Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Goods on J. Edgar Hoover, #4


Salutations.  The Thanksgiving engorgement is winding down, a second  unseasonal blanketing of snow hit New Hampshire (along with a heavy influx of Republican aspirants), and football is getting serious.  Tremors in the stock market suggest a very long winter.

As that embattled movie J. Edgar struggles at the box office to justify its thunderous  publicity, I have a few retreating thoughts to offer about the Director and -- equally valid -- the organization he steamed together.  As I have tried to indicate, while I was pulling together source material for The Old Boys about the origins of the CIA and, later, for Bobby and J. Edgar, I spent a lot of time with veterans from both organizations.  Many ex and active CIA officers and special agents in the Bureau became friends over the course of the several decades I served on the board of the New England Chapter of the Association of Former Intelligence Officers.  Inevitably, these years of contact conditioned -- and I hope deepened -- my feeling for who these people were, what motivated them and where they drew their ethical and operational lines. I hope a lot of what I determined made its way into my no-holds-barred CIA novel, The Nature of the Beast.

When hit-and-run reviewers like David Corn accuse me of having gone "soft on Hoover" in Bobby and J. Edgar, what they actually seem to mean is that I have not totally corroborated the caricature of the Bureau's opinionated founder that seized the Left during the McCarthy era.  Hoover was in fact a complicated icon, like Robert Kennedy surprisingly emotional when it came to people he cared about, profoundly committed to preserving the status quo, and -- much more than Robert Kennedy -- respectful of the civil liberties of individuals.  He could be as ruthless as advertised when it came to maligning the likes of Martin Luther King, an activist he perceived as totally immoral, opportunistic, and perilous to the social order.  But when Richard Nixon called on his old friend Hoover to provide the storm troops for what could easily have turned into a coup, J. Edgar walked away, without a qualm. 

There is a fascinating book waiting to be written about a number of the graduates of Hoover's academy,  Bureau alumni who keep turning up to switch the tracks of history.  For example, consider the unlikely career of Guy Banister, once Hoover's Special Agent in Charge in Capone-heir Sam Giancana's Chicago.  Banister, who retired from the Bureau, breaks the surface of events the summer of 1963 in New Orleans running a private detective agency that supports Bob Kennedy's CIA-based spoiling operation against Cuba, Operation Mongoose.  Banister comes up with office space for Lee Harvey Oswald  that summer so Oswald can mount his provocative Fair-Play-for-Cuba campaign.  Giancana's primary fixer, Johnny Rosselli, stops by Banister's headquarters several times. Rosselli has been looking after odd jobs for Joe Kennedy for decades.  Banister and Joe Kennedy's accountant, Carmine Bellino -- another FBI graduate, for whom Joe arranged a White House office once JFK became president -- had shared a business partnership.  Connect the dots.

Another intriguing Bureau alumnus was Robert Maheu.  I got to know Maheu originally in 1992 when I was on the road flogging The Old Boys.  We shared a podium at the Library of Congress, and stayed in touch after that.  Maheu remembered J. Edgar fondly for having arranged a compassionate assignment for him when his mother was dying in Maine.  Once he moved on from the FBI, Maheu -- like Edward Morgan, another onetime special agent -- developed an extensive legal clientele on the fringes of the underworld.  When the CIA wanted a team of experienced assassins to bump off Castro, Maheu hooked the Agency up with Giancana, Johnny Rosselli and Santo Trafficante. Later on Maheu became briefly famous as the public presence of the pathologically reclusive Howard Hughes.  Maheu served as middleman when the mob sold its Las Vegas casinos to Hughes but kept its own operatives in charge, especially when it came to disposing of the skim.  Maheu supervised the arrangement.  Bob Maheu and Howard Hughes did not part happily.

 Hoover himself was careful to maintain the Bureau as an equal opportunity employer.  He himself dismissed the notion of a national crime syndicate until the end of the fifties.  There was a measure of cooperation between the Bureau and a number of the senior hoods, especially when it came to sharing the product of accomplished wiremen like Bernie Spindel.  Once Robert Kennedy became Attorney General the era of laissez-faire was over. 

Rest in peace, J. Edgar.  You are not forgotten.

Burton Hersh

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