The Federal Bureau of Investigation’s long time chief, J Edgar Hoover, was in a sense “family” for me. He was a presence, heavy and omniscient, like a bad uncle. In the 1920s, during the infamous “red scare” Palmer Raids, agents of his newly-formed Bureau of Investigation arrested, beat up and tried to deport my immigrant father for “criminal syndicalism” (union organizing).
Combatively anti-labor, reflecting the director’s prejudices, Hoover’s “G-men” also tried stemming the 1930s union upsurge, in which both my parents were vocal rank-and-filers, by threatening militants and their sympathizers and feeding dirt to employer groups and anti-union newspapers. During the Second World War, the FBI split their energies between tracking down the few Nazi spies and much greater number of home-grown radicals and union redhots – no real difference between them Hoover could see except that the Bolshevik menace was always uppermost in his mind. My mother, cousins and favorite uncle all became fodder for Hoover’s extraordinary card-index system.
From the time I was 16, and later during the cold war, the FBI was on me for 15 solid years, even – illegally snooping – when I emigrated to England. How could I make these fedora-wearing, smartly-suited snoops understand that, influenced by a James Cagney movie, I had been a Junior G-Man myself by sending in Quaker Oats boxtops? I proudly wore my tin badge and pinned to my wall J Edgar Hoover’s commendation letter. It’s all coming back to me because I’ve just seen Clint Eastwood’s draggy, so-darkly-lit-it’s-hard-to-follow, superficially detailed but essentially untruthful case for the defense of America’s Himmler as a homosexually repressed mama’s boy. I’m a fan of Leonardo di Caprio but, hey, come on, you don’t send a boy to do a very, very weird man’s job, even with the best makeup artists in the world. The script, by Dustin Lance Black, who did such a great job with Milk, is an obscurantist mess of voice-over and backtracks and flash-forwards, where everything but the kitchen sink is dragged in – Emma Goldman! The Lindbergh baby! – but dramatic and even factual truth is left out.
Lisping lefty: detail from Clancy Sigal’s FBI file
The FBI got into my personal life when I was still in high school – I was a “comsub(versive)” on their 3x5in file cards, until decades later – a blow to my ego – I was demoted merely to a “comsymp(athizer)”. Along the way, I was tagged as the lisping, lefthanded (in other words, gay) ringleader of “The Cell With No Name”, which in reality was a small group of poker-playing guys who met on Friday nights to dream up anti-Senator McCarthy leaflets and – big mistake, this prank – pretending on my tapped phone to be spies named Iranoff, Buljanov and Kopalski. (Leave it to these then-predominantly Mormon agents never to have seen the Lubitsch comedy Ninotchka.) If you were young and single, as I was, you could always skip town or else try verbally fencing with the agents in a vain attempt to pry open their secrets, even as they tried getting you to inform on others. Ratting on friends was the sine qua non of J Edgar’s obsession with compiling lists.
In a Los Angeles ruled by informers, and popular fear of a nuclear third world war, with the city encircled by Nike missiles, the FBI’s aim wasn’t really to ferret out national security threats so much as to create an atmosphere of fear, shame, degradation and humiliation. You got the Nation magazine or IF Stone’s Weekly mailed to you in a plain brown wrapper (almost always ripped open before you saw it), and, ipso facto, you were a Soviet spy or were handled as if you were. “Come on in, Clancy. Help us clean up our files. Eugene and Lois did. Don’t be a party-pooper.”
The minds of ordinary FBI agents reflected its director’s Manichean brain fever. On the door step, they were unfailingly courteous (except when they tried to ram your car and drive it off a beach road); absolutely lacking the humor gene; meticulous about tiny details like license plate numbers; and hayseed-ignorant of “context” or of anything much beyond J Edgar’s emotional horizon.
Eastwood’s movie portrays Hoover as a hard-driving patriotic bureaucrat, a file-card prodigy, his heart bloated by sexual repression and poisoned by dreams of revenge against both the (potentially rebellious) lower class and the (potentially traitorous) upper class.
What is not portrayed is the gut-aching fear that Hoover, in his fantasias, instilled in hundreds of thousands of Americans – a real, felt terror at the time – and the injuries he and his agents dealt to so many lives. Among my friends, intense FBI pressure created suicides, heart attacks, miscarriages, divorces, broken careers and, yes, betrayals.
What do you say about a man who masterminded the persecution of Albert Einstein and Martin Luther King and, reportedly anxious abut his own racial ancestry, threw roadblocks in the way of the civil rights movement, and invented Cointelpro to foment assassination and violence on the left and among African American groups?
The movie does show that presidents from FDR to Nixon were terrified of Hoover’s “confidential files” (raw gossip) mainly about their, or their wives’, sexual deviations. (One of Eastwood’s more effective scenes has Nixon delivering a eulogy at Hoover’s death while his henchmen frantically search bureau files for incriminating data.)
Hoover, who loved socializing with movie stars, was a little skittish about being seen to investigate Hollywood, instead funneling his unsubstantiated files (on Jean Seberg, Charlie Chaplin, etc) to lower orders of snoop, such as Senator Joe McCarthy, to whom he was a mentor, and the House Un-American Activities Committee, to which he secretly gave incriminating documents.
I was lucky and irresponsible. My own assigned agents, “Mutt and Jeff” (I never knew their real names, no calling cards then), made me feel temporarily important at a time when nobody but Mr Hoover and his elves paid attention to the American left. For reasons too involved to go into, Jeff and I “double-dated”, each of us trying his best to “turn” the other. Socially, a disaster for both of us.
Inheritors of the FBI director’s strange tics – he fired or sent into exile chauffeur-agents, driving his bullet-proof Cadillac, who made roadway left turns – the FBI was, and is, an ossified bureaucracy where, today, whistleblowers are punished and whose most recent speciality is entrapping stupid, Jihad-infatuated Muslim youth with the use of agent-provocateurs and then, with a true J Edgar flair for self-promotion, announcing that yet another “terror threat” has been trounced.
Incidentally, I take it back about the FBI being detail-oriented, like its founder. I’m not lefthanded.
Clancy Sigal is a novelist and screenwriter in Los Angeles. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org