneath the good Jack did, his guts, his ingenuity, his kindness toward us even when we screwed up.
When it looked like we were going to be invaded by FBI agents seeking Watergate grand jury material, Jack and I decided we would lock his inner office, physically resist the agents (both of us out of shape) and throw as many of our confidential files as possible out the windows for our young staffers to gather up and preserve.
In that same case, our lawyer, Betty Southard Murphy set up a meeting with the U.S. Attorney to stave off a contempt citation against us and even jail. Jack said he believed the Constitution and the Supreme Court were inspired by God. The U. S. Attorney was ready for that answer. Suppose the Supreme Court, he said, ruled it illegal to print grand jury transcripts. Jack replied emphatically, "The Supreme Court would be wrong." Betty went on to negotiate a way to keep us out of jail.
Nor did Jack's courage relate only to legal threats. On a tip, we went to a desolate wharf in the Florida Keys on whose pilings a container with a king's ransom of CIA cash for the Bay of Pigs was supposedly lashed. Fearing it was rigged with explosives, I hesitated to dive in. Overweight Jack, mask in place, plunged it without a second thought. There was no money there. But there might have been. Along with a small bomb.
When I was arrested in another FBI case for possessing confidential government documents about Indian affairs, Jack sought a way to prove even that even top government officials connived to leak the same kind of secrets. Jack made an appointment for us to lunch with the amiable Rogers Morton, who as Secretary of the Interior, handled Indian American affairs. Over lunch in Morton's palatial office, Jack buttered him up as the greatest friend of Native Americans in history. (And he was better than most of his predecessors)
Mr. Secretary, purred Jack, "I want to do a story about your work for the Indians. You deserve it."
Morton smiled expansively.
But, said Jack, as you know, my stock in trade is material no one else has ever had. Could you find a confidential memo or two in your files which would show your great work for Indian nations?
Morton was startled, but Jack and he went back and forth and the cabinet secretary finally signaled an aide to comply. Morton slipped copies of the confidential papers to Jack. Outside, with photocopies in hand, Jack said, "If this ever comes to trial, we're going to have a heck of a witness for your defense." My case carried a ten year prison term. I don't know how many years Morton's carried. Mine was dropped on the merits later.
In these days or journalistic surrenders, how the country needs another Jack Anderson! Someone to show young reporters what ingenuity and courage can do for the unfairly wronged. When Jack erred, we would say, "Oh it's just Jack being Jack." But when he brought home the Pulitzer or some great front page story about indigestible corruption how we gloried with him.
Two years ago, Jack began to die from Parkinson's and cancer. In the past, Jack had shown a fair amount of pomposity, episodes of denial as I've pointed out, self-destructive miscalls in his hiring and favoritism to corporate types and others who eventually caused him ill and occasional loss of credibility. But don't we all make the kind of goofs that the flesh is heir to? However, Jack got an inordinate share of kicks in the butt for in part from toadies of the very people we had exposed.
Once when we had made a mistake, the mean-spirited editorial page director of one of our biggest client papers was furious. One of her underlings, however, said "Look, when you are in the front lines the way he is, you sometimes shoot your own men."
In Jack's dying, a strange and awesome purification took place. The bullshit in Jack, these negative things about him that I have touched on, seemed to dry up and peel away. Tanya Neider, his daughter and main care giver, standing outside the bedroom where Jack lay with a feeding tube in his stomach said, "Yes, the change is there, amazing isn't it?"
Jack began to take himself less seriously, admit the dumb things he had done. His humor became less cornfield, more Twainian. When I asked him how his wife Libby was – she had been in a terrible car accident – he looked solemn and shook his head. "Not well, Les, I'm sorry to tell you this."
"What is it? I thought the bones were healing. How bad is it?"
"Bad. She's in bad shape." Jack, a moderate politically, paused and said with a smile of wistful humor. "She tunes in Rush Limbaugh and I can't make her turn him off."
Footnote: Those interested in a deeper exploration of Jack Anderson and his unique place in journalistic history will find it in the upcoming biography by professor and long-time investigative reporter Mark Feldstein. It is due out from Farrar, Straus and Giroux next year.