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Sunday, October 29, 2017

Drew Pearson, the sequel

In 2006, I did a long piece here about one of my favorite books, the diaries of newspaper columnist Drew Pearson from 1949 through 1959.  Pearson was probably the single most famous and influential journalist of the middle third of the twentieth century.  He and his one time partner, Robert Allen, created a sensation in 1932 with their anonymous book, The Washington Merry-Go-Round, which combined a scathing portrayal of the federal government in general and the Hoover administration in particular with a great deal of high-level Washington gossip. (Pearson at the time was related by marriage to the Patterson family, which owned the Washington Post.)  He lost his job after his authorship was revealed, but The Washington Merry-Go-Round became a seven-day-a-week column that was carried by more than 600 newspapers around the country as late as the 1960s.  He also became a network radio broadcaster and did some television broadcasting as well.  The stories he broke included General Patton's slapping of an enlisted man in a hospital in Sicily during the Second World War, the payroll padding and kickbacks by the Chairman of the House Un-American Activities committee, J. Parnell Thomas, which landed Thomas in jail, and the payments accepted from industrialist Bernard Goldfine by Eisenhower's Chief of Staff, Sherman Adams--and dozens more.  Jack Anderson began his career with Pearson and eventually became his collaborator, and took over the column after Pearson's death in 1969. 

Pearson had begun keeping his diary in 1949 and left instructions in his will for his stepson Tyler Abell to publish them, and to edit them "not from the viewpoint of what willhurt people, but wha tmight hurt the public good."  In the preface to the first volume, which appeared in 1974, Abell indicated that he had had to make very large cuts in the enormous diary.  He anticipated two more volumes at that time, which extrapolating from the length of volume 1 would have amounted to more that 1600 pages.  That, however, he wrote, would be only about 1/3 of the total.

Somehow I missed the publication of the diary in 1974, but I discovered it in the 1980s and have eagerly looked forward to more of it ever since. By the 1990s Tyler Abell had given most (but not all) of the original to the LBJ Library in Austin, but under terms that did not allow researchers to view it.  Some key passages from the 1960s were released in the 1990s in response to the JFK Assassination Records Act, because they bore upon the assassination of JFK and its aftermath.  At some point in the 1990s I wrote Abell a letter protesting that his father-in-law would be most unhappy to know that most of his diary was still closed, but I received no reply.  Just last month I was in Austin giving a talk at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and I contacted the library again to see about access. The original remains closed, but when I did a google search I found, to my amazement, that the University of Nebraska Press had published a second volume on 1959-69 just two years ago.  It received only one visible review, in The New Yorker, which I had missed. Within a week, I had a copy, and I have now finished it.

I do wish that I could have made contact with Abell and edited the book myself.  In place of the two volumes of about 500 pages each that Abell had foreseen in the early 1970s, we now have one of 700 pages of diary text.  The published volume is a bit unbalanced: its first five years (1960-4) take up just 278 pages and the next four take up more than 400.  (The diary doesn't get very far into 1969 because of Pearson's failing health.)  Oddly, some of the material that was released by the LBJ Library in the 1990s is not included, but at least one very important entry bearing on the JFK assassination from 1967 is in the published version even though it was not released then.  The book is edited by Peter Hannaford, a long-time Washington consultant and friend of Abell's, and I can't say that he did a particularly good job.  He did not, unlike Abell, make much of an effort to identify the players or to to provide necessary background in the midst of the text so as to enable readers to understand long-forgotten parts of the story.  Many names are misspelled and some people are misidentified. Carmine Bellino, to cite one example, was an investigator who had worked for Robert Kennedy, not a Congressman as alleged here.  There is relatively little material on the election campaigns of 1960 and 1964, compared to what Abell had published in 1952 and 1956 and what we find here on 1968.  Pearson was not merely a columnist--he was a Washington player who promoted his favorite candidates and causes.  He supported Lyndon Johnson over JFK in 1960 but that story is largely untold here.  It is tragic that the full ms. remains unavailable to researchers at the LBJ Library.  The editor unfortunately also failed to include any reaction at all to the Supreme Court decision, New York Times vs. Sullivan, that provided new protection for journalists tried with libel suits.  Pearson was the king libel law, having faced literally dozens of suits, trying many, and losing only one.  There is indeed a whole book devoted to the suits with which he and Jack Anderson had to deal.

I did not think that this volume told as coherent a story of the period it dealt with as its predecessor until 1965 or so, but it was filled with fascinating detail nonetheless.  A good deal of it is salacious. Pearson loved gossip, and he identifies previously unknown girl friends of JFK, LBJ, Robert Kennedy, and Barry Goldwater, among others.  He also goes in some detail into the emotional collapse of Phil Graham, the husband of Katherine Graham and editor of the Washington Post, which led to Graham's suicide in the summer of 1963.  But the bulk of the material reflects Pearson's policy interests and political stance.   He was a New Deal liberal domestically who fought corruption and the influence of money on politics, and he continually sought better relations with the Soviet Union and a durable peace.  As a result, he visited the USSR and had long interviews with Nikita Khrushchev more than once, and they are detailed here. 

Pearson had strong personal likes and dislikes, but they did not prevent him from appreciating what political figures actually said and did.  He was initially very cool to John F. Kennedy because he had disliked his father and he referred repeatedly to Kennedy's compulsive womanizing, which he expected sooner or later to end in scandal.  He had as I mentioned tried to stop Kennedy's nomination in Los Angeles in 1960 but he immediate praised him for a "great acceptance speech" and warmed to him during the campaign.  Late in that campaign, he broke another of his biggest stories: that airline magnate Howard Hughes had lent Richard Nixon's brother Donald $206,000.  That was one of many of his columns that the Washington Post and other papers refused to print.  The diary notes that the Kennedy campaign, confident of victory in the last two weeks of the campaign, decided not to do antying with it either, and they may have paid the price when Nixon carried California and turned the election into a squeaker.  Pearson was also very unhappy during 1961 when Kennedy turned to hard liner Dean Acheson for advice on the Berlin crisis and started a military build-up, but he warmed to Kennedy's efforts to bring about detente with the USSR in the last year of his life.  He never, however, warmed to Robert Kennedy, whom he remembered from his days as minority counsel on the Senate committee chaired by Joe McCarthy, a critical Pearson antagonist, and whom he regarded as cold and a ruthless campaigner. 

Pearson's relationship with Lyndon Johnson provides much of the drama of the last 2/3 of the book.  In the 1950s Pearson had often been critical of Johnson as a conduit for the money and influence of Texas oil barons, but in the 1960s they developed a family connection.  Tyler Abell's wife Bess became Lady Bird Johnson's social secretary, and after Johnson became President he appointed Tyler Abell assistant postmaster general. Pearson had interviewed FDR from time to time, had been estranged from Harry Truman for most of his turbulent  presidency, and had never been close to Eisenhower or Kennedy.  Johnson was the first President to whom he had frequent access.

Pearson's personal ties to Johnson were not enough to turn him into a loyal supporter, particularly when it came to the Vietnam War, which the columnist opposed from the beginning.  Johnson repeatedly invited him to the White House for a chat in an effort to win him over.  The diaries provide a revealing glimpse of Johnson's one-on-one technique: he delivered nonstop emotional harangues, which gave his interlocutor almost no opportunity to dissent. He could not win Pearson over on Vietnam but he successfully fooled him about certain aspects of his position.  Neither Pearson nor anyone else in Washington outside the Administration understood that Johnson had approved full-scale war in Southeast Asia in early December 1964 and given the word for both the bombing and the ground war in March 1965, as I showed in American Tragedy.  Until 1966 he bought Johnson's line that he was hoping for peace talks at any moment while doing the minimum necessary militarily.  After that, the book painfully documents the way in which the war destroyed the Democratic coalition that had been put together by FDR, Truman, JFK and Johnson himself, the coalition that reached the height of its power after the 1964 elections but disintegrated thanks to the Vietnam War, leaving Hubert Humphrey with 43% of the vote in 1968 compared to Johnson's 60% in 1964.  He also has insightful things to say about changes within the civil rights movement, and the diary includes some extraordinary conversations with the comedian and activist Dick Gregory, whom Pearson had come to know well.

The published volume treats the 1968 election campaign in great detail.  Pearson was one of the few to speculate in 1967 that LBJ might not run again.  "Maybe he isn't going to run again," Leonard Marks, the head of the US Information Agency and a Johnson confidante, said to Pearson on November 10, 1967. "This may be true," Pearson wrote in his diary. "He has acted and talked like a candidate, but he coudl do what Harry Truman did in spring 1952, after Kefauver beat him in the New Hampshire primary and was about to beat him in the Wisconsin primary. Harry just bowed out."  That, of course, was exactly what Johnson did do after Senator Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota, a peace candidate, nearly beat Johnson in New Hampshire and was clearly destined to win in Wisconsin.  Pearson liked McCarthy and was not impressed by Robert Kennedy's decision to jump into the race after McCarthy had proven LBJ to be vulnerable, after previously saying that he would not run.  Indeed, Pearson hurt RFK during the primary season by publishing the story of how he, not J. Edgar Hoover, had insisted on wiretapping Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1963, after Courtney Evans of the FBI had advised against it.  (The FBI showed Pearson the memo that proved this, which was published about 15 years later by David Garrow.)  According to the editor, Pearson's immediate reaction to RFK's assassination is missing from the diary; I hope eventually to be able to verify whether it is lost forever.  Pearson remained sympathetic to McCarthy but fell behind Humbert Humphrey after the Democratic convention, while trying, together with Averell Harriman and George Ball, to move Humphrey away from the Administration position on Vietnam. Humphrey moved, but only slightly. 

Thanks to both LBJ and Humphrey, Pearson was denied a scoop of potential historical impact.  Right up until election day, Pearson found it hard to believe that Richard Nixon could become President.  He had always been, in his estimation, a crook, and he expected--rightly as it turned out--that he would remain so.  He wrote some more highly critical columns during the campaign which the Washington Post and other papers refused to publish.  Neither Johnson nor Humphrey, however, told him about Nixon's attempts to stall the peace talks in Paris by telling the Saigon government to boycott them.  They had decided that the good of the country required that these contacts be kept secret. Pearson would surely have published them and they could have swung a very close election.  It was clear to Pearson--as it is to me now, having read some of Johnson's published conversations from that fall--that Johnson was so angry at Humphrey for staking out his own position that he preferred Nixon to win.

Jack Anderson's name comes up quite a few times but the editor did not give us a real sense of his relationship with Pearson.  He served as an alibi for stories powerful people did not like--Pearson could always say, usually truthfully that Jack had written them.  (He was writing more and more of the columns in the 1960s because Pearson spent a lot of time on the lecture circuit to make up for lost income.)  It turns out that Anderson unilaterally decided to publish the March 1967 column that broke, for the first time, the story of the CIA's assassination plots against Castro and alleged a possible connection between them and the assassination of JFK.  Pearson had gotten the story from Edward Morgan, a Washington attorney who represented Johnny Roselli and Robert Maheu, both of whom were involved in those plots.  Hannaford bizarrely left out the diary entry in which Pearson gave the story to President Johnson.  Pearson did not know that Johnson immediately called CIA director Richard Helms to demand an explanation.  The document generated by the CIA's inspector general's office in response is the reason we know about those plots at all.

After Pearson's death in September 1969, Anderson carried on his tradition.  As Seymour Hersh once pointed out, Anderson broke some very important stories during the Nixon Administration which most major news outlets refused to pick up.  Pearson would have thrived in the days of the internet--if he could have found a way to monetize his independent reporting.  But reading the second volume of his diaries is painfully said not because of what has happened to journalism, but because of what has happened to politics.  It is a story of a different age, when political leaders worked hard to correct racial injustice, spread prosperity, and maintain the rights of labor.  It was a most hopeful moment in American history, one beginning to be swept away by the tragic, catastrophic mistake of the Vietnam War

1 comment:

Bozon said...


Interesting article. My views of Pearson are on my blog.

I had read Jim Garrison's interview, in Playboy, back in the late 60s.
Johnson's inquiry was hardly the only source for these revelations by Anderson and Pearson in 1967 about the CIA involvement re Cuba.


All the best