J. Edgar

By Jon WienerMay 8, 2012

Enemies: A History of the FBI by Tim Weiner

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 Hoover a monster. "He understood the power of secrets," Black said, and "he used that against many people who he knew also had secrets in their personal life." 

While Hoover's sexuality no doubt bears some relevance to understanding the kind of FBI director he became, Weiner's Enemies: A History of the FBI is more about what Hoover did than why he did it. What interests Weiner is the FBI's role as a secret intelligence organization that spied on critics and opponents of the president, arresting and detaining people illegally, "conducting break-ins, burglaries, wiretapping and bugging on behalf of the president." Of course others have written about the same history, especially Curt Gentry in J. Edgar Hoover: The Man and the Secrets (2001) and Richard Gid Powers in Secrecy and Power: The Life of J. Edgar Hoover (1988). The very first of these was by Fred J. Cook, author of a special issue of The Nation magazine in 1958, expanded into a book, The FBI Nobody Knows (1964) — which drove Hoover into a frenzy. But Weiner, who won a Pulitzer for his last book, Legacy of Ashes, a devastating history of the CIA, has a much bigger base of primary sources than any of his predecessors. He reviewed more than 70,000 pages of recently declassified documents for Enemies, including a treasure trove of Hoover's intelligence files, released after a 26-year Freedom of Information battle by David Sobel of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. 

You might think Richard Nixon would be the greatest single beneficiary of a book showing that all the presidents relied on Hoover to conduct illegal burglaries and wiretaps. Nixon's defenders, after he was charged in the Watergate scandal with covering up illegal break-ins and wiretapping, said: "They all did it." But Enemies enables us to compare and contrast the ways in which various presidents used the FBI.

It's clear that all the presidents starting with FDR used the FBI to gather intelligence on their opponents and critics — but in different ways. LBJ provides an illuminating case: he enlisted the FBI during the 1968 election to spy on his Republican opposition. That sounds a lot like what the White House plumbers were prosecuted for doing four years later in the break-in at headquarters of the Democratic National Committee. But there's a big difference: LBJ asked the FBI to investigate rumors that the Nixon campaign was trying to sabotage the Paris Peace Talks with the North Vietnamese. LBJ was trying to negotiate an end to the Vietnam war before election day, which would almost certainly have made Hubert Humphrey his successor.

The FBI found that a Republican operative named Anna Chennault was indeed acting as go-between, taking messages from the Republicans to the South Vietnamese leaders, urging them to "hold on" and not accept a peace treaty, promising that Nixon would give them a better deal if he won the election. As a result, South Vietnamese President Thieu refused to participate in the Paris peace talks on the eve of the election, and Nixon then won by one of the smallest popular vote margins in history. What LBJ did in 1968 was not like Nixon breaking into the DNC: the DNC wasn't committing any crime, but Anna Chenault's actions, LBJ said, were close to "treason." Putting her under surveillance was not an abuse of power or a conspiracy to obstruct justice. 

LBJ also enlisted the FBI to spy on the anti-war movement, which, he believed, was under the control of Moscow and/or Havana. The FBI investigated and told the president the students were not taking orders from anybody.

Next on the "they all did it" list is JFK. Unlike LBJ, Jack Kennedy and his Attorney General, Bobby, considered Hoover a "dangerous" man. Bobby said Hoover ran "a very dangerous organization." Bobby wanted the FBI to go after organized crime, but Hoover denied any such thing existed. What Hoover wanted was a license to wiretap Martin Luther King, to bring him down by showing he was taking orders from Communists. To the everlasting shame of the Kennedys, Bobby signed off on the wiretaps — but only after Hoover showed them the information he had about JFK's secret sex life with Judith Campbell, mistress of mob boss Sam Giancana. (Seymour Hersh reports in his 1997 book The Dark Side of Camelot that Hoover also told Bobby he knew about JFK's affair with Ellen Rometsch, a suspected East German spy.) Once again, "they all did it" doesn't really describe this situation: Nixon wiretapped the Democrats; Kennedy approved wiretapping King, but only because he was blackmailed by Hoover. (The King wiretaps didn't show any communist control, but they did provide proof of extramarital sex, which Hoover then used to try to pressure King into committing suicide.)

There's one other big difference between Nixon's use of the FBI and that of his predecessors. The events that led to Nixon's resignation did not begin with FBI spying, because Hoover refused to cooperate with Nixon's demands for more action against his enemies. What we call "Watergate" really began not with the break-in at the DNC, but a year earlier, when Daniel Ellsberg released the Pentagon Papers. An enraged Nixon ordered Hoover to take unprecedented measures to stop the leaks and to bring down Ellsberg; Hoover refused. As Weiner explains, "If Hoover would not do the dirty work the president wanted done, Nixon would have to do it himself." That's when Nixon formed the Plumbers unit, so named because their original mission was to plug leaks. It was the Plumbers who bungled the DNC break-in that led to the cover-up, and thus, Nixon's resignation. 

Had Hoover in his old age suddenly become a principled defender of First Amendment freedoms? The reason he refused to help Nixon bring down Ellsberg, Weiner argues, was personal. He quotes Nixon from the White House tapes: "Edgar Hoover refused to investigate because Marx — Marx's daughter was married to that son-of-a-bitch Ellsberg." The Marx in question was not Karl but rather Louis Marx, a wealthy toy manufacturer. Weiner explains that he "contributed every year to a Christmas charity run by Hoover," which made him an official friend of the FBI. When FBI intelligence chief Charles Brennan set out to interview Louis Marx about his son-in-law, Hoover said "no" and removed Brennan as chief of the intelligence division. Nixon was so incensed he decided to fire Hoover, but lost his nerve when the moment arrived. Hoover stayed on until he died in May 1972. Meanwhile the Plumbers took over the dirty work for the president.

After Hoover's death the story changes, and after 9/11 it changed again, dramatically: FBI spying on Americans increased drastically in the name of fighting terrorism. In 2004, FBI Director Robert S. Mueller threatened to resign rather than follow illegal orders from George W. Bush to conduct warrantless searches — a rare act of heroism in American government. But Mueller also pursued headlines with prosecutions of "terrorists" who in fact had been set up by the FBI. The "Liberty City Seven," for example, charged with plotting to blow up the Sears Tower in Chicago, were, Weiner writes, "half-bright thugs without the apparent means or the skills to carry out an attack on anything bigger than a liquor store."

The FBI devoted enormous resources to gathering intelligence, but the failures of the Bureau are notable. Of course 9/11 is at the top of that list. Weiner also notes that the FBI never penetrated the Weather Underground, which carried out 35 bombings in the 1970s, including attacks on the capitol and the Pentagon. Symbolic attacks, they didn't injure anyone, or accomplish much — beyond driving the Bureau crazy. And there was Robert Hanssen, the FBI counterintelligence agent who spied for the Soviets for 22 years, from 1979 to 2001, before he was caught. Director William Webster called Hanssen's betrayals "an epochal disaster" for American intelligence services.

The FBI, unlike the CIA, has never had a charter, a legal document passed by Congress and signed by the president spelling out its responsibilities and limits. Weiner concludes by noting the increasing ubiquity of government surveillance that once was considered unacceptable: "the gaze of closed-circuit cameras, the gloved hands of airport guards, the phalanx of cops and guardsmen in combat gear." We have "willingly surrendered liberties for a promise of security" — and the FBI still has no legal charter. That's the way Hoover wanted it — and that's been okay with all the presidents, including Barack Obama.


LARB Contributor

Jon Wiener is a professor of history emeritus at UC Irvine. His most recent books are Set the Night on Fire: L. A. in the Sixties, co-authored with Mike Davis, and  Historians in Trouble: Plagiarism, Fraud, and Politics in the Ivory TowerHe is a contributing editor to and on the board of directors of Los Angeles Review of Books,  a contributing editor to The Nation, and host of a weekly afternoon drive-time interview show on KPFK 90.7 FM in Los Angeles.


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