IN THIS HISTORY of the FBI as a secret intelligence organization, Tim Weiner didn't need to take up the question of whether J. Edgar Hoover was gay. But he did: on his very first page he condemns what he calls the "caricature" of Hoover as "a tyrant in a tutu, a cross-dressing crank." When a Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times journalist takes this line of argument, whatever you think of it, it's news.
The cross-dressing story — told by Anthony Summers in his 1993 book Official and Confidential: The Secret Life of J. Edgar Hoover — is almost certainly false. But rumors that Hoover was gay swirled around Washington for decades; Weiner finds them going back at least to 1937. As Athan Theoharis documented in his book, From the Secret Files of J. Edgar Hoover, "rumors that he was homosexual incensed him, and he insisted that FBI agents monitor and vigorously contain such allegations." And you don't have to believe Hoover dressed in drag to see his relationship with Clyde Tolson, his number two man at the FBI for his entire life, as a love affair between two men perhaps too repressed to have sex. Two lifelong bachelors, they weren't too repressed to arrive at work together every day, meet every day for lunch and dinner, and vacation together — and also arrange to be buried side by side.
Nevertheless Weiner seems to think that, because there's no evidence that the two actually had sex, you can't call their relationship "homosexual." As evidence for his view, Weiner quotes "a loyal Hoover lieutenant," Deke DeLoach, saying — in his official oral history for the association of retired FBI agents — that Hoover "abhorred homosexuality." We know Hoover was obsessed with finding closeted homosexuals in government and getting them fired, no matter how high their office. FDR's "favorite foreign-policy man," Undersecretary of State Sumner Welles, was "ruined" by the FBI investigation of his gay sex life. But what does this obsession mean? Gay self-hatred in the era was widespread.
Hinting to Hoover about his homosexuality seemed to be a favorite pastime of more than one president. LBJ teased Hoover about homosexuality in a recently released 1964 phone conversation. After LBJ's chief of staff had been caught having sex in a YMCA bathroom by a DC vice squad, the president told Hoover: "I guess you are going to have to teach me something about this stuff. I swear I can't recognize 'em." It's hard not to see that as a deliberate provocation. Hoover replied, "It's a thing you just can't tell sometimes." Another writer would have made something of this exchange, but Weiner doesn't.
And there's another conversation along the same lines, with Nixon as the provocateur: from the White House Tapes, May 26, 1971: Hoover tells Nixon that he warned LBJ that Robert Kennedy would try to "steal the nomination" in 1964. "That's what got me in bad with Bobby," Hoover said.
Nixon says, "In bed with him?"
"No — in bad with him," Hoover replied.
Does it matter if Hoover was a repressed, self-hating gay man? The scriptwriter for Clint Eastwood's recent film J. Edgar, Dustin Lance Black — himself a once-closeted gay man — argues that Hoover's own secret is the key to his conduct. Black told Terry Gross in his Fresh Air interview that sexual repression made Hoov...read more