Who knew that all those years we were watching men in gray felt hats on The FBI catching the bad guys, their agency was really a house divided between, as it turns out, Mr. Gray and Mr. Felt?
Now we are being treated to the spectacle of a public joust between these two gentlemen. Mr. Gray is saying that he was never really a louse but that louse Felt was leaking to make him look like a louse. Mr. Felt says that he may have been a louse but only because that louse Gray was lousing things up and to prevent the whole thing from going lousy he had to leak like a louse, so therefore he is not a real louse. This sort of slow-motion table tennis between nonagenarians is a big hit in Boca Raton. But where I live, closer to South Beach, we prefer hardier bouts of excitement than watching two old bureaucrats lie through their dentures. What’s good for the geezers is not good for a gander. Especially with theme music by the Doors: “Come on, baby, fight my liar.”
My “first initial” response to L. Patrick Gray and W. Mark Felt squabbling is to blame J. Edgar Hoover. It was Hoover who created the moral vacuum that these two guys filled. They imitated not only his cognomen but also key elements of his cognition.
It was fairly well known during Mr. Hoover’s later years that he retained his position through presidential administrations of both parties by using blackmail and intimidation. No President was prepared to risk the exposure of dirty laundry by Mr. Hoover. One story that was widely circulated among the press corps was that he controlled a powerful Senator through photographs of the man’s wife committing an indiscretion with her chauffeur.
Here are two stories that are told by another Hoover acolyte and Watergate veteran, G. Gordon Liddy. One concerns Martin Luther King Jr., who once started a campaign of criticizing the FBI for assigning white agents to black communities as part of a racist strategy. The truth was that the FBI was not racist at all and had always hired and promoted fairly. King received a message that if he did not desist from spreading this falsehood, Hoover would be compelled to publicize some photographs and tapes that would show King’s black followers that he was partial to white women.
The second story does not involve the pattern of blackmail but it conveys a sense of the atmosphere of intimidation Hoover fostered. A report had come into Hoover’s office from one of the regional branches and the agent who authored it had typed too close to the margins. Hoover liked a lot of space on either side of interoffice memos so that he could jot his comments. Annoyed, he scribbled: “Let’s watch the borders.” When he returned the document for immediate action, the various border outposts were all ordered to be on high alert. For weeks, extra agents were being assigned to the tense border patrol that resulted from that misunderstanding. A comment about foolscap turned into a travesty that left everyone wearing a fool’s cap.
There is no question that Hoover performed a great service for this country in building a powerful agency for major law enforcement. His name is on the building and we do not begrudge him the tribute. Nor can a reasonable person deny that some breaking of eggs is a prerequisite for making omelets. Still, there had to be a way to get Pretty Boy Floyd and Ma Barker and Dillinger without an eccentric reign of terror. Call me Pollyanna but I don’t want the FBI controlling all the branches of government by threatening their privacy.
Well, Watergate has always puzzled me. The plumbers came first and then the leaks. There was a burglary with no discernible purpose and a cover-up with no discernible plan. There was Cox and Haig and Bork, Sam Ervin was drawling something or other incomprehensible and Martha Mitchell was out cavorting. Nixon talked too much and then erased too much. There were dirty tricks and a clean sweep and a general muddle.
But the new insight that I gleaned from the events of the last few weeks is that Hoover’s poisonous legacy infected the entire atmosphere. It was he who taught his men the ethic of covering up for the big bosses if they play ball and blabbing about them to the press if they don’t. Sure enough, his two inheritors divided the duties. One covered up and the other blabbed.
The moral of the story is that government in general and law enforcement in particular needs to operate with moral clarity, rules that are fairly well defined in the realm of black and white. For too long the FBI was allowed to conduct its business in a field of gray, and the impact of that was definitely felt.