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The next phase of David Karr’s life began in mid-1944. Barred from a government job, he landed at the Washington Post City desk. (Later, he told the State Department that Drew Pearson had offered him a job at $150 a week, but he feared he didn’t have the experience, so he started at $75 a week at the Post to gain experience—but no one who knew Karr believed this story, or that he would ever be so humble and self-effacing.) At the end of May, assigned to write a story on listening devices, Karr dropped in on Lou Nichols at FBI headquarters. He claimed to know that Hoover had told Drew Pearson off-the-record that the Bureau had a device that could hear conversations nine hundred feet away so that it would be “possible to ride along in a car in front of the White House and monitor a conversation going on inside.” Nichols verified that Hoover had never had such a conversation and “told Karr he should tell his City Editor to stop smoking marijuana.”
Karr’s stint on the City desk was brief. He was fired, but quickly landed on his feet. Drew Pearson hired him as a legman in June 1944. Karr’s energy, chutzpah, and doggedness, essential traits for an investigative reporter, were augmented by a cheerful unscrupulousness. Some admired his “pixieish charm,” but most who ran up against Dave Karr did not retain fond memories. He never hesitated to exaggerate his connections with the FBI, or to deceive Communists and fascists alike about his loyalties, or to brazenly lie about his qualifications and salary to get jobs. An indefatigable networker, he knew hundreds of people in Washington and wasn’t shy about name-dropping, even if the connection was only imagined. These talents perfectly suited Pearson, one of the most famous and influential journalists in America and one of the most controversial.
He never hesitated to exaggerate his connections with the FBI, or to deceive Communists and fascists alike about his loyalties, or to brazenly lie about his qualifications and salary to get jobs.
Son of a Swarthmore College professor, as a fledgling reporter for the Baltimore Sun, Pearson was known more for being the son-in-law of Cissy Patterson, a wealthy, eccentric, conservative newspaper magnate, than for his journalistic prowess when veteran reporter and foreign correspondent Robert Allen approached him in 1931 to collaborate on a sensationalistic exposé of the Hoover administration. The resulting book, published anonymously as Washington Merry-Go-Round, became a bestseller. After the authors were identified, they were both fired by their respective newspapers. They quickly produced a sequel and, in 1933, started a syndicated column bearing the same name as the book. It flourished, adopting a strongly liberal line and specializing in inside gossip and leaks from administration figures. (Unbeknownst to Pearson, Allen also sold information to the KGB for a few years in the 1930s.)
When World War II started, Allen joined the Marine Corps and Pearson carried on the column by himself. He also had a popular Sunday evening radio show. The pressure of deadlines and the need to produce scoops and inside gossip were ferocious, and Pearson began the practice of hiring legmen to do the work on which his columns were based. Karr covered the White House, Departments of State, Treasury, Justice and Interior, and many of the wartime government agencies. Since scoops were his stock-in-trade, Pearson relied on Karr and his other assistants to turn up juicy tidbits or secrets, which he then published or broadcast without much of an effort at verification. Tipsters could inoculate themselves from bad press, savage their enemies, and promote their agendas by judiciously leaking to Pearson or Karr. Equally loved and hated, Pearson played a key role in Washington political life. His column was a must-read for political insiders and an important venue where politicians settled scores or leaked policy initiatives either to advance or defeat them. Guarantees of anonymity allowed Pearson to make or break reputations. With hundreds of newspapers across the country in his syndicate and a nationwide radio broadcast on Sunday evenings, he had enormous reach and influence.
Neither Pearson nor Karr was particularly scrupulous about how they got their information.
Neither Pearson nor Karr was particularly scrupulous about how they got their information. Jack Anderson, Karr’s successor as Pearson’s chief aide, later recalled that Karr was “sort of unethical”; he would often obtain off-the-record information that other reporters had developed and pass it off as his own or buy material from sources. He could stand in front of someone’s desk and read letters or documents upside down. Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. recalled Karr regaling a group of friends “with stories of the way he covered the State Department. He used to go to the men’s room, sit in a stall and eavesdrop on conversations between State Department officials as they used the facilities and washed their hands.”
Almost as soon as he started working for Pearson, Karr delivered a scoop that showed how he would do almost anything for a story, including lying about his bona fides. The fate of Poland was one of the most contentious issues in the American-Soviet relationship in 1944. Most Polish-Americans supported a London-based government-in-exile and bitterly opposed Soviet plans to annex large portions of eastern Poland, which the much smaller pro-Communist forces of the American Slav Congress, chaired by Karr’s old friend Leo Krzycki, supported. Two previously obscure Polish-Americans, Father Stanislaw Orlemanski and University of Chicago economics professor Oscar Lange, had thrown their support to the pro-Communist forces and been invited to Moscow by Stalin to discuss the issue in April and May 1944. Lange met with the exiled Polish prime minister in Washington after his return and reported on his meeting to the American government, stressing how reasonable Stalin planned to be. (Lange, in fact, had agreed to work with the KGB in 1943 and been given the cover name “Friend.” In 1945 he renounced his American citizenship and became a high-ranking Polish Communist diplomat.)
Karr used to go to the men's room, sit in a stall and eavesdrop on conversations between State Department officials as they used the facilities and washed their hands.
With speculation rife over what Stalin had told Lange and Orlemanski, Karr called Lange’s office in Chicago on June 26 and told Dorothy Sheinfeld, his secretary, that he was from Vice President Wallace’s office. Wallace was about to leave for China and Russia, where he was to have a secret meeting with Stalin and he needed to learn what the Soviet leader had told Lange. Karr informed her he would come by that afternoon to examine Lange’s report. She was dubious, but Karr reassured her, discussed Wallace’s secret travel plans with her, and insisted that it was imperative that the material reach Wallace immediately and that it could not await Lange’s return to Chicago. Assuming that it was a matter of some importance, the secretary did not call her boss, but agreed to show the report to him. Karr arrived and made detailed notes, commenting that the report “would create political dynamite” if published. He reiterated that it would be kept confidential. Before leaving, he promised to send Sheinfeld a signed picture of the vice president.
When Lange learned what had happened, he immediately became suspicious. He telephoned Karr and asked if he was acting for Wallace. Karr “refused to answer and became rather arrogant over the telephone.” He soon called back and told Lange that “it was customary for him to collect information for the vice president on his own initiative.” Lange warned him not to let anyone but Wallace see the material, since it was prepared confidentially for the State Department and President Roosevelt. Karr assured him that his notes were in Wallace’s office and Lange could “rest assured about the secrecy of the matter.” Karr boasted about his close relationship with Wallace. Still not reassured, Lange wrote to Secretary of State Stettinius and “disclaimed any responsibility” if Karr “should misuse the information obtained by posing as a representative of the Vice President.”
Lange’s fears were well founded. Just days later, on July 2, the “Washington Merry-Go-Round” had a detailed description of Lange’s account of his conversation with Stalin. It included the Soviet dictator’s dishonest reassurances that he wanted a strong, independent Poland; that an agreement had been reached on Polish borders at Tehran; that conditions for Poles living in Russia would be improved; and that Polish intelligence sources within Poland were misleading the government-in-exile about its popularity. A second column on the report was promised for the next day. Upset, Lange wired Harold Young warning that responsibility for the security breach lay with “Carr [sic] and [the] Vice President who employs him.” Young quickly disclaimed any responsibility, telling Lange that Karr “did not, and never had worked for Mr. Wallace. He had been about on some occasions and was good at carrying suitcases.” Young promised to talk to Karr and Pearson. A follow-up telegram reiterated that Karr “had no authority of any kind to use the Vice President’s name.”
It would take a lot more than an FBI agent to slow down David Karr, however.
It was too late to stop the second column from appearing. The furious Lange told Young that Karr had caused “great damage to my reputation and, I am afraid, also to the Vice President, in whose company he was seen frequently and by many persons.” He was “a public menace” who had violated the law by “impersonification [sic] of a public official” and his “theft of information” had “come close to espionage.” Lange contacted the FBI and demanded an investigation, warning Young that Wallace’s reputation was at stake. At the time, of course, no one noted the irony of a man, Lange, secretly working on behalf of the Soviet Union berating another man, Karr, secretly working on behalf of a muckraking journalist.
The Justice Department asked the FBI to investigate whether Karr had violated the Federal Impersonation Statute, but wanted Wallace questioned first. The vice president was interviewed on July 28. He told the agent that he had known Karr for about a year and a half through his activities at the OWI and as a Pearson employee, but had never hired him himself. He supposed it was possible that Young had some arrangement to pay Karr for information. (Karr told the FBI that Young had paid his expenses since July 1943.) Karr had traveled with him and had actively supported Wallace’s futile bid to remain on the Democratic ticket at the Chicago convention. He admired Karr because of “his whole-hearted espousal of liberalism.” He professed absolutely no knowledge of Karr’s purloining Lange’s report and had never seen it. He had heard about the incident from Harold Young, who had been very upset, but Wallace himself “took a humorous view of the incident, considering it just another way for an aggressive reporter to get news.”
Attorney General Biddle decided that prosecution was not warranted—in a letter to J. Edgar Hoover, Lange had expressed relief that Pearson’s column had missed some of the more sensitive portions of his report and that the leak had “proved less damaging than I had feared”—but suggested that Karr be interviewed to “make him realize the seriousness of what he is doing and probably slow him down.” It would take a lot more than an FBI agent to slow down David Karr, however. When he talked to an agent on August 16, Karr was unapologetic. He explained that on his way to Chicago to cover the Republican Convention, he had asked Harold Young if Wallace would be interested in seeing Lange’s report and Young had responded, “You’re damn right.” He vehemently denied misrepresenting himself as a member of Wallace’s staff. He claimed that he had given Young the report on July 27; no one else had received a copy. Pearson had asked him what he had been up to in Chicago and he said he had obtained Lange’s report for Wallace. The columnist then supposedly said he had already gotten a copy. The FBI blanked out the names of people whom Karr said also had copies of the report.
Knowing that Pearson would not reveal a source, Karr had no compunctions about lying or contradicting Lange, Lange’s secretary, and his assistant, to say nothing of Young. He proudly told the FBI agent that he had pulled a number of “fast ones” in his reportorial career, even quoting another reporter who had credited him with “getting around as quick as an octopus on roller skates,” but adamantly denied doing so in this case. He even threatened to sue Lange for libel. Years later, in an affidavit, Karr admitted that he had obtained Lange’s documents for the columns.
And that was the end of the incident, which did not seem to hurt Karr’s relationship with Young, who continued to send him clippings and ask for favors, although Young seems to have become more discreet around his old friend. As for Wallace, Karr continued his close association with him until well after the Cold War began.