Jack Anderson, 83; Pulitzer Prize-Winning Columnist Exposed Political Wrongdoing

The Washington Post

Jack N. Anderson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter who for years was America’s most widely read newspaper columnist, died Saturday. He was 83.

Anderson died at his home in Bethesda, Md., of Parkinson’s disease.

A crusader in the mold of muckrakers from a century ago, unbound by contemporary notions of objectivity, Anderson was highly successful during the 1950s and ‘60s, when few reporters actively sought to uncover government wrongdoing. At one point, his column appeared in about 1,000 newspapers with 45 million daily readers.


His influence later flagged, but for decades he had the field virtually to himself. The scoops that he had a hand in included: revelations in the Iran-Contra scandal; the U.S. government’s tilt away from India toward Pakistan, for which he received the 1972 Pulitzer Prize; the ITT-Dita Beard affair, which linked the settlement of an antitrust suit against ITT by the Justice Department to a $400,000 pledge to underwrite the 1972 Republican convention; the CIA-Mafia plot to kill Fidel Castro; the final days of Howard Hughes; U.S. attempts to undermine the government of Chilean President Salvador Allende; and an Iranian connection to the bombing of the U.S. embassy in Beirut.

“He had such huge strengths and huge weaknesses,” said Mark Feldstein, director of the journalism program at George Washington University, who is writing Anderson’s biography.

“He practiced journalism like a blue-collar craftsman with a populist point of view. He was practicing a crusading craft rather than a profession, and [investigative reporting] has lost some of its juice, its verve, its gusto in trying to be objective. Anderson didn’t try to hide his politics or his agenda.”

Anderson and Drew Pearson, who hired him in 1947 as legman for his column, “The Washington Merry-Go-Round,” were two of the few investigative reporters working between the Great Depression and the technique’s revival during the Vietnam War and Watergate.

In 1965, Anderson gained full partnership and shared a byline with Pearson.

He took over the column when Pearson died in 1969 and ran it, with an ever-changing cast of interns, until his retirement in 2001.

“Part circus huckster, part guerrilla fighter, part righteous rogue, Anderson waged a one-man journalistic resistance when it was exceedingly unpopular to do so,” Feldstein wrote in a 2004 article in the Washington Post when United Features Syndicate ended the column.

Anderson’s work enraged those in power. President Nixon tried to smear him as a homosexual, the CIA was ordered to spy on him and, according to the Watergate tapes, a Nixon aide ordered two cohorts to try to kill the journalist by poisoning. His tax returns were frequently audited by the IRS.

“I have tried to break down the walls of secrecy in Washington,” Anderson once wrote in an article for Parade magazine. “But today the walls are thicker than ever. More and more of our policymakers hide behind those walls. Only the press can stand as a true bulwark against an executive branch with a monopoly on foreign policy information. It has all the authority it needs in the 1st Amendment.”

Anderson, a Mormon who eschewed smoking, drinking, cursing and caffeine, was cast from the dissenter mold of journalism. He called himself a muckraker. The power elite saw him as an uncouth gossipmonger and shameless self-promoter.

He grew into a multimedia personality, writing not only a syndicated newspaper column but also more than a dozen books and subscription newsletters.

He was Washington bureau chief for Parade magazine. He broadcast a syndicated radio show; had a years-long gig on ABC-TV’s “Good Morning America;” and had his own TV show, “Truth,” which featured public figures hooked up to a lie detector.

With his marble-gray hair, tranquil blue eyes and rich waterfall of a voice, Anderson was active on the lecture circuit, and those fees kept the newspaper column afloat.

He won the Society of Professional Journalists’ Sigma Delta Chi “Service to Journalism” award in 1987 for his role in breaking the Iran-Contra story and later was inducted into its Journalism Hall of Fame.

He was at the founding meeting in 1975 of Investigative Reporters and Editors Inc.

Born in Long Beach but raised in a small town outside of Salt Lake City, Anderson was editing the Boy Scout page of the Deseret News when he was 12. After graduating from high school, he joined the staff of the Salt Lake Tribune.

He fulfilled his Mormon missionary duty in the American South, then enrolled in the merchant marine officers training school in 1943. But he soon persuaded the Deseret News to accredit him as a foreign correspondent in China.

Drafted in 1945, Anderson was inducted into the Army in the Chinese city of Chongqing (then known as Chunking) and served with the Quartermaster Corps until 1947, working on service newspapers and Armed Forces Radio.

Upon his discharge, he went to work for Pearson and in his off-duty hours attended Georgetown and George Washington universities.

Anderson was considered significantly more accurate than his predecessor, although he was not error-free.

He admitted he wrongly charged Donald H. Rumsfeld with lavishly decorating his office while cutting expenses on programs of the Office of Economic Opportunity.

He also admitted giving covert aid to Sen. Joseph McCarthy in the early days of his anti-communist crusade, although he turned on McCarthy later. He also regretted not publishing a scoop about President Reagan’s arms-for-hostages swap.

He is survived by his wife of 56 years, Olivia Farley Anderson; five sons, Lance, Kevin, Randy, Rodney and Bryan; four daughters, Laurie Anderson-Bruch, Cheri Loveless, Tina Carmichael and Tanya Neider; 41 grandchildren; and seven great-grandchildren.

Anderson’s column ran in the Washington Post until 1997. It had not run in the Los Angeles Times for several decades.