Nearly 40 years before the Obama White House denounced the WikiLeaks website for publishing classified documents, another president, Richard Nixon, was even more obsessed with the same phenomenon.
Only Nixon and his top aides went to far greater lengths to deal with the problem: They launched an extraordinary campaign to smear and discredit the journalist who, more than anyone else, was bedeviling them by publishing government secrets: newspaper columnist Jack Anderson.
The White House obsession with Anderson — whose “Washington Merry Go-Round” column was the WikiLeaks of its day — is detailed in a new book being published this month, “Poisoning the Press: Richard Nixon, Jack Anderson and the Rise of Washington’s Scandal Culture, ” by journalism professor Mark Feldstein. The book relies in part on newly unearthed tapes from the National Archives that document how Nixon’s aides plotted to destroy Anderson by planting forged evidence with him and spreading false rumors about his sex life and that of one of his associates.
Feldstein also has uncovered new evidence that documents one of the more outrageous schemes of the Nixon presidency: a plot to assassinate Anderson by either putting poison in his medicine cabinet or exposing him to a “massive dose” of LSD by smearing it on the steering wheel of his car. While the aborted scheme to murder Anderson has been reported — and disputed — before, Feldstein found new corroboration: A confession before his death by ex-White House “plumber” Howard Hunt.
As Feldstein writes, the plot was the culmination of a 40-year feud that dated back to the early 1950s, when Anderson uncovered a secret slush fund that wealthy backers had set up to financially support Nixon. That discovery led to Nixon’s nationally televised “Checkers” speech, in which he vowed to keep the new cocker spaniel he had bought for his daughters. The speech was widely credited with saving Nixon from being dumped as Dwight Eisenhower’s running mate in 1952.