Saturday, December 09, 2017

Les Whitten, a/k/a Leslie Hunter Whitten Jr., R.I.P

One of my heroes, investigative reporter Les Whitten, has died. I was inspired, circa age 13, when I saw les Whitten's boss, Jack Anderson, speak at Camden County College in Blackwood, N.J., where my mom worked. Here's The New York Times obituary:

Les Whitten, Muckraking Columnist and Novelist, Dies at 89
DEC. 7, 2017
The New York Times

Les Whitten, who shared a byline with Jack Anderson on a nationally syndicated newspaper column that mercilessly exposed Washington’s foibles and frauds and who once even spied on J. Edgar Hoover, the director of the F.B.I., died on Saturday in Adelphi, Md. He was 89.

The cause was sepsis, his son Les Whitten III said.

Mr. Whitten, who also wrote nearly a dozen political thrillers and horror and science fiction novels, figured in a major First Amendment controversy in 1973. He and two American Indian activists were arrested that January as they loaded cartons of stolen government documents into his Chevrolet Vega hatchback a mile from the White House.

F.B.I. agents “came swarming out of neighboring cars and doorways like ants from a rotten log,” he recalled in Mark Feldstein’s “Poisoning the Press: Richard Nixon, Jack Anderson and the Rise of Washington’s Scandal Culture” (2010).

The agents confiscated his pen and pad and accused him of a felony punishable by 10 years in prison, saying he illegally possessed official papers seized when protesters occupied a Washington office building a few months before over the government’s stewardship of Indian affairs.

Journalists expressed concern that the arrest — based merely on having the documents, not on stealing them — would send a chill through the ranks of investigative reporters.

“All of us on my staff are ready to join Les Whitten in jail, if we must, before we will stop digging out and reporting the news,” Anderson, who died in 2005, declared. He had already contrived an inspired defense, though.

Claiming that he planned to write a complimentary profile of Rogers Morton, the secretary of the interior, Anderson reminded Morton that unlike mainstream reporters he subsisted on exclusive reporting. He charmed Morton into handing him confidential files that reflected well on his record overseeing Native American affairs. The idea was to catch a government official leaking the same sorts of confidential documents that Mr. Whitten was accused of possessing.

Armed with photocopies, Anderson told Mr. Whitten, “If this ever comes to trial, we’re going to have a heck of a witness for your defense.”

Mr. Whitten recalled in 2005 in The Huffington Post: “My case carried a 10-year prison term. I don’t know how many years Morton’s carried.”

Mr. Whitten insisted that he had the documents only because he was helping a source return them to the government. Two weeks after his arrest, a federal grand jury declined to bring charges.

Anderson had hired Mr. Whitten, who had worked for The Washington Post and the Hearst newspaper chain, in 1969, just four months after inheriting the “Washington Merry-Go-Round” column from Drew Pearson.

Anderson admired Mr. Whitten’s tenacity and his knowledge of how power worked in Washington.

“Les Whitten is the best reporter in town,” he told an interviewer from The Boston Globe in 1972. “Would you put that down?”

Leslie Hunter Whitten Jr. was born on Feb. 21, 1928, in Jacksonville, Fla. His father was an engineer and executive of Graybar, the electrical supply company. His mother, the former Linnora Harvey, was a Latin teacher.

After growing up in Washington, he enrolled in a civil engineering program at Lehigh University, but dropped out after three semesters, served in the Army, and settled in Paris to become a poet. He returned to Lehigh, switched his major to English and journalism, and graduated in 1950.

Mr. Whitten was the self-described “Episcopalian wine-loving atheist” to Anderson’s teetotaling Mormon, a “fellow egotist” who became more eager to topple a corrupt politician as a journalist than to build from the ground up as an engineer.

In 1951 he married the former Phyllis Webber, who died in January. In addition to their son Leslie III, he is survived by their two other sons, Daniel and Andrew; a daughter from a previous relationship, Deborah Engle; and six grandchildren.

Mr. Whitten was a reporter for Radio Free Europe, International News Service, United Press International, The Post and Hearst before Anderson hired him. They worked together full time until 1978. The success of “Conflict of Interest” (1976), Mr. Whitten’s novel about a crusading reporter, led him to shift to a part-time role with the column.

Tom Buckley, reviewing that novel in The New York Times Book Review, described Mr. Whitten as “Jack Anderson’s senior ferret” who “brought many scandals to light in the nation’s capital.” As for the book itself, Mr. Buckley wrote that it was “more interesting as a manual of journalistic procedure than it is as a work of creative imagination.”

Mr. Whitten’s earlier books included “The Alchemist” (1973), a tale that mixed Washington politics with Satanism and the occult. Martin Levin, writing about that novel in The Times Book Review, called Mr. Whitten “an elegant stylist with a flair for both language and action.”

Mr. Whitten’s other novels included “Moon of the Wolf” (1967), which was adapted into a 1972 television horror movie starring David Janssen; and “Moses: The Lost Book of the Bible” (1999). He also wrote “F. Lee Bailey” (1971), a biography of the defense lawyer.

Mr. Whitten was making a hefty — at least for journalism — $22,000 a year in 1972 (about $130,000 in today’s dollars) as Anderson’s chief assistant. That was more than Anderson was paying his other acolytes, among them Brit Hume, later a Fox anchorman. (The others rarely received bylines to boot.) But the money, Mr. Whitten suggested, was less than he might have earned as a full-time novelist.

Still, not every novelist could search for a scoop by going through a government official’s garbage or staking out Hoover while looking into his private life and liaisons with his chief deputy and close associate, Clyde Tolson. The columns that resulted from those investigations prompted Hoover to denounce Anderson and his ilk as “lower than the regurgitated filth of vultures.”

Mr. Whitten told Life magazine in 1972, “This job gives me a chance to do what I wanted to do all my newspaper life — knock the bleeding crap out of the people who are corrupting the country, and there are plenty of them.”

Despite his swagger, he acknowledged his limitations.

“We only catch chips of the truth,” Mr. Whitten said. “But I don’t think that’s frustrating: To get the whole truth, you’ve got to be God.”

A version of this article appears in print on December 8, 2017, on Page A26 of the New York edition with the headline: Les Whitten, 89, Columnist; Exposed Washington’s Frauds. Order Reprints| Today's Paper|Subscribe

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