Eastwood's 'J. Edgar' misses the point: an evil reign at FBI

Forgery, illegal break-ins, manufacturing evidence, and trying to scare an American out of accepting the Nobel Peace Prize: That's the FBI director whose abuses have never received adequate exposure.

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J. Edgar Hoover in the White House (1967)

Forgery, illegal break-ins, manufacturing evidence, and trying to scare an American out of accepting the Nobel Peace Prize: That's the FBI director whose abuses have never received adequate exposure.

One of the most disappointing films of recent years is J. Edgar, Clint Eastwood's curious depiction of the life of former Federal Bureau of Investigation Director J. Edgar Hoover.  

Eastwood's films, even the good ones, are known for their slow pace and attenuated scenes. But this one, additionally, nears incoherence as it cuts back and forth between events of the 1920s and 1970s and Hoover's Red-fighting, crime-fighting, blackmailing and other periods. If you already knew about Hoover's career, you could make sense of the film. But, if you did not — and most viewers, nearly 40 years after Hoover's death, probably do not — it would be difficult to do so.

Hoover made the FBI a professional law enforcement agency and established scientific investigative standards. But he also was a dangerous man who can be just as easily imagined as head of the Gestapo or KGB — a bureacratic-looking, colorless person taking great pleasure from legal and extra-legal persecutions of those he considered dangers to the state (or his own position).

Eastwood makes the smarmy centerpiece of the film the supposed homosexual relationship between Hoover and his longtime close aide and FBI deputy, ClydeTolson.  Imaginary scenes are developed in which Hoover and Tolson have lovers' quarrels, fistfight, and wrestle with moral dilemmas regarding Hoover's FBI initiatives (in which Tolson is portrayed as warning against excess). Tolson becomes enraged when Hoover tells him he has engaged in heterosexual activity and is thinking of marriage (to movie star Dorothy Lamour). Hoover's mother, played by Judi Dench, warns him darkly about the disgrace of being gay.  

I was in Washington, D.C., during the latter years of Hoover's reign at the FBI. There were rumors that Hoover and Tolson had such a relationship and other rumors about Hoover's cross-dressing — none ever confirmed. Few in the capital cared, in any case. It was Hoover's power, not his sexual preferences, that mattered.

Hoover and Tolson took their meals together and lunched at 11:30 a.m. daily, always at the same table, at the Rib Room of the Mayflower Hotel, situated on Connecticut Avenue, distant from FBI headquarters on Pennsylvania Avenue. They sat side-by-side in a corner next to a curtained window looking out on a sidewalk next to the hotel's main entrance. (A curious choice of seating, I always thought when I saw them there, since any passer-by could quite easily fire a shot or throw a bomb at them from the sidewalk, knowing their daily location. I always took care to be seated a safe distance away).

Neither Hoover nor Tolson looked anything like Leonard DiCaprio or Arnie Hammer, who play them in the film. Both, in real life, wore the FBI uniform of dark suit, dark tie, white shirt, and black shoes. I sometimes watched them at luncheon. I never saw laughter or smiles. Being security conscious, I cannot imagine they discussed sensitive business at the table. I always thought they were together constantly because of their need for mutual reinforcement and probably were talking about nothing.

Hoover was born in D.C. and lived at home as he got his bachelor's and law degrees at George Washington University. His big break came in 1919, when he was 24, when Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer put him in charge of a general intelligence dvision at Justice's Bureau of Investigation.  Hoover was known for his facility in building card files and had helped do so at the Library of Congress. (A fictional scene in the film shows DiCaprio proposing marriage to Naomi Watts in the library; she tells him she is not interested in marriage, whereupon he hires her as his lifetime confidential secretary).

There was a big Red Scare at the time. There were riots and bombings in several cities and Palmer's own home had been bombed. Palmer instituted what would become known as the Palmer Raids, in which some 500 foreign nationals were deported — some Communists, others anarchists, others innocent bystanders who happened to be in the wrong place when raids happened at meeting places, homes, and offices. Many more would have been deported had the Labor Department not actively intervened against Palmer. In the chaos, some citizens also were deported. In the end, President Woodrow Wilson had to choose between his pal Palmer (after whom the football stadium at Princeton University is named) and the Labor Department and its civil-libertarian allies. Palmer backed off. He sought the 1920 Democratic presidential nomination, to succeed Wilson, but failed and returned to private life. (In 1985, I would be the three-week guest of the Soviet government during observances of the 40th anniversary of the end of World War II. My KGB escort officer, it turned out, was the son of radical American parents who had been deported from Philadelphia in the Palmer Raids. He confided, before my visit was over, that he wished his parents had been able to remain in Philadelphia).

Hoover parlayed his Red Scare success into directorship of what came to be called the Federal Bureau of Investigation, housed within the Justice Department. He reported to the Attorney General but soon developed a semi-autonomous status. In the 1930s he placed himself and the FBI in the forefront of wars against well-known gangsters. Some were killed in highly publicized shootouts or quasi-assassinations, as in the case of John Dillinger. Hoover personally participated in several high-profile arrests. "The FBI's Ten Most Wanted" posters first began to appear in post offices around the country. Movies were made about "G-Men." Several radio shows dealt with the same themes. Comic books told FBI stories. I wore a Junior G-Man badge on my sweater in the first grade. Hoover was glorified in all of it. He also, strangely, became the subject of gossip columns, sitting with celebrities in Manhattan and Hollywood bars and nightclubs. He and Tolson vacationed together at racetracks where, it was rumored, the track owners saw that he never had gambling losses. At the same time he crusaded on behalf of moral values and strict adherence to the law.

There was a strain that ran through Hoover's career. Beginning with the Red Scare and the Palmer Raids, he always saw himself as the country's defender against dangerous Communist influences. In the 1960s he waged active campaigns and manufactured evidence against the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Black Panthers, and any other group he considered Communist-associated or infiltrated. As Vice President Humphrey's assistant in the Johnson White House, I saw periodic FBI reports, which I considered to be sloppy and careless, about such organizations and persons. Hoover went so far as to forge a letter alleging Martin Luther King's misconduct, which was sent to King in the expectation that it would cause him to refuse a Nobel Peace Prize. Of course it did not. I was also aware, during the LBJ presidency, that FBI dossiers were being passed to the White House concerning plain-vanilla political figures in various states. Hoover had liaison officers whose principal duty was to curry favor with White House and congressional people. Need some information about someone of interest to you? Coming right up.

Early in the Johnson-Humphrey years, Jack Valenti, a close LBJ aide, told me that he had been with Johnson when they listened to a Hoover-supplied recording of Martin Luther King's sexual escapades in hotel rooms and told me some of what they contained. Johnson, of course, could not have cared less about MLK's personal conduct and no doubt was surprised that Hoover thought he would.  In later years it was disclosed that, during the same period, Hoover had been trying to prove that Valenti, married to LBJ's former secretary, had a longstanding homosexual relationship.

Hoover held onto his power because of the implicit threat to successive presidents that he held confidential information about them or their colleagues which could damage them seriously. He served non-stop as FBI director for every president from Franklin Roosevelt to Richard Nixon until he died at the outset of Nixon's second term. Even powerful attorneys general, with close ties to their presidents, ranging from Herbert Brownell with Eisenhower to Robert Kennedy with John Kennedy and John Mitchell with Nixon, could not dislodge him.

Hoover lurched dangerously out of control when he launched over a decade what came to be called his COINTELPRO program outside the law. It continued until 1971 and included illegal break-ins, wiretaps, document forgeries, and other activities directed toward people and groups he considered threats to national security. No one outside the FBI knew of COINTELPRO. The Eastwood film correctly depicts Hoover as becoming enraged when he fears that Nixon was establishing his own covert group —in fact, he was — to do many of the same things without FBI knowledge or involvement. It was ironic that Nixon, the president of the six he served who was most like Hoover himself, was the one whom Hoover feared. It was, in the end, an FBI official, Mark Felt, who would become the so-called Deep Throat source who tipped the Washington Post to the Nixon Watergate activities, which ultimately brought Nixon down.

Hoover died in 1972 at 77. His body lay in state in the Capitol Rotunda. Chief Justice Warren Burger delivered his eulogy. The current FBI headquarters building, across the street from the Justice Department on Pennsylvania Avenue, is the J. Edgar Hoover Building.

Since Hoover's death, FBI directors have been limited by law to single 10-year terms. FBI scientific testing and other procedures set a high standard. There have been only a few notable scandals among FBI officials. Agents, with a heavy sprinkling of lawyers and accountants, are known for their professionalism and generally enjoy public trust.

But Hoover's dark side, in my estimation, far outweighs the professionalism he brought to bureau procedures. The above-mentioned Nazi and Soviet secret police were known in their heydays for their meticulous record-keeping and thorough procedures. Each time I pass the Hoover Building, I can imagine a wrecking ball bringing down the Hoover name from its face. I can imagine an image of Hoover being pulled to the ground and broken, just as Hitler, Stalin, Saddam Hussein, and other tyrant images were shattered. Some day, in my dream, I can imagine an American president with guts renaming the Hoover Building and fully exposing his deeds to an American public which now knows little of them — a bit like Nikita Khrushchev's expose of Stalin-era misdeeds.

Hannah Arendt, after covering the Eichmann trial, wrote of "the banality of evil." Adolf Eichmann, outwardly, appeared nothing but a dutiful, conservatively dressed bureaucrat. Hoover, too, was banal and, on balance, evil. His story needs to be told fully and with greater integrity than in the Eastwood film.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk has been active in national policy and politics since 1961, serving in the White House and State Department and as policy director of several Democratic presidential campaigns. He is author of Heroes, Hacks and Fools and numerous essays in national publications. You can reach him in care of editor@crosscut.com.