J. Edgar Hoover, Clint Eastwood, The Atlantic, and Me

Published on 02 December 2011 by in America in the King Years, Civil Rights, General

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Leonard diCaprio as J. Edgar Hoover

Leonard diCaprio as J. Edgar Hoover

I saw the Clint Eastwood film “J. Edgar” over Thanksgiving. Its portrait of Hoover is more personal than political, emphasizing his character through episodic moments in relation to Hoover’s mother, his self-molded Bureau, and the lifelong companion Clyde Tolson.

Eastwood handles the gay subtext with restraint, which is an admirable contrast to the widely embraced but fanciful rumors of a late-night Hoover in tutus and evening gowns. This private Hoover feels real on film, within the context of scanty historical evidence, which is quite an achievement.

“J. Edgar” is necessarily selective from a vast range of cases through which Hoover developed the FBI’s impact and influence across 50 years. The film skips the 1940s and 1950s entirely. It concentrates on the 1930s Lindbergh kidnapping, and it compresses the tumultuous 1960s into a glancing peek at Hoover’s war with Martin Luther King.

The Atlantic posted on its website a review that essentially took Hoover’s side in that war, criticizing the film and somehow invoking my King-era trilogy as evidence. This was quite a surprise. I found both the argument and the citation a bizarrely distorted claim, to the point that they invert fair interpretation. This was awkward for me, because The Atlantic had just published my historical essay, “The Shame of College Sports.” In another sense, the dispute illustrates the range of free expression. The Atlantic promptly posted my response, which is re-printed below.

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Editors, The Atlantic

We received a response to this piece from Taylor Branch:

“John Meroney cites my work in his review of the Clint Eastwood film on J. Edgar Hoover, which is fine, but your readers should not be misled. I do not agree with Mr. Meroney’s interpretation of the relationship between Hoover and Martin Luther King.

That relationship was complex, especially when triangulated by each man’s simultaneous dealings with presidents through the tumultuous civil rights era. It is true that Hoover has been unfairly caricatured by gossip. It is also true that he was perhaps the most adroit bureaucrat in American history.

However, his fifty-year tenure in a position of secet authority did corrupt J. Edgar Hoover, which should come as no surprise to any student of U.S. constitutional theory. He became ever more an autocrat who resented and circumvented the accountable standards of free government.

Hoover’s lifelong domain was a homogeneous FBI hierarchy of white males with a handful of Negro chauffeurs and man-servants. He fought to keep it that way. His personal animus toward King was strong and steeped in racial prejudice.

In my view, Mr. Meroney’s commentary on The Atlantic website is even-handed only in appearance. He consistently excuses Hoover’s motives, overlooks his violation of democratic norms, and attributes his responsibility to others.

This portrait amounts to an apologia. Hoover deserves censure instead, balanced with chastening awareness that U.S. citizens as a whole left him in power too long.”

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