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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Poisoning the Press

Richard Nixon, Jack Anderson, and the Rise of Washington's Scandal Culture

Mark Feldstein






They were born barely thirty miles from each other, in the dry air and open skies of the early-twentieth-century West, before asphalt and strip malls conquered the soil and spirit of the southern California desert. Although Richard Nixon and Jack Anderson would ultimately become fierce antagonists, what is most striking about their early years is not their differences but their similarities. The politician and the reporter both were raised in small Western towns, sons of the struggling working class during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Both men had strict religious upbringings and devout fundamentalist Christian parents. Both signed up for sea duty in the Pacific during World War II and headed afterward to Washington, D.C., to realize their large ambitions. And both would spend the next three decades in the nation's capital, embroiled in some of the most ferocious political and journalistic brawls of their time.

Yet despite their similar beginnings, the two men had fundamentally different dispositions and responded in wholly different ways to their parallel backgrounds. The effect would produce a clash of personalities and professions that would transcend the usual adversarial relationship between politicians and journalists.

For Richard Milhous Nixon, it began in Yorba Linda, California, a farming village forty miles southeast of Los Angeles. "It wasn't a town," a resident recalled. "It was turkey mullein, cactus, rattlesnakes, tumbleweeds and tracks." And it was there, in his parents' tiny stove-heated bungalow in January 1913, that the future president was born.

Nixon descended from a long line of Quakers, so named because their religious devotion led them to "tremble at the word of the Lord." With a heavy emphasis on silence and simplicity, traditional Quakers austerely rejected dancing and other frivolities. But unlike more progressive Friends from back East, whose history of political activism championed pacifism, the Nixon family belonged to a fundamentalist strain that engaged in evangelical revivals. Nixon's parents "ground into me with the aid of the church," he later said, "their strictest interpretation" of the "infallibility and literal correctness of the Bible." Young Richard—his parents eschewed the more familiar "Dick"—went to church four times on Sunday, from morning until evening; he also read from the Bible before going to bed at night: "We never had a meal without grace. Usually it was silent. Sometimes each of us would recite a verse of scripture." At age thirteen, Richard publicly declared his "personal commitment to Christ and Christian service."

Richard grew up in Whittier, an insular Quaker town of harsh piety and rigid conformity, devoid of bars, liquor stores, or movie theaters, where village elders instructed female teachers not to go to dances or talk to men on the street. The Nixon family "practiced a stout, unquestioned tribal closeness," one biographer wrote. "It was a plain, exacting life." Along with religious orthodoxy, Nixon imbibed something of the Quakers' interest in politics, though he was less concerned with the social gospel than with political rectitude. At age twelve, Richard read newspaper accounts of the Teapot Dome political scandal in Washington and reportedly vowed, "When I grow up, I'm going to be an honest lawyer so things like that can't happen." He won speech contests by extolling patriotic themes and wanted to "enter politics for an occupation so that I might be of some good to the people." A debating opponent from high school said that Richard "would have made a wonderful missionary, because he was always right, he knew everything. God was on his side."

Richard was the second of five sons fathered by Francis Nixon, an industrious but often itinerant worker whose success never measured up to his dreams. Orphaned as a child, with only a fourth-grade education, Frank Nixon bounced from job to job—carpenter, butcher, painter, brick-maker, potter, streetcar operator, lemon farmer, grocer—but never let failure dampen his work ethic. "To him playing was daydreaming," one of his brothers said. Frank's childhood was undeniably harsh and troubled: his mother died of tuberculosis when he was eight years old; his stepmother beat him; schoolmates bullied him. The result was a volatile personality given to unpredictable rages. "My father was a scrappy, belligerent fighter," Richard remembered, "a strict and stern disciplinarian." Others were less polite: "Quarrelsome," said one of Frank's siblings. "Nasty," recalled a niece. "Explosive," stated a baby-sitter. "A collector of resentments, a chronic shouter," a family friend wrote. "Hard … beastly … like an animal," according to an acquaintance. Nixon's father hit his sons with rulers and straps. "I still remember Uncle Frank … beating [Richard's older brother] so hard his hollering could be heard all up and down" the block, an onlooker marveled decades later.

Richard's mother, Hannah Milhous Nixon, was more even-tempered than her rough-hewn husband. "She was considered in Yorba Linda a cultured, refined, educated person from a rather superior family in comparison to Mr. [Frank] Nixon," a neighbor said. Raised in a pious Quaker family, Hannah pushed her promising second son to work hard, trust in God, and dutifully practice the piano. "Richard was clearly his mother's favorite," a contemporary remembered. The future president returned the adulation. "My mother was a saint," he said tearfully on his last day in the White House. "She will have no books written about her. But she was a saint." Others considered Hannah Nixon less angelic. "She was a hard character," one friend of the family said; another called her "cranky and puritanical." Richard was just seven years old when a classmate saw him with his mother: "She was sitting on the piano bench with a switch in her hand while he was practicing." Unlike her husband, Hannah usually spared the rod, but she substituted stern lectures that Richard "dreaded far more than my father's hand." Nixon reportedly said of his mother, "In her whole life, I never heard her say to me or anyone else ‘I love you.' " His doctor, psychotherapist Arnold Hutschnecker, believed that Hannah's chilly, conditional love failed to nurture her son even while she "completely smothered" him with demands: "A saint is someone who you cannot pray enough to, improve enough for, beg enough to," the physician pointed out. "The image of the saintly but stern face of his mother defeated him more than any other factor … He wanted his mother to believe him perfect. That was his problem."

Nixon's quiet need to be thought perfect was reinforced by the tragic early deaths of two brothers. Seven-year-old Arthur Nixon died unexpectedly when Richard was twelve. The future president "sat staring into space, silent and dry-eyed," his mother remembered. "He sank into a deep impenetrable silence." Richard cried about the loss every day for weeks. Two years later, his older brother, Harold, contracted tuberculosis, a painful and lingering disease made worse because Frank Nixon wouldn't allow treatment at the county TB ward for fear of "taking charity." Ultimately, Hannah took Harold to Arizona for care and was separated from the rest of her family off and on for five years until he died in 1933. "From that time on, it seemed Richard was trying to be three sons in one, striving even harder than before to make up to his father and me for our loss," Hannah said. "Unconsciously, too, I think that Richard may have felt a kind of guilt that Harold and Arthur were dead and that he was alive."
Despite the searing deaths, Hannah and Frank continued to be uncompromising with their three surviving sons. "They were very strict parents and expected them to do right in everything," a neighbor recalled. From an early age, Richard learned to satisfy his demanding mother and appease or avoid his hot-tempered father. The boy's strategy for maneuvering around his dad was simple: "I tried to follow my mother's example of not crossing him when he was in a bad mood." He advised his brothers, "Just don't argue with him. You'll have a better chance of getting what you want out of him in the long run."

Such family dynamics—an explosive father who had to be manipulated, an ambitious mother who demanded perfection—pushed Richard to strive for success without being open about it. "He offended some of his Quaker teachers by his willingness to justify bad means by the ends," a schoolmate remembered. Yet Richard could also be kind and compassionate: he looked after a student crippled by polio and often strained to carry his friend's paralyzed body up steep stairs.
From the time he was a baby, an older playmate said, Nixon was "a very serious child, not lots of fun." His first-grade teacher noticed that he "kept mostly to himself" and "rarely ever smiled or laughed." Unathletic and bookish, Richard seldom played with other children, who nicknamed him "Gloomy Gus." He studied hard and got good grades, but his peers viewed him as a grind. "He once said he didn't like to ride the school bus because the other children didn't smell good," his cousin recalled. Nixon was an "oddball" with a " ‘holier than thou' attitude," a contemporary stated. "Let's face it," another exclaimed, "he was stuffy!" He wore a starched shirt to class. "Dick was a very tense person, always," a classmate said. Ill at ease with himself, Nixon tried to compensate by projecting an artificial friendliness that came across as false and insincere. Underneath the smile, fellow students remembered, he "had a nasty temper" and was "slightly paranoid." His debate coach thought "there was something mean in him, mean in the way he put his questions [and] argued his points."

It was no way to win friends of either sex. By high school, Richard had a well-deserved reputation as a shy loner who shunned school dances and girls. "I never could get up the nerve to ask them for dates," he admitted. Nixon "didn't know how to be personable or sexy with girls," said a schoolmate. "He didn't seem to have a sense of fun." By his senior year, Richard acquired a steady girlfriend, the daughter of the local police chief, but he clung to her as he once had to his mother, in an awkward mix of insecurity and aggressiveness. According to his sweetheart, Ola Florence Welch, Nixon would often "be harsh and I'd cry. Then we'd make up." Ola believed that Richard's problem was that he "didn't know how to mix. He had no real boy friends. And he didn't like my girl friends. He would stalk out of the room where they were, his head high." Nixon repeatedly asked Ola to marry him but she put him off. Ola felt sorry for him: "He seemed so lonely and so solemn … I think he was unsure of himself, deep down."

Still, Richard inherited his father's determination to succeed. At age eleven, he sent the Los Angeles Times a letter offering to work for "any pay offered … Hoping that you will accept me for your service, I am, Yours Truly, Richard M. Nixon." A few years later, he played the piano in his father's grocery store while staging mock radio shows with commercials touting goods for sale. With railroad tracks only a mile from his home, Nixon often said, he watched the trains go by during the day and woke up to their whistles in the night, dreaming of "far-off places."

In the midst of the Depression, Richard could not afford to attend Harvard or Yale, despite encouraging signals from the prestigious schools. Instead, he enrolled in his mother's hometown Quaker alma mater, Whittier College, which offered a full-tuition scholarship. After his sophomore year, Richard purchased a Model A Ford and traveled with his college debate team to San Francisco, where he tasted hard liquor for the first time at a Prohibition-era speakeasy. But he had to work hard for everything he got. Nixon became physically nauseated—"sixteen weeks of misery," he called it—toiling as a sweeper in a lemon packinghouse in Yorba Linda. He was equally unhappy picking green beans on nearby farms. "We would work twelve long hard hours to earn that one dollar," he recalled many years later. "I still hate the sight of string beans."

In 1934, Richard enrolled at Duke University Law School. He rented a room for five dollars a month until he discovered a cheaper "clapboard shack without heating or inside plumbing." Nixon once again studied dutifully, and graduated third out of his class of twenty-six. But lacking proper connections or social graces, he was turned down by every prestigious New York law firm to which he applied. It was the beginning of a lifetime of resentment against the Eastern establishment. "What starts the process, really, are laughs and slights and snubs when you are a kid," he later confided to an aide. "But if you are reasonably intelligent and if your anger is deep enough and strong enough, you learn that you can change those attitudes by excellence, personal gut performance, while those who have everything are sitting on their fat butts."

After law school, Richard returned to Whittier in 1937 and joined one of the two small legal firms in his hometown. He handled wills, taxes, and divorces, and began to be exposed for the first time to the larger world. (Nixon "turned fifteen colors of the rainbow," he recalled, when a beautiful female divorce client gave a "personal confession" of her intimate marital problems.) In an attempt to make contacts in the community and drum up legal business, the shy young attorney took a small acting role in Whittier's community theater. There, he met twentysix-year-old Thelma Catherine Ryan. "For me it was a case of love at first sight," Richard recalled. But not for the Whittier High school-teacher and cheerleading coach, who was nicknamed Pat because she was born on the eve of St. Patrick's Day. Pat repeatedly spurned Nixon's advances, refusing to answer the door when he unexpectedly dropped by, accepting his masochistic offers to drive her to dates with other men. "Don't laugh!" he told her. "Some day I'm going to marry you!" At first, "I thought he was nuts," she recalled. "I just looked at him. I couldn't imagine anyone saying anything like that so suddenly." But eventually she succumbed to his persistence and they were married in 1940. Richard's pursuit of Pat, who smoked cigarettes, drank alcohol, and was not a Quaker, was perhaps his first open rebellion against his narrow upbringing.

Two years later, in another assertion of independence, Nixon voluntarily joined the navy even though his religion entitled him to a deferment. He was at his physical prime: five feet, eleven inches tall, slender, with brown wavy hair, equally dark deep-set eyes, and heavy eyebrows. He had not yet formed the scowl lines and heavy jowls that would become fodder for future political cartoonists, but his familiar rounded shoulders and ski-slope nose were already present. The navy sent him to the Pacific, where the young lieutenant won two battle stars but saw no real military action. Instead, Richard learned to smoke cigars, play poker, and curse like the sailor that he had become.
After World War II, Nixon returned to Whittier and decided to make his first try at political office as a Republican. In a divisive race in which he campaigned wearing his navy uniform to emphasize his patriotism, Nixon accused the incumbent congressman of being soft on communism. On Election Day, the upstart challenger won a stunning victory. In January 1947, at the age of thirty-three, Congressman-elect Richard Nixon moved to Washington, D.C.

Also relocating to the nation's capital that year was another naval veteran returning from the Pacific—an aspiring journalist named Jack Anderson.

A decade after Richard Nixon's birth, just thirty miles away, Jack Northman Anderson was born in October 1922. Like his future adversary, Anderson grew up with a volatile, authoritarian father and a strict, unbending religious orthodoxy: the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, more commonly known as Mormons. Often persecuted for its beliefs, which at one time included polygamy, the sect settled in the remote Utah desert to practice its religion freely. Nils Anderson, Jack's paternal grandfather, was the patriarch of the family. A huge, imposing brick-maker with a stern visage and a long Old Testament beard, he was converted by Mormon missionaries in his native Sweden and moved to Utah in 1876. With four (serial) wives, he fathered seventeen children. The eleventh was Jack's father, Orlando.

Jack's dad was an angry, irritable army veteran who seemingly never recovered from shell shock suffered in the trenches of World War I. Orlando Anderson returned home with ambitions of becoming a famous actor. But like Nixon's father before him, he ended up instead holding a series of temporary menial jobs—in a beet factory, a laundry, a woolen mill, a restaurant, a power plant, and a veterans' hospital. He married a Danish immigrant and fellow Mormon, Agnes Mortensen. Jack described his mother as "a patient and persevering woman with a steely side." She brought Orlando to live with her mother in Long Beach, California, where Jack was soon born. After two years, the family returned to Utah, settling on the outskirts of Salt Lake City in a town called Cottonwood. Orlando landed a stable but low-level nighttime job as a postal clerk. Two more sons followed.

Like the Nixons, family life for the Andersons centered on their religion. Jack prayed daily, attended church every Sunday, and was inculcated with traditional Mormon strictures against alcohol, tobacco, caffeine, and cursing. He studied the Book of Mormon, which preached that America was a chosen land, and absorbed his religion's conservative values of discipline, self-reliance, and moral obligation. The Andersons tithed 10 percent of their annual income to the church and opened their home to the needy. A homeless man lived with them for more than a year.

Jack's father developed a stubborn austerity excessive even by Depression-era standards. While the rest of the family took the train to visit relatives in California, Orlando saved money by riding his bicycle there from Utah, through seven hundred miles of rough desert terrain. Jack's father bought a large Tudor house on four wooded acres in a prosperous neighborhood overlooking Mount Olympus—but then rented it out to make extra money, forcing his family to live in the cellar, without indoor plumbing. Jack had to bathe in a laundry tub, which was heated by a nearby coal stove. "We would take craps in the outhouse," he recalled with distaste. Orlando insisted on keeping the temperature in Jack's bedroom cold because "it is better for my health" and "saves on the heat," he wrote in a school essay. "I plunge into the icy room, scramble into my clothes, and dash for the nearest stove … with my teeth chattering." Jack was convinced that his family didn't need to make such sacrifices but that his father had a "martyr complex" that made him "glory in his poverty."

Copyright © 2010 by MARK FELDSTEIN.
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