Monday, March 12, 2012

"Poisioning the Press" by Mark Feldstein

During the late 1960's, and the early 1970's, a sea change occurred in America regarding the relationship between the press and the reigning politicians. It would be easy to just blame the politicians, who, of course, usually have something to hide, hence their resentment of the press. But when politics begins to motivate the reporters as well; who are supposed to be the guardians of the so-called "Fourth Estate"; the combination of these two entities in competition for control of the truth only bodes trouble for the very institutions, and people, whom both entities are supposedly protecting. The war between Jack Anderson and Richard Nixon is a perfect example of this.

Two men could not have been more alike in their origins than Jack Anderson, the future newspaper columnist, and Richard Nixon, the future President of the United States. Both were born to hard working middle class families in Southern California, and both were brought up as fundamentalist Christians; Nixon, as a Quaker; Anderson, as a Mormon. Both served in the Pacific during the Second World War, defending their country. Even after the war, their separate career paths took both to Washington, where they would spend the next 30 years battling with one another. Mostly it was a contest of words. But in the early spring of 1972, before the Watergate burglaries even took place, this rivalry was turning deadly, as the Nixon Administration, utilizing the skills of G. Gordon Liddy and E. Howard Hunt, plotted the death of the President's main nemesis, which had by this point, become an obsession.

Chronicling the rivalry between these two men, the author draws on an extensive bibliography of news articles and government documents to illustrate his coverage of the veritable war between America's news media and the Government, a war which continues to affect how we choose our elected officials today.

Beginning with the Alger Hiss "Pumpkin Papers" case, the author chronicles all of the negative coverage heaped upon Nixon, including the well-known "Checkers" speech in 1952, as well as Nixon's "last" press conference in 1962, when he lost the race for Governor, declaring that "the press won't have Richard Nixon to kick around anymore." Jack Anderson, along with his mentor Drew Pearson, remained steadfastly on Nixon's tail all during the McCarthy hearings and the Roy Cohn scandal, during which Anderson fired the first shot concerning the sexual orientation of both McCarthy and Cohn. He would later use this same tactic against Nixon's White House aides, H.R.Haldeman and John Ehrlichman.

Unsurprisingly, Nixon attempted to do the same thing to Jack Anderson in order to discredit him. (That was right before he decided to have him killed.) And, while all of this was going on, J. Edgar Hoover was the one verifying the sexual orientation of the White House employees, via the use of polygraph tests. One would assume he would have known the right questions to ask. Knowing what we know about Mr. Hoover and his companion Clyde Tolson at this point, makes this scenario almost laughable, were it not true.

This is a fascinating book, which takes a hard look at both the press and the government, as they each attempt to manipulate elections, secure jobs for friends, and cover up mistakes and scandals, until the public has no idea of what is really going on. It is hard to imagine, that with all of the power, and the responsibility which goes along with it, that so much time is wasted, by both parties, in witch hunts designed to bring the other side down, not with facts and reasoning; but instead with innuendo and false accusations, character assassination, and in the extreme case, actual murder plots.

Scandal has always been a part of politics, dating back to the earliest of times. But during the 3 decades in which Richard Nixon and Jack Anderson fought their protracted, personal battle in the press, something was lost. That something was the civility of political discourse, which was the foundation of our Democracy. Sadly, going down that slippery slope has proven far easier than regaining the high ground. Just look at the 24/7 news media today, and the fatally divided nation which we now inhabit. And when you do, remember, the blame for that division falls on both sides of the aisle.

This is an entertaining and informative book, which recounts an era that changed America forever, and not necessarily for the better.

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