Michael Winship: The Long Shadows of Nixon and Hoover






Michael Winship is senior writing fellow at Demos and a senior writer of the new series, Moyers & Company, premiering on public television in January 2012

J. Edgar Hoover passed away on May 2, 1972. The legendary FBI director lay in state at the Capitol rotunda, the doors kept open all day and night for the convenience of mourners.

I remember because I was still at college in Washington then, and around 3 o’clock in the morning a bunch of us drove up there, not to pay our respects, but to make sure he was really dead.

In those pre-9/11 days, you could still do that sort of thing.

The memory of our predawn visit came rushing back last week as I introduced a screening of “J. Edgar,” the new film directed by Clint Eastwood, and interviewed its screenwriter, Dustin Lance Black, who won the Oscar a couple of years ago for the movie “Milk.”...

Last week, as if cued by the release of “J. Edgar,” there were new developments in the life stories of both Hoover and Nixon. By way of a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, the Los Angeles Times received old FBI files on Jack Nelson, the journalist who eventually became that paper’s Washington bureau chief.

“Hoover was convinced — mistakenly — that Nelson planned to write that the FBI director was homosexual,” the Times reported. “As he had done with other perceived enemies, Hoover began compiling a dossier on the reporter … John Fox, the FBI’s in-house historian, said Nelson arrived on the scene at a time when Hoover was feeling vulnerable. A published report that the director was gay could well have ended his career, and that possibility — unfounded or not — had Hoover on edge.”

In memos, Hoover, who had a penchant for smearing his real and imagined nemeses with names from the animal kingdom, variously called Nelson a jackal, rat and – most charmingly — a “lice-covered ferret.”  He tried to have the reporter fired and met with the paper’s head man in Washington, Dave Kraslow. “The spittle was running out of his lips and the corners of his mouth,” the now 85-year-old Kraslow recalled. “He was out of control.”...



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