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Sunday, December 18, 2005

They were giants in those days

Today’s papers carry the news of the death of Jack Anderson, the muckraking columnist who, among other things, uncovered the Nixon Administration’s tilt towards Pakistan in 1971 and broke many stories about the CIA and the Watergate scandals. By a coincidence, I have been rereading one of my favorite books, the diaries of Drew Pearson, Anderson’s onetime boss and later collaborator, who wrote a daily column, The Washington Merry-Go-Round, from 1932 to his death in 1969. Forgotten today, Pearson, whom I have already quoted with respect to Herbert Hoover, was one of the most extraordinary journalists in American history—a type whom we desperately need, but do not have, today.

In 1949, Pearson was both a columnist carried by several hundred newspapers and a nationally syndicated broadcaster. Libel law still favored the plaintiff in those days and New York Times vs. Sullivan was 15 years in the future. Pearson was the subject of dozens of libel suits—chronicled, in fact, in a monograph, A Washington Merry-Go-Round of Libel Actions, which went into the biggest ones at considerable length. Pearson defended them all, refusing even to buy libel insurance, since the insurance company might insist that he print a retraction rather than face a trial. He lost only one, to a Washington attorney named whom he had accused of representing the Dutch and Polish governments without registering as a foreign agent. His column, which appeared 365 days a year, featured a mix of backstairs Washington doings, stories of political corruption, and society gossip. Everyone who has seen Patton knows that Eisenhower relieved Patton for slapping a soldier, but no one knows that it was Drew Pearson who broke the story.

The year 1949 provides a good example of Pearson’s customary round of controversies.

1. The Attorney General of California, one Fred Howser, was suing him for $300,000 for having written that Howser had taken contributions from underworld gamblers.

2. Pearson had told the world that Father Charles Coughlin, the notorious pro-Fascist, anti-Semitic Catholic priest whose own nationwide radio broadcasts were very popular, had paid a Detroit man named Gariepy tens of thousands of dollars in an alienation of affections suit involving Gariepy’s wife. The whole Catholic hierarchy lined up against Pearson and successfully persuaded his radio sponsor, the Lee Hat company, to drop him. The Justice Department had evidence that the money had been paid, however, and when Mrs. Gariepy’s libel suit came to trial, the jury, hung 11-1 in Pearson’s favor, was dismissed, and the case was never retried.

3. During early 1949 Pearson had been writing that James Forrestal, the first Secretary of Defense, was mentally unstable, and eventually he reported correctly that Forrestal had tried to commit suicide. Shortly thereafter Forrestal, confined to Bethesda Naval Hospital in a state of extreme emotional distress, did kill himself, and several people publicly accused Pearson of causing his death—led by the conservative columnist Westbrook Pegler, whom Pearson promptly sued for $300,000. Forrestal’s friends, including President Truman (see below), started a letter-writing campaign against Pearson, leading him to write the following extraordinary diary entry on May 26, 1949.

“People are repeating the charge that I killed Forrestal to the extent that I am almost beginning to lie awake nights wondering whether I did. Certainly a lot of people have convinced themselves that it is true.
“The truth is that my expose of Senator Bankhead’s speculation on the cotton market probably did kill him. The Alabama Democrat [and close relative of the actress Tallulah] had a stroke a few days thereafter and died. I was always afraid I might be accused of his death, and in his case I undoubtedly would have been guilty. I have also been wondering why people did not accuse me of being responsible for Parnell Thomas’s illness after the stories on his salary kickbacks.” [J. Parnell Thomas was the Chairman of the House Un-American Activities Committee, who went to Danbury Federal Prison after his secretary told Pearson that he was padding his payroll, and became a fellow inmate of Ring Lardner, Jr., whom he had interrogated as one of the Hollywood Ten.]
“But in the case of Forrestal my record is fairly clear. There was not very much I wrote about him of a personal nature.”

4. Pearson’s feud with Harry Truman began in 1945, when he criticized Bess Truman’s demeanor at the inaugural ball—a sin Harry could not forgive. It got worse as Pearson campaigned against General Harry Vaughn, Truman’s personal aide, who was mixed up in a number of Washington money-making schemes. Pearson heard during 1949 that Truman had called him an S. O. B. (one of the President’s favorite locutions), and announced on the air that he was forming an organization called the Servants of Brotherhood, which he hoped the President would join. The columnist regarded himself as a political activist and a journalist at the same time, and as a staunch liberal, he continually tried to help Truman in spite of their lack of any relationship. "Sometimes," he wrote in May 1951, "I think this administration is so dumb it is not worth saving. The tragic thing is that the Republicans at the moment are worse. And if the things Truman stands for all, the whole liberal era in this country collapses. I sometimes wonder why I should be trying to help out a Defense Department and a White House which three times has demanded of the Attorney General that I be prosecuted for publishing one of MacArthur's intelligence reports which showed up [General] MacArthur in his true light even as early as last September." Movingly, when he called the now ex-President in early 1953, Truman immediately took his call, greeted him warmly, and commiserated about the new mess in Washington. The two men remained friendly for the rest of the decade, and in another diary entry Pearson commented that Truman’s aides probably weren’t quite as bad as he had said they were.

Other notable occurrences from other years:

5. In late 1958, Pearson created a stir by telling Mike Wallace, in a television interview, that Senator John F. Kennedy had not actually written Profiles in Courage. (The clip of him doing so is featured in the DVD that Wallace has now issued along with his autobiography.) Opening up his files, Kennedy convinced Pearson that although he had undoubtedly received a lot of help, the idea and some of the research were his and he was very familiar with the contents. “Sometimes I’m a sucker for a nice guy who presents an appealing story,” Pearson wrote. “I’m not sure whether this was the fact in my talk with Kennedy or not. He didn’t ask me for a retraction, but I think I shall give him one.” As we know now, the original accusation was correct.

6. When Senator Joseph McCarthy announced that there were over 200 Communists in the State Department in early 1950, Pearson immediately went on the attack, opening up a war to the death. McCarthy retaliated by attacking Pearson’s new radio sponsor, the Adam Hat company, on the Senate floor, claiming that any American who bought an Adam Hat was now contributing to the Communist conspiracy. Sadly, the company caved in, and Pearson retaliated with a conspiracy suit naming McCarthy, Westbrook Pegler, and several others as having conspired to deny him his livelihood, but it had not come to trial by the time McCarthy was censured in 1954 and dropped out of sight. McCarthy repeatedly accused Pearson of employing a Communist and receiving and publishing classified material, all on the Senate floor, where the Constitution protected him from libel suits.

To say that Pearson—a Quaker—loved a fight would be a gross understatement. His diary always encourages me because none of his travails seem to bother him very much, perhaps because he is so busy. He and Anderson broke the story of Sherman Adams’ (Eisenhower’s chief of staff) payments from Bernard Goldfine in 1958. And in 1967, it was Pearson and Anderson who for the first time published the story of the CIA’s mob plots against Castro. (Although Anderson today is usually credited with it, unpublished sections of Pearson’s diary show that it was the older man who got the story from Washington attorney Edward Morgan.) Publicly the story went nowhere, but it led Lyndon Johnson to ask Richard Helms to look into the matter, and the CIA IG report describing the plots resulted.

When Pearson died Anderson wrote the column in the same spirit for many years, but the Washington Post dropped it in the 1990s, by which time it had become a shadow of its former self. That, in my opinion, was a sad day for American journalism. While Anderson may have grown too old to continue, the column itself and the freewheeling style it represented should have survived. There is nothing remotely like it in print journalism today. An intrepid blogger could, perhaps, take Pearson’s place, but he or she would have to do far more real reporting than any blogger I know of.

Pearson’s diary and the books he wrote with his original collaborator Robert Allen (mainly in the 1930s) are extraordinary today because of the intense interest they take in the lives and careers of public officials. By comparison with the 1930s through the 1960s, the legislators and cabinet officers of today have become lifeless figureheads whose personalities make no impact on the public. The need for someone like him is highlighted this morning by a New York Times review of a new book, The Republican War on Science, by Chris Mooney. The reviewer, John Horgan, tells how an editor at an unnamed magazine insisted that he rewrite a piece on the endangered Florida panther because it was too anti-Adminstration. Curiously, either Horgan or the Times editor decided that we did not deserve to hear how the argument turned out. Pearson would have called it as he saw it, and if some newspapers had refused to run the columnn--as papers frequently did--he would have shrugged his shoulders and gone on to the next day's work.

Certainly Pearson, were he alive today, would have more to write about than ever: the Delay and Abramoff scandals, the Administration’s efforts to plant stories in the press, the issue of torture and secret detention, the growing collapse of effective federal government, the power of the drug and oil industries, and on, and on, and on. He would once again be repeatedly investigated (as he was in those days) and his telephone might well be tapped again. Yet he would enjoy far more protection from libel suits, and Scott McClellan and the rest of the Administration would have to deal day after day with a determined bulldog who would print anything he believed to be true, who received numerous tips from Americans great and small, and who had no fear of anyone on earth.


Netpowersoft said...
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Anonymous said...

Your admiration for the smear specialist, Drew Pearson, is, in my opinion, completely misplaced. Nowhere are you more off the mark than in the following quote:

"During early 1949 Pearson had been writing that James Forrestal, the first Secretary of Defense, was mentally unstable, and eventually he reported correctly that Forrestal had tried to commit suicide."

Pearson did, indeed, write scurrilous things about Forrestal, including that he consciously cowered in his New York apartment while his wife was assaulted outside it, which was not true. It is also not true that Forrestal had attempted suicide. The day after Forrestal's death from a fall from the 16th floor of the Bethesda Naval Hospital, Pearson reported that Forrestal had made four previous suicide attempts. That claim, according to the doctors who treated Forrestal at Bethesda, was also false.

Looking at Pearson's record, I tend to agree with what President Franklin Roosevelt wrote about him in a letter to General Patrick Hurley on August 30, 1943, "His ill-considered falsehoods have come to the point where he is doing much harm to his own Government and to other nations. It is a pity that anyone anywhere believes anything that he writes."

Mark said...

We don’t need FDR.  Fortunately solid evidence exists from other quarters that Drew Pearson was wrong about James Forrestal.  David Martin – “DC Dave” as he is also known – has laid out that evidence with painstaking detail in a series of articles:  Who Killed James Forrestal?  They have all the fascination of a mystery story that the title suggests.

The articles are informed by a Navy report – the Willcutts Report – uncovered by Mr. Martin using FOIA after having been filed away unpublished and forgotten for 55 years.

Mr. Martin not only describes the facts of the Forrestal case he dissects how journalists and commentators of the time treated it, such as Drew Pearson, and how those who came afterwards treated it: Rogow, Hoopes & Brinkley and someone known as Cornell Simpson.

The latest in Mr. Martin’s series, Part 5, is subtitled  “Press and historians close ranks, minds.”  In it he describes an exchange between David Kaiser – this blog’s author – and himself.  I’m afraid Prof. Kaiser comes off as a man unable, at this point, to consider something new.

I’ve read some of Prof. Kaiser’s other blog entries and liked what I found.  I hope he will be persuaded to reconsider his position and read Mr. Martin’s analysis.  Perhaps he will finish reading the Willcutts Report.  I’ve read it from beginning to end.  Even without Mr. Martin’s commentary   it gives me the creeps.

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Anonymous said...

An easy-to-read HTML version of the Willcutts Report, with an informative introduction, is now available.

The hard work of puzzling out the near illegible parts of the photocopy has been done once and for all. Besides being easy to read you can instantly search the report as with any HTML document.