Journalist Pete Hamill liked to tell the story of the time (before he quit drinking) when he and a writer friend were pounding them down in a New York City saloon, back in the late 1970s. After consuming a sufficient amount of alcohol, the two of them decided to list on a cocktail napkin the names of the three individuals they considered to be “the most evil men” in the history of the world. Clearly, a tall order.
After writing down their choices, they swapped napkins, and were surprised to discover that each had not only written the names of the same three men, but had placed them in the identical order: Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin and Walter O’Malley.
For those unfamiliar with baseball history, Walter O’Malley was the owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers and the man who, in 1958, uprooted the team from Brooklyn and relocated it in Los Angeles, a move that simultaneously brought major league baseball to the West Coast and broke the hearts of a million New York baseball fans. Although O’Malley’s inclusion was obviously done tongue-in-cheek, it was clear that, even two decades later, Hamill and his buddy were unwilling to forgive.
Over the years, some friends and I have conducted a similar, silly exercise—silly because anything as reductive, arbitrary and subjective as this is bound to yield bizarre results. But silly or not, we nonetheless asked people (young and old, from varying backgrounds) to name who they thought was the single “most evil American” in history. The results were interesting.
Among those named were: Richard Nixon, Tim Leary (blamed for having “introduced drugs” to America), Charles Manson, Senator Joe McCarthy, Dick Cheney, George W. Bush, John D. Rockefeller, Julius Rosenberg, Lyndon Johnson, William Randolph Hearst, George Custer, and Earl Warren.
Someone, a middle-aged woman, actually listed the Beatles (claiming they had “undermined” America’s youth), an odd choice given that the Beatles were a group and not an individual, and were British, not American.
Although my own personal choice wasn’t mentioned, I would challenge anyone to name a more “evil” American. Indeed, the argument could be made that the person I chose not only did more damage to more good people—ruined more careers and more lives—but single-handedly abrogated the political conversation that was going on in this country at a time when such a conversation could have actually had a salutary effect. I’m speaking of J. Edgar Hoover, Director of the FBI from 1935 until his death in 1972.
According to everything we’ve read about Hoover, his power, his authority—both official and “unofficial”—was staggering, almost beyond comprehension. The following is a quote from President Truman, back before Hoover had even hit his stride. “We want no Gestapo or secret police. The FBI is tending in that direction. They are dabbling in sex-life scandals and plain blackmail. J. Edgar Hoover would give his right eye to take over, and all congressmen and senators are afraid of him.”
Not only did Hoover have the power to smear as “subversive” or “treasonous” anyone who expressed a remotely leftist or European Socialist point of view, he had compiled secret, incendiary files on hundreds of influential Americans, potentially ruinous dossiers that prevented anyone (including U.S. Presidents) from standing up on their hind legs and launching a campaign to unseat him.
While corrupt or reactionary politicians—from the president all the way down to state assemblyman—can, in principle, be voted out of office, Hoover was in no such position. Not only wasn’t he elected, with his choke-hold on the government, he was immune to public opinion. This evil man was a true “Untouchable.”
David Macaray, an LA playwright and author (“It’s Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor,” 2nd edition), is a former union rep. He can be reached at email@example.com