“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…