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'Poisoning The Press' Recounts Nixon-Anderson Feud

If Richard Nixon and Jack Anderson hadn't spent the majority of their professional lives hating each other quite so intensely, they might have become kindred spirits. The former president and the famed muckraking columnist led strangely parallel lives -- both were raised in religious families with temperamental, intimidating fathers; both had initially bright careers in Washington that would eventually end badly. And though the two men spent essentially the entire 1960s trying to ruin each other's careers through a series of escalating dirty tricks, their troubled relationship is probably most remembered for its shocking point of no return -- the 1972 plot by Nixon's "White House Plumbers" team to assassinate Anderson.

In Poisoning the Press, a gripping new account of the long-running feud between Nixon and Anderson, investigative reporter Mark Feldstein examines what is likely the all-time low point in American journalist-politician relations. The hatred between the two men started in earnest in 1960, when Anderson and his co-author Drew Pearson dedicated much of their popular "Washington Merry-Go-Round" column to a financial scandal involving Nixon's brother and Howard Hughes. It was, writes Feldstein, this "brilliant and chillingly ruthless political hit" that ensured Anderson a spot on Nixon's so-called enemies list. Anderson would reprise these political hits many times in the next decade, hounding Nixon when he ran for California governor in 1962 and when he ran for president in 1968.

Nixon would, of course, retaliate, first getting the CIA to spy (fruitlessly) on the columnist. When nothing turned up, Nixon finally asked an aide to "stop Anderson at all costs." Nixon's team discussed a variety of options, including, most oddly, putting LSD on the steering wheel of Anderson's car, in the hopes that he would hallucinate while driving and die in an accident. The trippy assassination never happened, of course, and it's still unclear how much Nixon knew about the plot.

Nixon and Anderson were both extremely controversial figures, but Feldstein proves remarkably calm and even-handed throughout the book, even while discussing some of the men's lowest moments (Nixon's resignation in 1974; Anderson's inexplicable decision to censor his own expose on the Iran-Contra scandal). Feldstein has remarkable narrative skills -- if the names weren't so familiar, and the setting weren't decades ago, you could almost think you're reading a dystopian political thriller. And though the book deals in scandal, it's never lurid; Feldstein is engaging, but never sensationalistic. He writes with the kind of restraint and responsibility that always evaded his two main subjects, and the result isn't just interesting -- it's an absolutely essential book for anyone interested in American political history.

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Corrected: September 29, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
This story initially gave an incorrect date for President Nixon's resignation. He resigned in August 1974.
Michael Schaub
Michael Schaub is a writer, book critic and regular contributor to NPR Books. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Portland Mercury and The Austin Chronicle, among other publications. He lives in Austin, Texas.