Richard Nixon detested syndicated reporter Jack Anderson and put right at the top of his “enemies list.” When Nixon-ordered CIA and FBI volunteered surveillance of the muckraker failed to dig up any dirt, the plot to assassinate Anderson took on a life of its own at the White House.
by Don Fulsom
During Richard Nixon’s presidency, Jack Anderson was America’s premier investigative journalist—and Nixon’s most despised. In the most chilling crime contemplated by the President’s men, Anderson was targeted for assassination.
A strict moralist, Anderson’s stated lifetime goal was to keep government honest. A devout Mormon, he viewed his reportorial undertaking as a noble summons from the Almighty.
Former Anderson legman Howard Kurtz recalls that Anderson was gentle, patient and avuncular “with the young and ambitious wannabes who rotated through his small office.” He adds that Anderson’s “ability to persuade people at the highest level of government to share secrets with him was uncanny, especially in an era when most journalists were deferential toward the nation’s leaders and when top political columnists had cozy relationships with the high and mighty.”
Anderson was the last of the old-time muckrakers and, according to his biographer, Mark Feldstein, “an important transitional figure in the evolution of adversarial journalism …” Feldstein conceded, however, that Anderson would sometimes stoop fairly low to get a good story: “He swiped secret documents, used bugging equipment to eavesdrop on conversations, and jubilantly savaged his enemies, unconcerned with such journalistic niceties as fairness and balance,” the author pointed out in a 2004 interview with The Washington Post.
By 1972, Anderson had won both a Pulitzer Prize and the highest perch on Nixon’s notorious enemies list. To please or appease their Anderson-phobic boss—or possibly to follow his orders—at least two of Nixon’s presidential henchmen and a CIA doctor actually conspired to bump off the boss’s most hated nemesis.
A bombastic self-promoter as well as an old-fashioned shoe-leather newspaperman of unquestioned accuracy, Anderson had branched out from a nationally syndicated column, “Washington Merry-Go-Round,” (read by some 45 million people) into TV, radio, magazines and the lucrative lecture circuit.
His exclusives—running into the hundreds—included several that sent the volcanic Nixon up the Oval Office wall: A secret U.S. tilt away from India toward Pakistan; the CIA’s clandestine use of the Mob in numerous efforts to murder Cuban leader Fidel Castro (A plot secretly run by Nixon as vice president); and an under-the-table link between a Nixon administration decision todrop a government antitrust suit against ITT and a $400,000 ITT pledge to underwrite the 1972 Republican convention.
After the ITT column ran, an incensed President asked No. 1 aide Bob Haldeman why he could not find someone to rifle Anderson’s files. This, undoubtedly, would have required a break-in at Anderson’s office.
President Nixon had an even bigger, older reason to hate Jack Anderson. He blamed the intrepid journalist, in part, for keeping him from winning his first White House bid.
As the 1960 election neared, Anderson and his patron, tutor and partner, Drew Pearson (who died in 1969, leaving the column to Anderson), disclosed that, in 1956, Vice President Nixon’s unscrupulous brother Donald had received a $205,000 “loan” from Dick’s longtime Sugar Daddy, billionaire businessman Howard Hughes. Soon after the Hughes money reached Donald, the IRS—reversing a prior ruling—granted tax-exempt status to Hughes’s shady “medical institute.”
Described by Nixon aide John Ehrlichman as a “florid, peach-shaped fellow given to wearing white sports jackets and colorful neckties,” Donald Nixon had always been a potential embarrassment to his brother. “Don talked loudly, extravagantly and incessantly, so the Nixon campaigns always discouraged his participation,” Ehrlichman wryly observed in his book, Witness to Power.
At first, Nixon denied the Hughes loan story; but he was later forced to admit that the billionaire’s bucks had indeed enriched his brother. That is until Don blew the money on a pipe dream—a California chain of “Nixon-Burger” drive-in restaurants that quickly folded.
Richard Nixon was convinced that this particular Pearson-Anderson “Washington Merry-Go-Round” dispatch had contributed mightily to his razor-thin presidential loss to Sen. John F. Kennedy.
Illustrative of Nixon’s enmity toward Anderson and Pearson was the reaction of Ehrichman, a senior 1968 Nixon campaign aide, when he learned that the two reporters would be staying at Nixon’s Miami Beach hotel during the Republican convention: “‘No! Of all the reporters in the world, not those two!’ I yelled. Nixon would have a stroke on the very eve of his nomination; they were his deadliest (author’s emphasis) foes.”
Ehrlichman pressured the mobbed-up Teamsters Union—which held the mortgage on the hotel—and, as a result, Anderson and Pearson had to stay elsewhere.
As President, Nixon was so frightened of the mischief his “poor, dumb, damn brother” Donald might blunder into—and that Jack Anderson might expose—that he bugged Don’s phones and put a full-time Secret Service tail on him.
CIA and FBI Surveillance
Meantime, the Central Intelligence Agency was keeping a close eye on almost all of Anderson’s activities. It was also conducting “personal surveillances” of Jack’s legmen, Brit Hume and Les Whitten.
In addition, Anderson was being watched and followed by agents of the FBI, whose director, Nixon crony J. Edgar Hoover, privately called the columnist a “jackal” with a mind that is “lower than the regurgitated filth of vultures.” When Hoover dispatched agents to stake out Anderson’s house, the columnist sent several of his nine children outside to have some fun: take their pictures and let the air out of their tires.
Hoover volunteered the FBI’s files on Anderson to the White House, where counsel John Dean found them of absolutely no value to Anderson-loathers on the premises. Sadly for them, Hoover’s Anderson files turned out to be mainly old newspaper and magazine clippings.
Next, the White House secretly probed Anderson’s alleged participation in a questionable Maryland land deal. The President’s men came up empty. They got the same result when they tried to pin down a tip about possible shady dealings by Anderson’s brother.
Dean says Nixon had full knowledge of all of the anti-Anderson maneuverings: “Colson was reporting to the President on his efforts.”
The eventual star witness for Watergate investigators, Dean and his accusations against the President and his co-conspirators have stood the test of time. When Nixon’s secret tape recordings were later made released, Dean’s photographic memory of events was totally confirmed. Though he was convicted of multiple felonies, the former White House counsel served only four months in a special U.S. Marshals “safe house” near Baltimore in return for his cooperation with prosecutors. He is now an investment banker, lecturer, and outspoken critic of the Iraq war.
Jack Anderson fought the administration’s efforts to discredit him. He publicly charged that Colson had started a false rumor that the reporter had accepted $100,000 to write articles favorable to former Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista. And he had one of his legman do an FBI-style ransacking of J. Edgar Hoover’s garbage. A search of Hoover’s refuse, however, yielded nothing of consequence—just many empty cartons of a popular anti-acid, indicating the FBI director suffered from gas pains.
The Plot to Assassinate Anderson
In this ugly atmosphere, the White House started plotting Anderson’s slaying—one scoop Anderson was not able to break himself. That juicy story was unearthed by Watergate ace Bob Woodward. In a September 21, 1975 Washington Post piece, Woodward reported that an unnamed top White House aide gave Nixon’s chief spy E. Howard Hunt “the order to kill Anderson.”
The plan allegedly involved the use of poison—one that could not be detected during an autopsy—obtained from a CIA physician. Woodward wrote that the assassination order came from a “senior official in the Nixon White House,” and that it was “canceled at the last minute . . .” He added that former Watergate investigators were surprised “that such a plan could have been kept secret for so long.” Hunt’s former White House supervisor, Colson, claimed he’d never heard of the aborted Anderson assassination plan, Woodward elaborated.
Like Colson, E. Howard Hunt was a Brown University grad. He was a handsome, literate (he had written scores of spy novels under an assumed name, and had ghost-written the autobiography of former CIA Director Allen Dulles), gun toting, take-no-prisoners, retired spook who had worked years earlier with Vice President Nixon on the planned CIA-Mafia murder of Cuban leader Fidel Castro. A master of deception and disinformation, Hunt was also a close friend of CIA Director Richard Helms. As a Nixon aide, Hunt got the CIA to supply him with “Mission Impossible”-like disguises—such as a red wig, a voice-altering device, and a gait-changing appliance for one of his legs.
A CIA memo, which came to light in the 1970s, placed Hunt in Dallas the day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. In the mid-‘80s, Hunt lost a lawsuit he brought against a newsletter for implicating him the JFK assassination.
On his deathbed early in this century, Hunt confessed that he knew of plans by rogue CIA agents to assassinate Kennedy, but claimed he decided against becoming a conspirator. Hunt’s son—St. John Hunt—recently disclosed that his mother told him his dad was in Dallas “on business” on November 22, 1963.
Hunt never publicly acknowledged that Nixon White House anti-Jack Anderson efforts included murder. However, in an affidavit about a key meeting with Colson related to “dirty tricks” against Anderson, Hunt did say, “Colson seemed more than usually agitated, and I formed the impression that he had just come from a meeting with President Nixon.”
The President’s Hit Man
Colson was known around the White House as “the Assassin.” Nixon’s top assistant, Bob Haldeman, actually described him as the President’s “hit man.”
A hard-drinking, beefy, tough-talking ex-Marine captain, Colson lived by the motto on a sign above his bar in his den at home: “If you’ve got them by the balls, their hearts and minds will follow.” He spent much time revving-up Nixon’s cruelest instincts. And Nixon did the same with Colson.
Even in the immediate wake of the Watergate break-in, Nixon and Colson had the abominable Anderson on their minds. In a June 20, 1972 conversation, the two men sought to minimize the seriousness of Watergate by comparing it to Anderson’s award-winning story that the Nixon administration secretly tilted toward Pakistan in its war with India.
Colson: “They gave Anderson a Pulitzer Prize. In other words, stealing documents (unintelligible) for (unintelligible).
President: Belonging to the government, top secret, shit … did any of these people (who are criticizing the Watergate burglary) squeal about (Anderson’s actions) then?
Colson: Yeah, isn’t that true?
President: That’s my point. Did (Sen. George) McGovern, did the (New York) Times, did the (Washington) Post squeal about that then? Now here was an attempted theft that failed, against a political party, not against the government of the United States. They give Pulitzer Prizes for publishing stolen documents.
The Hay-Adams Hotel Plotters: G. Gordon Liddy and E. Howard Hunt
It was in this same conversation, incidentally, that the President first indicated, at least on tape, that he had known in advance of the break-in—telling Colson: “It doesn’t sound like a, a skillful job. (Unintelligible.) If we didn’t know better, (we) would have thought it was deliberately botched.”
G. Gordon Liddy—an articulate ex-FBI agent and defeated GOP congressional hopeful from upstate New York—was considered by some of his Nixon cohorts to be a wacky loose cannon. He was a fan of Nazi propaganda films, a strong believer in racial purity, and often packed heat—an expensive German pistol with a silencer. In May of 1972 – only weeks before the first Watergate break-in when the listening bugs were originally planted – Liddy used that gun to shoot out several streetlights during an aborted pre-Watergate break-in at the Washington headquarters of Democratic presidential candidate Sen. George McGovern.
When Jeb Magruder, head of the Committee to Re-Elect the President, had an up close and personal run-in with the volatile Liddy, Liddy threatened: “Get your hand off me or I’ll kill you.” Magruder recalled. But when Magruder recommended that Liddy be fired, the White House vetoed the idea. Nixon aide Gordon Strachan responded: “He may be a Hitler, but at least he’s our Hitler.” Nixon himself loved Liddy’s loyalty, once enthusing: “He hates the other side.”
In his 1980 book Will, Liddy said that he and Hunt were assigned the White House task of “stopping” Anderson: “We examined all the alternatives and very quickly came to the conclusion the only way you’re going to be able to stop him is to kill him . . . And that was the recommendation.” As Liddy succinctly told Anderson in person on a subsequent TV talk show: “The rationale was to come up with a method of silencing you through killing you.”
Liddy said he and Hunt originally planned to poison Anderson with LSD (known more for creating colorful hallucinations than for its lethality). A CIA doctor—Edward Gunn, an expert on poisons and their antidotes—sat in on the final rubout talks.
Those occurred in March 1972 over lunch at the swank Hay-Adams Hotel, a block from the White House. The conspirators were convinced Anderson had crossed an unforgivable line by blowing the cover of a CIA spy—an accusation that was never proved.
Liddy later admitted that the group had considered playing “aspirin roulette” with Anderson—“in which one takes a single tablet of a deadly poison, packs it in a Bayer aspirin jar, (then) we place it in the man’s medicine chest, and one day he gets that tablet and that’s that.”
When poisoning and a fake car crash were dismissed as impractical, the Hay-Adams group settled on making Anderson’s killing look like an accidental part of a random sidewalk robbery. Liddy said he handed Dr. Gunn a $100 bill (from Nixon’s re-election committee’s intelligence fund) for the physician’s consultative services.
After the CIA doctor left, Liddy suggested to Hunt that the Miami Cubans already recruited as leak-plugging “plumbers” (and future Watergate burglars) be assigned to kill Anderson. Liddy said Hunt had bragged to him that members of this Hunt-mentored group “had been involved in organized crime and who had, among them, killed … 22 men, including two who were hanged from a beam in a garage.”
The Cubans idolized Hunt, whom they still referred to as “Eduardo,” his CIA code name during secret CIA plots against Castro and his Communist regime, including the catastrophic Bay of Pigs invasion, in the early ‘60s. When Hunt mentioned that his Nixon White House “principal” (assumed by Liddy to be Colson) might object to using the plumbers to murder Anderson, Liddy volunteered: “If necessary, I’ll do it.”
The Anderson assassination scheme was eventually shelved (by Nixon and Colson, according to Liddy), but the columnist went to his grave in 2005 (after a long battle with Parkinson’s) concurring with Liddy’s take that “Richard Nixon wanted me dead.”
Nixon as Thug-in-Chief
Was Nixon capable of ordering a Mafia-style hit on an enemy? The answer is yes. And here are a few examples:
·• As already mentioned, as vice president, he ran CIA-Mafia murder plots against Cuban leader Fidel Castro (Attorney General Robert Kennedy later supervised these “black” operations); and he sanctioned the slaying of Greek shipping tycoon Aristotle Onassis—telling an aide, “If it turns out we have to kill the bastard, just don’t do it on American soil.”
· • As president, Nixon gave the green light to the assassination of Chilean President Salvador Allende.
· • His corrupt vice president, Spiro Agnew, feared Nixon would have him bumped off if he didn’t resign over a bribery scandal.
· • Nixon once cabled a thinly veiled death threat to South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu.
· • Nixon loyalist J. Edgar Hoover seldom criticized the President. But in 1972, the FBI chief told a friendly reporter (Andrew Tully, who wrote a syndicated column called “Capital File”), on the condition his remarks would not be published until after his death, that some of Nixon’s aides “don’t know a goddamned thing about due process of law. They think they can get away with murder.”
·• Washington Post Watergate sleuth Bob Woodward, who—with fellow reporter Carl Bernstein—was exposing Watergate crimes left and right, was warned by his secret FBI source, Mark Felt (a.k.a. “Deep Throat”) that “your lives are in danger.”
·• Nixon and his top aide, Bob Haldeman, once discussed enlisting Teamsters thugs (“murderers,” Haldeman called them; “guys who will knock their heads off,” Nixon exulted) to assault a group of anti-war demonstrators.
George Washington University Professor Mark Feldstein, an expert on Anderson, explains why the LSD and poison ideas were discarded: “The trouble was as a Mormon and a teetotaler, (Anderson) didn’t drink alcohol, so that was out. So then they talked about making him crash in an automobile accident, but they would have had to go to the CIA and use a special car for that.”
In Liddy’s memory: “We discussed Dr. Gunn’s suggestion, which was the use of an automobile to hit Mr. Anderson’s automobile when it was in a turn in the circle up near Chevy Chase. There is a way that has apparently been known by the Central Intelligence Agency that if you hit a car at just the right speed and angle, it will flip and burn and kill the occupant.”
In the end, G. Gordon Liddy said he’d carry out Anderson’s assassination himself by “knifing him, slitting his throat, and staging it as a mugging that would look like a Washington street crime.”
Who knows what bizarre turn a revived Anderson assassination plot might have taken next, if Liddy and Hunt had not been put out of business—and eventually behind bars—for their leadership of a botched but non-fatal Watergate break-in crime in June of 1972, a black bag job the White House played down as “third-rate burglary attempt.”
That break-in—at the Democratic National Committee in the Watergate office building—and its subsequent cover-up forced Richard Nixon to quit the presidency in disgrace in August of 1974 in order to avoid being thrown out of office. When he resigned, all but a few members of his own party had deserted him, and his public approval ratings were only in the teens—far lower than those of the recently unpopular George W. Bush. Only a hasty pardon from his hand picked presidential successor and close personal friend, Gerald Ford, prevented a criminal trial of, and probable jail sentence for, Nixon.
Hunt died several years ago. But Liddy and Colson are still around. Liddy, known in the talk radio trade as the “G-Man,” hosts a syndicated right-wing blab fest on about 150 stations. He served the longest prison sentence of any Watergate criminal—52 months—for refusing to cooperate with prosecutors. He takes pride in the fact he never “snitched.”
Colson became a born-again Christian about the same time he pled guilty to the Watergate crime of defaming anti-war leader Daniel Ellsburg. He was sentenced to one to three years in prison, but was let out after seven months because of a family emergency.
Nixon’s hit man now runs a big ministry for ex-convicts and crime victims. Colson has apparently never wavered from his initial contention that he was out of the loop in the squalid conspiracy to slit the throat of the President’s perceived chief villain.
Of course, Nixon and Colson—if they were indeed the puppet masters in the canceled plot—could have used the same excuse as Liddy. As the G-Man explained to Anderson during their first meeting, on ABC’s “Good Morning America” in 1980: “Murder is a technical term. You call it murder because you think it unjustified. I would say it was justifiable homicide, given the truth of the situation.”
In his post-resignation years, Nixon was never quizzed about the planned hit on Anderson. If he had been, perhaps his answer would have been similar to the one he gave in his famous $1 million 1977 TV interview with David Frost. Seeking to justify his alleged violations of constitutional rights, Nixon told to his British interrogator: “If the president does it, that means it is not illegal.”
Aside from those cited, sources include: Howard Kurtz, Washington Post, “Jack Anderson, Gentleman with a Rake,” Dec. 18, 2005; President Nixon, Richard Reeves; Witness to Power, John Ehrlichman; Blind Ambition, John Dean; USA Today; The New York Times; Associated Press; The Virgin Island Daily News; Anderson’s recollections from a George Washington University oral history project; Nightmare, Anthony Lukas; The Arrogance of Power, Anthony Summers; Mark Feldstein, NPR interview on “All Thing’s Considered,” Aug. 3, 2004; Plausible Denial, Mark Lane; and “The Real Story,” CNBC, June 13, 1991; Miller Center of Public Affairs, University of Virginia.