MOVIES: Leonardo DiCaprio as J. Edgar Hoover — Looking good so far.

Leonardo DiCaprio as FBI director J. Edgar Hoover.

The new Clint Eastwood-directed bio-pic J. Edgar, starring Leonardo DiCaprio in the title role as Hoover, the legendary autocrat who sat atop the FBI for five decades, released this week its official trailer/preview.  (To see it, click on the image at the bottom. The movie itself comes out in November.)  The trailer runs just two minutes, 29 seconds — obviously too short to judge the entire film.  But having spent two years of my life getting to know Mr. Hoover while researching and writing my own book about him called Young J. Edgar, I must say I liked what I saw.  

Photo shows Hoover at about 22 years old.

J. Edgar Hoover casts a long shadow over modern America, and a good, truthful movie about him is long overdue.  Hoover was the most controversial law man  in 20th century America.  He served as director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation for an astonishing 48 years, holding the post under nine presidents from Calvin Coolidge in the 1920s to Richard M. Nixon in the 1970s.  Though considered a hero and role model most of his life, investigations after his 1972 death confirmed massive abuses of power, illegal wiretaps, bugs, break-ins, and secret files on hundreds of thousands of people which he used as blackmail against presidents and movie stars.   Hoover stands today as one of the most hated men in American history—a probably gay man who harassed gays, a possible descendant of an African American who harassed civil rights leaders, a top law enforcement official who placed himself above the law and ruined many peoples’ lives, all making him something of a monster. 

But in truth, I found Hoover — at least the younger one I wrote about in my book — to be oddly sympathetic.   Hoover did not step into the world as an evil villain.  To a great extent, this side of him was shaped by events and forces that engulfed him during his lifetime, especially his younger formative years.  This is not to make excuses for Hoover’s very long record on the dark side, but simply dismissing him as a cartoon villain and cross-dresser misses the deeper lessons.  

Hoover came to work at the Justice Department in 1917 as a eager, bright young man ready to impress his superiors and save the country.  Within four short years, he had risen to become deputy director of the Bureau of Investigation and had already played a lead role in the Palmer Raids, one of the most eggregious civil liberties abuses in US history.  This transformation — from bright young man to hardened bureaucrat –fascinated me, especially since, to my eye, post-9/11 America seemed to be a period not unlike Hoover’s own formative years during the 1919-1920 Red Scare.  It is a core theme of my own book Young J. Edgar, and, based on the trailer, it also seems to be at the heart of the new film.  

 I have been following the Eastwood-DiCaprio project for months through news reports and Washington gossip.  I was impressed early on by two things–

  • First, the writer, Dustin Lance Black, who also wrote the screenplay for Milk (the movie about assassinated  San Francisco supervisor Harvey Milk), reportedly spent several months in Washington while developing the script doing primary research at the National Archives and Library of Congress.  To understand J. Edgar Hoover, there is no substitute for seeing the FBI files.  They are simply stunning, a dazzling reflection of the man who created them.  They make endlessly fascinating reading and paint a stark portrait of absolute power breeding absolute corruption.
  • Second, when the movie crew came to Washington, D.C. last May, one place they filmed was at the Library of Congress, one of my own favorite research haunts.  I heard many stories from friends there about the movie crew and how they did their work: their eye for detail, making a point to show,  for instance, Hoover/DiCaprio’s fascination with the Library’s card catalogue.  The real-life Hoover actually worked at the Library of Congress during law school in 1914-17 and its card cataloue was a key inspiration for him in designing his FBI files.

The new trailer released this week shows the film dwelling not so much on the usual tawdry stuff about Hoover’s alleged cross-dressing or his actual fascination with celebrity sex gossip.  Yes, he very likely had a gay relationship with FBI assistant director Clyde Tolson, but much of the rest is widely disputed.   Rather, the film appears to focus on the real tension of Hoover’s life — his war (as he saw it) of good against evil, society against anarchy, patriots against traitors, subversives, and phonies, all giving him an excuse to bend the law as he saw fit and to hold power at all costs.

I fully expect to have my own list of nit-picks and criticisms once I see the entire film in November.  But for now, based on the trailer, I like what I see.

New film on 1919 Red Scare

That’s William J. Flynn standing there in the dapper hat and trenchcoat. Back in 1919, he was very hot stuff. They called him “Big Bill,” the most famous detective in America, former chief of the U.S. Secret Service, former top gumshoe in New York City, recognied as the country’s top spy catcher, Red hunter, counterfeit tracker, enemy of gangsters, kidnappers, bank robbers, gamblers, and criminals of every type.
You could barely pick up a newspaper in the 1910s without seeing his name. He loved splashy midnight raids, and helped terrify the country against German saboteurs during World War I. In his spare time, he even wrote detective novels, mostly making himself the hero.
In 1919, Flynn landed in Washington, D.C. The Attorney General, A. Mitchell Palmer, asked him, begged him, to leave New York and become the new Director of the Justice Department’s Bureau of Investigation (later renamed the FBI). Flynn would hold the job for two years. One of his lieutenants would be a skinny young kid named J. Edgar Hoover who later would head the FBI for 48 years, the most controversial law enforcement figure in Twentieth Century America.
Depite all his big headline-grabbing cases, nobody much remembers Bill Flynn these days. But that could change. A new movie is being made about Flynn’s Justice Department days that, if done right, could nicely poke a rarely-exposed sensitive raw nerve in the American past.
Mitchell Palmer had a special job in mind for Flynn when he invited him to come to Washington in 1919 and head the Bureau of Investigation. Palmer intended to launch a massive crackdown against subversives — communists, anarchists, labor radicals, and a few truly dangerous people — that would culminate in one of the worst civil liberty abuses in American history. Between late 1919 and early 1920, Justice Department agents, working with local police and vigilantees, rounded up some 10,000 people, locked them in overcrowded prisons, had them beaten, abused, cut off from lawyers, threatened with deportation, and then, months later, the large majority simply released, never accused of a crime. The reason? A massive case of paranoia and guilt by association known as the First Red Scare.
Flynn’s direct role in this affair has always been a mystery. Palmer himself and young Hoover played the visible leads — hence the “Palmer Raids”– but Flynn was the person actually in charge of the Bureau at the time. I tell the story of the Raids from Hoover’s point of view in my book Young J. Edgar: Hoover, the Red Scare, and the Assault on Civil Liberties. Now it’s time for Flynn’s.
The new movie, called No God, No Master, recently began shooting in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, (which has several streets that look like 1919 New York City). To play Flynn, it casts actor David Strathairn — who played Edward R. Murrow in the 2005 George Clooney film Good Night, and Good Luck. The production team describes the story this way:
No God, No Master is the story of U.S. Bureau of Investigation agent William Flynn who is swept into the world of homegrown terrorism during the Red Scare of the early 1900s. His journey into the culture of anarchism sets the stage for a timely drama with rsounding parallels to the politics and issues of contemporary society.”
Let’s hope they do a good job. This is an important story, full of lessons clearly forgotten during the hysteria of our own generation’s War on Terror following the attacks on our country of September 11, 2001. Too often, movies get it wrong. I have my fingers crossed that this will be the exception.

J. Edgar Hoover

In honor of the new movie
Public Enemies starring JohnnyDepp and based on the terrific book by Bryan Burrough, here is my favorite picture of that tough, gruff, civil-liberties-stomping autocratic crime-fighter J. Edgar Hoover.

The dark side: Hoover would grow up to be Director for Life of the FBI, holding the job for 48 years under nine presidents (Calvin Coolidge to Richard Nixon) from 1924 till his death in 1972. Hoover would use his secret FBI files to blackmail presidents, senators, and movie stars, and felt no scruples conducting sabotage, black bag jobs, or secret wiretaps against any person or group he considered “subversive.” By the 1960s, this included mostly civil rights leaders and anti-Viet Nam War dissenters.

Earlier, he aided Senator Joe McCarthy on his anti-Communist witch hunts. He remains one of the most-hated figures in American history.

On the good side, he used his organizational brilliance in the 1930s to build the then-disfunctional Bureau into a modern professional force with scientific methods, a national academy and lab, a Most Wanted List, finger print files, and a strict agent code of conduct. At his peak, he made the G-Man brand so popular that it was tougher to be accepted as a rookie FBI agent than it was to get into an Ivy League college.

How did he get this way? Here, we see young J. Edgar as a shockingly-normal boy playing with his bike. Hoover grew up in the Capitol Hill section of Washington, D.C., son of a lifelong government clerk, youngest of four siblings, spoiled, his mother’s favorite. He was smart, eager, sang in a church choir, carried groceries for old ladies, and was the star of his high school track, debate, and cadet teams. His classmates elected him their valedictorian. He worked his way through Law School and graduated in 1917 as America entered World War I.

What changed him from this normal, smart, eager child of the Jazz Age into the corrupt autocrat of later years was the question behind my own book Young J. Edgar, which tells the story of Hoover’s first big assignment in the 1919 Justice Depatment, running the notorious anti-Communist crackdown known as the Palmer Raids.

In between, though, he brought in John Dillinger, the bank robber– played by Johnny Depp in the new movie. Enjoy.

The Beltway Unbuckled

Be sure to tune in to The Beltway Unbuckled, a new History Channel documentary premiering this week. You’ll see me as a Talk Head during the segment on J. Edgar Hoover.

Here’s the writeup from

Sex has played a role throughout America’s history. Did you know an extramarital affair was one of the causes of the Civil War? Or that one of the things that made George Washington so appealing as a presidential choice was his sterility? This special takes a serious but highly entertaining look at the fascinating ways the sex lives of our nation’s leaders have impacted American history and shaped the country we live in today. Some of the stories uncovered: how J. Edgar Hoover used his secret sex files to become one of the most powerful figures in Washington; although Woodrow Wilson may have won World War I, his wife Edith may have caused World War II; why FDR’s dreams for the post World War II world were contained in the long lost diary of one of the women who was with him when he died; and how JFK’s fling with an East German beauty nearly ended his administration.


Gasp!!! It’s been five months now since I last posted anything on this Blog. Is that pathetic, or what? Well, if you thought I was gone, you were wrong. I have not dropped off the face of the earth. You are not rid of me. I have decided to come back.

The truth be know, I have largely shelved my writing-historian life the past five months and happily returned to my first profession, practicing law. Yes, by day, I am a registered, card-carrying Washington lawyer-lobbyist. You can look it up. Here’s a link to my latest public report at OpenSecrets.Org: ) The work has been interesting and productive and — no apologies here — it’s been lucrative too. Writers have to eat and pay bills, and I like to eat well. And a few months of hourly billings certainly helps.

But so much water has run under the bridge these past few months: Hillary, Obama, McCain, easily the most exciting Presidential sweepstakes in memory, not to mention the ongoing drama between George Bush’s last gasp White House and Nancy Pelosi’s stumbling Congress, and now the economy bumbling over, of all things, subprime mortgages. And that’s not even counting the New York Giants. What woeful, thrilling times we live in. How can a historian be silent?

Yet here I am, sitting silently all these months, a mere spectator. No, I haven’t given up being a fervid political junkie. I continue to read my three newspapers each day (the Washington Post, NY Times, and Roll Call). I listen to POTUS 08 on XM radio, check the DrudgeReport and other internet sites, and tune in pundits for hours on end. No excuses. I like it, and wouldn’t have it any other way. But every time I sit down to try and write a Blog post or an article, about politics, history, or anything else, I get distracted. Words dry up. I find other things needing attention. Writer’s block? Perhaps. But these blocks don’t come out of thin air.

Since my last book was published in May 2007 (Young J. Edgar: Hoover the Red Scare, and the Assault on Civil Liberties, 1919-1920), I admit that I’ve researched at least half a dozen good ideas for next topics, including possible narratives about figures as diverse as Emma Goldman, Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, American socialist founder Eugene V. Debs, long-time autocratic House Speaker Joe Cannon, feminist pioneer Victoria Woodhull, John Adams and the Boston Tea Party, and even the adventures of a once-famous British ocean deep-sea diver from the 1880s named Alexander Lambert. All these ideas have great promise, real keepers. But here too, the writers block sets in. I find problem at every turn, and no path out of the forest.

So I’ve made a decision. To start writing again, I need to write. And be published. That’s the only way to beat writers block. And in this modern world of cyberspace, the way you do it is through a Blog. So here I am Blogging — and in this initial effort, I am Blogging in the worst stereotypical way: with a self-absorbed, nascissistic, whiney, inconclusive essay about nothing but myself. But I guess that’s how you start. It doesn’t become literature overnight.

So expect to see me posting more often on this space. What I’ll write about, what shape it will take, ony time will tell. But plan to spent time having Coffee with Ken. I am going into writer’s training. Any encouragement would be appreciated.

So that’s it from the home front. Hope you’ll put up with me in the meantime.

Thanks, and all the best. –KenA

From Washington Post Book World, June 24.

In Brief: Junior G-Man

Sunday, June 24, 2007; BW14

As Kenneth D. Ackerman explains in Young J. Edgar (Carroll & Graf, $28.95), the future FBI director first made his mark after the most dramatic outburst of terrorism to hit the United States before 9/11. On June 2, 1919, bombs went off in nine American cities, including Washington, D.C. In most cases, the target was the residence of a political figure or man of wealth. In Washington, it was the R Street house of Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer; the house was badly damaged, anarchists were blamed, and Palmer pledged that “for the rest of his time in office, he would commit his Department of Justice to the singular task of tracking down and stopping this Red Menace.” He put his young assistant Hoover in charge.

Among the results of this campaign were the infamous Palmer Raids, which left their namesake, who had once entertained notions of succeeding Woodrow Wilson as president, so discredited that the man who got the Democratic nomination in his stead, James M. Cox, told Palmer not to campaign for him. Cox lost to Warren G. Harding anyway, but Hoover, in Ackerman’s words, “repackaged himself for the new regime.” His slickest maneuver was one that became a trademark: playing up the information to which his office made him privy. The new attorney general, Harry Daugherty, “became a convert” to Hoover’s view that the Red Menace had to be extirpated, and subsequent attorneys general, all the way up to Hoover’s death in 1972, fell into line. In Ackerman’s view, Hoover “was precisely the wrong person” for the job of leading this crusade: “Despite his clear genius for organization, Edgar lacked the other essential qualification for the job, the life experience and human context to appreciate the responsibility that came with power.”

Another J. Edgar Hoover?

From this week’s LA Times (June 14, 2007)

The Red scare spawned the tyrannical FBI chief; will a similar homegrown villain emerge from the war on terror?

WHAT created J. Edgar Hoover? He reigned with an iron fist as director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation for 48 years, until the day he died in 1972. By then, Hoover had evolved into an untouchable autocrat, a man who kept secret files on millions of Americans over the years and used them to blackmail presidents, senators and movie stars. He ordered burglaries, secret wiretaps or sabotage against anyone he personally considered subversive. His target list included the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Albert Einstein, even Eleanor Roosevelt.

Yet when Hoover showed up for his first day of work at the Department of Justice in June 1917, he was a bright 22-year-old, just out of law school. He still had boyish good looks and was cocky and driven. The country had just entered World War I, and Hoover had avoided the wartime draft. Instead, he was ready to help win the war at home, to save the country from spies and subversives.

What changed this young eager beaver into the crass, cynical tyrant of later years?

The fact is, Hoover learned his attitudes and worldview from teachers at the Justice Department during his early years there, when the country was going through a period much like today’s war on terror.

In March 1919, Hoover landed a dream assignment on the staff of new Atty. Gen. A. Mitchell Palmer just in time to participate in the first Red scare, in 1919-1920, and its signature outrage, the notorious Red Raids, also known as the Palmer Raids. For Hoover, it would shape his outlook for life.

On the night of June 2, 1919, bombs exploded in nine cities across the United States, leaving two people dead, including one of the bombers. One of these bombs destroyed Palmer’s Washington home, almost killing him, his wife and his teenage daughter.

These bombs capped months of escalating upheaval during which the country convinced itself that we sat on the verge of a Russian-style socialist revolution. The first Red scare came on the heels of multiple traumas: World War I, the Russian Revolution and subsequent Bolshevik uprisings in Germany, Hungary, Poland, Italy and Argentina. In the United States, the economy had collapsed, prompting waves of strikes, riots and political violence.

Americans vowed vengeance after the June 2 bombings, and the targeted Palmer pledged to crush the reign of terror. He ordered a massive preemptive strike, a nationwide roundup of radicals. To manage the operation, Palmer chose his talented new staff counsel, young J. Edgar Hoover.

Hoover seized the opportunity. With Palmer’s blessing, he laid plans for a series of brutal raids across the country. Backed by local police and volunteer vigilantes, federal agents hit in dozens of cities and arrested more than 10,000 suspected communists and fellow travelers. They burst into homes, classrooms and meeting halls, seizing everyone in sight, breaking doors and heads with abandon. The agents ignored legal niceties such as search warrants or arrest warrants. They questioned suspects in secret, imposed prohibitive bail and kept them locked up for months in foul, overcrowded, makeshift prisons.

It turned out that virtually none of these prisoners had anything to do with violent radicalism. Nearly all were released without being charged with a crime. Palmer’s grand crackdown was one big exercise in guilt by association, based primarily on bogus fears of immigrants being connected to vilified radical groups such as the recently formed American Communist Party.

Still, Hoover relished his moment on the national stage. He appeared twice at Palmer’s side during congressional hearings, and he faced off against future Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter in a Boston courtroom in raid-related cases. Behind the scenes, Hoover demanded more arrests, higher bail and fewer rights for prisoners.

Ultimately, the public recoiled in disgust at the excesses and illegality of the raids, and Palmer saw his political career destroyed. But his young assistant fared much better.

Hoover never lost his anticommunist religion, nor his disdain for and distrust of “liberals” who defended “subversives” on grounds of free speech and civil liberties. He also never lost his sense of entitlement to bend the rules, either to protect the country or to protect himself.

Almost 90 years later, today’s war on terror exists in an echo chamber of the 1919 Red scare. The federal government demands more powers at the expense of individual rights: secret CIA prisons, enhanced interrogation techniques, suspension of habeas corpus. Even the president openly claims powers that are beyond the reach of laws such as the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

The same kinds of teachers who transformed the straight-laced, young Hoover in 1919 seem to be on the loose again in Washington. And that raises a troubling question: Are we today creating a whole new generation of young J. Edgar Hoovers, dedicated government agents learning the wrong lessons from the war on terror, who will stick around to haunt us for decades to come?

Alberto Gonzales: The Worst Attorney General Ever?

So here’s my thought over coffee today: If Democrats follow through on their plans, then Alberto Gonzales will soon become the first US Attorney General in American history ever to face — and probably lose — a no confidence vote in Congress. But is he really the worst Attorney General ever?

The competition is fierce. To start with, two Attorneys General actually were indicted and stood trial from crimes committed in office. John Mitchell (1969-1972), who held post under President Richard M. Nixon, served 19 months of a four-year prison sentence after being convicted of conspiracy, obstruction of justice, and perjury for his role in the Watergate scandals. Five decades earlier, Harry Daugherty (1921-1924), who held the post under President Warren G. Harding, escaped prison only by the grace of two hung juries when he was prosecuted on fraud charges growing out of his part in the Teapot Dome Scandal of the 1920s.

But that’s not all. Even putting aside the criminals, you then come to the likes of A. Mitchell Palmer (1919-1921), who presided over the Great Red Scare after World War I. As his signature achievement, Palmer ordered a coast-to-coast round-up of 10,000 suspected leftists, primarily immigrants from Eastern Europe suspected of belonging to the then-recently-formed Communist Party. Almost all of them turned out to be utterly innocent — victims of guilt by association and bungled intelligence. In the process, Palmer’s Justice Department struck without search warrants or arrest warrants, kept suspects locked up for weeks or months with no access to lawyers or family members in overcrowded, makeshift prisons, and ultimately released them without ever charging them with a crime.

Congress considered impeaching Palmer, but its investigation descended into partisan finger pointing. Only Palmer’s young protege, J. Edgar Hoover, who as a 24 year-old staff lawyer in Palmer’s office actually managed the operation, managed to survive the backlash. Hoover, of course, then went on to lead the FBI for 48 years.

Finally, my choice to round out the bottom five would be Roger B. Taney (1831-1833) , who held the AG post briefly under President Andrew Jackson and helped Jackson engineer his controversial scuttling of the Bank of the United States. But Taney did his real damage to the country after Jackson promoted him to Chief Justice of the United States in 1836. Here, Taney gave us such gems as Dred Scott v. Sandford (1856) upholding the Fugitive Slave Law and bringing the nation to the brink of Civil War, and Prigg v. Pennsylvania (1842) justifying kidnapping and adduction if done for the sake for keeping slaves.

How does Alberto Gonzales stack up in this exciting race for the bottom? He’s never been indicted for a crime, and has not had the chance to twist the constitution on the Supreme Court. Still, Gonzales has a record on civil liberties that is striking by any standard: his opinions as White House counsel justifying torture, use of secret prisons, ignoring of the Geneva Conventions and of the FISA statute, and his recently-disclosed pressing of John Ashcroft in his hospital bedroom to sign off on even-more-extreme measures . Add to this his record as AG pressing for the suspension of habeas corpus — something even Mitchell Palmer in his wildest zeal never cosidered — and the politicization of the US attorney corps under his watch. It certainly makes him a contender, and he still has over a year left in office to beef it up his claim– so long as his friend in the White House doesn’t fire him and Congress doesn’t impeach him in the meantime.

So best of luck to all the entries. Please weigh in with your favorites.
Meanwhile, all the best. –KenA