The old days with the FBI

I worked closely with many FBI agents while I was a prosecutor in the Justice Department. Most were hard-working, devoted colleagues. But their boss, J. Edgar Hoover, was — as recent studies have disclosed — a very odd character.

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A recent book review in the The New York Times reminds me of how such a ludicrous personality was so powerful and feared. He ran the FBI with an iron hand and was feared in Washington while idolized widely as an American hero. Once, when a Nation magazine article was published critical of the FBI, I was told that two similarly dressed agents went to a local magazine store and bought all the copies so readers wouldn't have the article available. 

The recent review told of the burglary of an FBI building in 1971 in Media, Pa., by anti-war activists who turned over embarrassing FBI records to The Washington Post. That Post writer, Betty Medsger, has written a book called The Burglary about that event, and the recent review mentions some ridiculous remarks by Hoover found amidst the records burgled. Two scribbles by Hoover demonstrate the absurdity of some of his views. Hoover instructed FBI recruiters not to hire "agents with pear shaped heads", and in noting French Nobel Prize winner Jean-Paul Sartre, instructed "Find out who Sartre is.”

That reference reminded me of a similar Hoover blurb because it involved me. A Washington investigative writer and Jimmy Hoffa biographer, Dan Moldea, received a packet of documents in response to a Freedom of Information Act request. He called me to remark, "Ron, I just got a bunch of Justice Department papers and find my own lawyer mentioned in it; I'm sending you some pages that will amuse you.” I couldn't wait to see what dramatic revelations Moldea had found. 

Among the papers Moldea received was a memo by Hoover's top aide, Clyde Tolson, "investigating" a New York Times front-page story about Nick Katzenbach replacing Robert F. Kennedy as attorney general when Kennedy ran for Senate (I was a speechwriter for him in that adventure.) What a subversive find!

In the margins of that investigation into Fred Graham's report about changes at the Justice Department under its new Attorney General was a quote from me saying, I thought, obviously and innocuously: "Of course things will change. The Attorney General was unique, his brother was president, and things won’t be the same."

I knew and liked Katzenbach, and meant him no disrespect; he'd invited me back to the department after the 1964 campaign. But what is so ridiculous is that the head of the FBI would have his highest aide investigate a straightforward news article.  In the margin, commenting about my remark, Hoover scribbled: "Another stiletto by Bobby the K.”

At least he didn't think my head was pear-shaped and knew who I was.

Goldfarb is an attorney, author and literary agent based in Washington, D.C., and Miami. Contact him at rlglawlit@gmail.com.