For those who think the future of press freedom is facing unprecedented challenges, a reminder of the time Nixon aides hatched a plot to kill a troublesome journalist.

What happens when America’s president is insecure, touchy, prickly, vengeful, narcissistic, and paranoid, more obsessed with crushing his enemies than leading the people?

If history is a crystal ball—we survive. Richard Nixon’s White House was a petri dish breeding deceit and distrust. It teemed with espionage and enemies’ lists, wiretapping and burglaries, leaked national secrets and even murder conspiracy. All those sins represent just one pre-Watergate feud: Nixon’s crusade against the investigative reporter Jack Anderson. Still, this old-style gumshoe journalist who saw his job as digging for dirt not writing think pieces, helped proved the system’s resilience.

A transition figure, Jack Anderson had shoes soiled by muckraking, hands ink-stained from typing, and face powdered for his nine-year TV gig on ABC’s Good Morning America. He was Upton Sinclair and Ida Tarbell, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, Lesley Stahl and Dan Rather, all wrapped in one. And, when America needed it, he helped take down a president.

Anderson called himself a “Mormon in Gomorrah” who avoided tobacco, alcohol, cussing, and caffeine, but he was no choirboy. Like today’s notorious WikiLeakers, he trafficked in stolen information. He hired spies to infiltrate government offices, often ruining careers—and lives.

Mark Feldstein, whose 2010 book dissects the Anderson-Nixon feud, notes that these two enemies were born 30 miles apart in Southern California into hardworking fundamentalist households. Born in 1922, Anderson grew up near Salt Lake City, missionized in the South, and served as a war correspondent in China. In 1947, he settled in Washington, D.C. and started working for Drew Pearson, the gossipy investigative reporter whose Merry-Go-Round column made and broke reputations regularly.

Anderson liked playing God too. He ignored John Kennedy’s mistresses, trusting a “higher power” to judge what “an office holder… does in the privacy of the bedroom.” But Anderson exposed Martin Luther King Jr.’s affairs shortly after his assassination in 1968, saying Robert Kennedy’s greenlighting of the FBI wiretap on King made it relevant.

In September 1969, when Pearson died and bequeathed Anderson the column, Nixon and Anderson already hated each other. Nixon blamed Anderson for scoops in 1952 and 1960 alleging corruption that perpetuated Nixon’s reputation as “Tricky Dick.” Anderson’s aggressive reporting—and TV appearances—made his column a must-read. At its peak, it appeared in nearly 1000 newspapers reaching 40 million subscribers.

Always pushing to fill those column inches with sensational enough material to attract more readers, Anderson—or his assistants—snuck, cheated, bluffed, bribed, and bullied their way from scoop to scoop. They picked through FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s garbage, seduced sources, broke into restricted areas. Hoover called Anderson “lower than the regurgitated filth of vultures.” Anderson was so formidable that President Nixon wondered if Anderson—whom the White House was wiretapping—had “a tap on the White House phones?”

Nixon’s hatchet man Charles Colson noted that, thanks to television, Anderson “achieved what Drew Pearson never achieved,” becoming “a kind of public personality.” A homophobe, Anderson violated the privacy of Vice President Spiro Agnew’s family, among others, with a cruel piece (PDF)—filed by Anderson’s assistant Britt Hume—sneering about Agnew’s “handsome” 24-year-old son Randy living with “a male hairdresser in Baltimore.”

When Nixon tried retaliating, demanding proof that Anderson and another critic were gay lovers, one government investigator refused to cooperate. His Nixonite boss David Young screamed: “Damn it, damn it, the president is jumping up and down and he wants everything and we’re always telling him everything can’t be done.”

In December 1971, Anderson described the administration’s “tilt toward Pakistan” with specific language echoing classified memos. Nixon’s “plumbers”—they plugged leaks—discovered that a Naval Yeoman Charles Radford had seen the memos and then dined with his fellow Mormon, Jack Anderson. Radford was also spying for the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Thomas Moorer against the White House. Nixon couldn’t punish Anderson without exposing the crazy divisions within America’s government. “I don’t care if Moorer is guilty,” the president said. “The military must survive.”

Two months later, in February 1972, Anderson exposed the ITT scandal, wherein the government settled an anti-trust suit after the multinational pledged $400,000 to subsidize the Republican National Convention. After one stormy meeting with the president in March 1972, Colson told the White House “plumber” E. Howard Hunt to “stop Anderson at all costs.” Hunt recruited his fanatic colleague G. Gordon Liddy. It would be “justifiable homicide,” Liddy rationalized, because Anderson’s “systematic leaking of top-secret information rendered the effective conduct of American foreign policy virtually impossible.”

Hunt and Liddy conspired to murder Anderson. Anderson would credit these conscious-stricken killers with rejecting a plan to poison his aspirin bottle because they feared his wife or one of his nine children might feel headachey first. One scheme considered wiping LSD on Anderson’s steering wheel to trigger a traffic accident; another involved making the hit look like a street crime. This Macbeth-like plotting turned Keystone Kops-like when two of the potential killers—Cuban exiles—knew Anderson.

There is no evidence that Nixon saw these plans—but Nixon micromanaged his White House. Ultimately, Anderson survived because these plumbers were distracted that spring of 1972 with another plot— breaking into Democratic headquarters at the Watergate.

During the Watergate scandal, Anderson was clumped with other Nixon critics who were demonized, and even had their homes or psychiatrist’s offices burglarized. Anderson was one of many journalists who joined the Hello Dolly star Carol Channing, the heartthrob Paul Newman, and sexy Jets quarterback “Broadway” Joe Namath, on Nixon’s enemies list. Although Woodward and Bernstein became famous for uncovering Watergate, historians telling the whole story should salute the exasperating Jack Anderson for catching Nixon in the act of being Nixon, long before those “expletive deleted” tapes did.

Anderson continued writing until 2004 and died a year later at the age of 81.

This sobering tale is also inspiring. America produced enough heroes to challenge the paranoid president. Three IRS Commissioners in a row, Randolph W. ThrowerJohnnie M. Walters, and Donald C. Alexander, refused Nixon’s demands to audit the 200 opponents on Nixon’s enemies list—with the latter two backed by George Schultz when he was Treasury secretary. Briefed about Walters’s resistance, Nixon barked: “You’ve got to kick Walters’s ass out first and get a man in there.” There were special prosecutors like Archibald Cox and Leon Jaworski. And there were dogged journalists like Jack Anderson. Though no saint, he nobly resisted tremendous pressure—and exposed Nixon’s crimes. Thanks to Anderson and others, sleazy White House aides would be forced to abort immoral plans and be in the position, as David Young complained, of “always” telling the president “everything can’t be done.”

Further Reading:

Mark Feldstein, Poisoning the Press: Richard Nixon, Jack Anderson, and the Rise of Washington’s Scandal Culture (2010). The definitive story, including details on the murder plot.

Douglas Brinkley, The Nixon Tapes, 1971-1972 (2014). Reading the transcripts of Nixon plotting is chilling.

Stanley Kutler, The Wars of Watergate: The Last Crisis of Richard Nixon. Brings clarity to the confusing—and depressing—story.