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JACK ANDERSON
An American Original

Sally Denton

A giant tree just fell in the tangled forest of American journalism, and few seemed to hear. For me, the silence was deafening.

Jack Anderson, once the nation's most feared investigative columnist-a man so threatening to the corridors of power that Watergate burglar G. Gordon Liddy plotted his murder and the FBI's J. Edgar Hoover decried him as "lower than the regurgitated filth of vultures" - died peacefully on December 17 at his Virginia home. At 83, the famous muckraker succumbed to the ravages of Parkinson's Disease. But his immortality is keenly felt in today's culture of complicity between journalists and the politicians and bureaucrats they are mandated to hold accountable. His legacy could not be more timely in this era of blurred lines and cozy relationships, as the embarrassing indiscretions of the New York Times' Judith Miller and icon Bob Woodward expose a breakdown in the vital checks and balances between a free press and the government.

Though it seems like a distant memory, there was a time when investigative journalism was considered among the most honorable of professions. I had the great fortune to work for Jack Anderson during those glory days, at the tail end of the Pentagon Papers, Watergate, and My Lai, when I and a handful of young Anderson minions passionately believed that independent journalism could bring a corrupt regime to its knees. At the helm of this assortment of idealistic tenderfoot reporters-fresh from New Mexico and Vermont, Montana and Pennsylvania, New York and Washington-was the larger-than-life Utah Mormon who had risen to power with the legendary Drew Pearson. Founder in 1932 of the Washington Merry-Go-Round column, Pearson was revered and feared in the nation's capital. Advocating U.S. involvement in fighting European fascism, fervently supporting the creation of the United Nations, and challenging Sen. Joseph McCarthy long before his peers joined the bandwagon, Pearson was a media celebrity through the '40s, '50s, and '60s. He hired Anderson in 1947, and upon Pearson's death in 1969 Anderson inherited the column.

When I came on board in 1979, the column was at its peak. I and a small cadre of twenty-somethings wrote columns that would appear daily in a thousand newspapers read by forty million Americans, stories that appeared five-days-a-week on Mutual Broadcast Radio, three segments a week for ABC's Good Morning America, and a monthly piece for Parade Magazine. Twice a week, the mailman delivered a hundred-pound duffel bag filled with thousands and thousands of letters from readers, reporting scandals in their communities, imploring Anderson to expose the corruption. While our job description included culling these letters in search of tips and leads, it was a mostly futile foraging. For we all knew that the big stories would come from Anderson's own vast network of sources in the legislative, judicial, and executive branches of government. It was heady stuff to pick up the phone and call a U.S. senator and have him take your call. "I think Jack believed it was in the highest tradition of constitutional democracy, in both a mischievous way and high-minded League-of-Women's Voters kind of way, to have kids not old enough to legally drink demanding answers from senators and Cabinet secretaries," former Anderson reporter Murray Waas recently wrote in the Village Voice. "He had nine kids at home and innumerable of us wayward ones at the office."

Jack Anderson recognized the fragility of democracy and passionately believed its survival depended on an independent and lively Fourth Estate - a term dating back to Thomas Carlyle in the nineteenth century referring to the press in "its explicit capacity of advocacy and in its implicit ability to frame political issues," as one encyclopedia defines it. Anderson was the embodiment of the old adage that a reporter's job was to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, and, with great courage, audacity, and humor, he did it with gusto. He especially disdained the hack reporters and publishers who spewed mainline dogma under the guise of "news" and whom he viewed as pamphleteers of government propaganda. "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," wrote his longtime associate, Les Whitten, who once shared the byline with Anderson. A devout Mormon, Anderson saw his career as a divine calling. He loved Jesus, his family, and the U.S. constitution. As for Jesus, wrote Whitten, "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 the same way."

But alas, like all great mortals, Jack Anderson had feet of clay. He entered into business partnerships with nefarious characters, squandered an empire that by all rights belonged to the public trust, protected sources who were manipulating him, allowed his ego to dictate his judgment, and abandoned those who were most devoted to him.

The first story of mine that he "killed" was about the organized crime connections of Frank Sinatra. While those connections have since become the subject of many books and magazine articles, at the time I wrote my column Sinatra's relationship with the "mob" had never before been published. He allowed me to think my reporting was flawed, that the story was not important. It would be years later before I learned that Anderson and Sinatra were co-owners of a Nevada company, which precluded Anderson from exposing his business partner.

As a 24-year-old, wide-eyed naif for whom Jack Anderson was almost godlike, I was devastated. But over the past 25 years hence as an investigative reporter and non-fiction author, who learned at the knee of the greatest, I have come to appreciate the compromises one must sometimes make, the divided loyalties that are inevitable when one chooses a life of truth-telling. For the truth is never easy, and it is never black and white. Jack Anderson understood the nuances of truth, the shades of gray, and he did the best he could in the circumstances in which he found himself. What more can we ask of our American heroes?

SALLY DENTON'S BOOKS

AMERICAN MASSACRE : THE TRAGEDY AT MOUNTAIN MEADOWS

FAITH AND BETRAYAL : A PIONEER WOMAN'S PASSAGE IN THE AMERICAN WEST

THE BLUEGRASS CONSPIRACY: AN INSIDE STORY OF POWER, GREED, DRUGS AND MURDER

THE MONEY AND THE POWER: THE MAKING OF LAS VEGAS AND ITS HOLD ON AMERICA [With Roger Morris]