By JONATHAN YARDLEY
Saturday, June 26, 2004
An occasional series in which The Post's book critic reconsiders notable and/or neglected books from the past.
Nearly half a century ago a high-ranking Washington bureaucrat discovered to his dismay that the "rarefied air" in his office was having "an adverse effect" on his health. The office "had made his head, his gut, and his rear end throb in melancholy unison." He went to a doctor, who, on learning where the man worked, said he had treated a number of others there. "You have nothing to look forward to down there," the doctor told him, "but the three H's -- hemorrhoids, hypertension, and heart attack."
The man was employed at the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The specific office in which he worked was that of its director, J. Edgar Hoover, and his notorious sidekick, Clyde Anderson Tolson. The book in which this story is told is "No Left Turns," by a former FBI agent named Joseph L. Schott. Published in 1975, it was enthusiastically reviewed as exactly what it is -- a deadpan but hilarious inside view of what the same unhappy agent called the "sort of nutty vaudeville show" that was Hoover's FBI -- and enjoyed moderately good sales before going into paperback and then falling out of print.
This is an injustice that absolutely must be corrected, perhaps by one of the good university presses -- Chicago, maybe, or Louisiana State -- that make a practice of bringing back into print deserving American books that for whatever reason have been allowed to fall by the wayside. "No Left Turns" is deserving and then some, and interest in it is far from exhausted. Schott reports from retirement in Texas that it has been optioned twice by an independent Hollywood producer, and that the second option is still active. What a delicious comedy it would make -- though it's a pity Oliver Hardy isn't around to play Hoover -- and what a happy effect it could have on sales of a new edition of Schott's wonderful book.
No doubt that's wishful thinking, as is usually the case when it comes to Hollywood and options and producers. But it is a shame that today's readers -- except those lucky enough to find "No Left Turns" in the library or in the used-book market, where it commands prices as high as $500 for what "appears to be" a first edition of the 1975 Praeger hardcover -- don't have the opportunity to read not merely a small comic masterpiece but also, more seriously, an inquiry into what can happen when a bureaucracy becomes so hermetic, fear-haunted and totemistic that it loses all sense of reality.
My own first encounter with "No Left Turns" came in 1976, when I was book editor of the Miami Herald. I got a copy of the new Ballantine paperback edition and mainlined it. Reviews of the hardcover had piqued my curiosity, especially one in The Washington Post that made it seem nothing less than required reading. I immediately agreed. The myth of J. Edgar Hoover was still abroad in the land -- the myth that he was "America's Number One G-Man!" as Lyndon Johnson repeatedly shouted in one scene brilliantly depicted by Schott -- and correctives were desperately needed. "No Left Turns" provided them. To this day it is cited in books and on Web sites devoted to the FBI (except, of course, anything originating from the FBI itself) and it is acknowledged to be an important part of that work-in-progress, the rewriting of Hoover's (and the FBI's) story.
At the time the book was published Schott was in his mid-fifties and had been retired from the FBI for four years. Born near Fort Worth in 1921, he was "a calloused army vet" who got a master of arts in English from the University of Texas after the war and then "sort of wandered into the Bureau in 1948, hung around for twenty-three years, and then wandered out again." The FBI "was just a job to me, not holy orders." He stuck around until 1971, mostly as a field agent in Fort Worth, when, having put in 20-plus years of service and reached the age of 50, he qualified for retirement. He stayed in Fort Worth, where he taught criminal justice at Tarrant County Community College for four years and then for a decade at Texas Christian University, where he was also director of the program.
Skeptics might wonder how much anyone could have learned about criminal justice in Hoover's FBI, since his interest in criminals was chiefly as instruments of favorable publicity on his own behalf and his interest in justice was nonexistent. But as "No Left Turns" makes clear, even in those days there actually were responsible, public-spirited FBI agents who did their jobs faithfully, though theirs was an uphill battle:
"In its days of glory, Mr. Hoover's FBI was a tight little world that danced to the tune of his strident trumpet blasts from the heights of Olympus. Olympus was Washington, D.C., where the Director had been born Jan. 1, 1895, and lived all his life. . . . Washington was known in the Bureau as SOG, the Seat of Government. SOG was a mountaintop shrouded in a dung-colored cloud of mystique. The rest of the United States and its possessions was the Field, a vast fief held by Mr. Hoover in his capacity as Director of the FBI. . . . He knew there were weaklings and malingerers out there, flouting his rules and goofing off. Periodically he sent forth raiding parties to attack field offices and tear them apart in search of heresy and disloyalty. He called these depredations office inspections. They resembled the cornfield scene in 'Planet of the Apes' -- when the apes came galloping through on their horses lassoing all the humans in sight. In the Bureau the apes were called inspectors, or in Bureau vernacular, 'goons.' "
The FBI in the 1950s and 1960s was a nuthouse. In its early years it may have achieved a degree of legitimacy fighting organized crime (a dubious proposition, but let's give it the benefit of the doubt) but it degenerated into a demented religious sect whose "infallible" god was Hoover -- "a living legend, a sacred cow, a dinosaur in the nation's backyard who could gobble you up if you didn't look out" -- and where the only way for underlings to rise was to exhibit "exaggerated sycophantic respect and adulation for him." This was true outside the FBI as well, thanks to "the mythology that he had created for his institution and that most of the public accepted without question."
In Washington the truth about Hoover was common knowledge at the time, especially among politicians and journalists, but many of those who detested Hoover's FBI also were terrified of it, and of him. He had the goods on just about everybody, John F. Kennedy in particular, and he let his knowledge be known in quiet ways that left no doubt about what he could do should circumstances (as he saw them) warrant. In exchange for his silence on these matters, many of which had to do with sex, Hoover kept his kingdom, his power and his perquisites.
Schott survived his years at the FBI without apparent injury because he "was always irreverent, confused, undermotivated, going nowhere in particular, with little on my mind except survival. Cynicism is probably the best word to describe my attitude toward the Bureau then and now." Cynicism, but not bitterness. Schott had a good ride at the FBI and learned enough about law enforcement to make a post-FBI career out of teaching it to others. He also kept his eyes and ears wide open, accumulating the anecdotes and observations that make this book truly sui generis.
In Fort Worth he "spent more than twenty years assigned to the same resident agency -- a large one with a dozen or more agents -- and although we had some squabbles occasionally no one became more than normally upset at anyone else." Tongue slightly in cheek, Schott recalls the Fort Worth agency's "good humor, savoir-faire, [and] aura of Old World charm and dignity." Certainly it must have seemed an oasis of sanity in the FBI, and a reminder that in almost any large organization, the farther one is from the home office the happier one is likely to be.
On one memorable occasion, though, the home office descended on Schott. In November 1959 Hoover and Tolson decided to visit Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson, whose presidential aspirations Hoover looked upon favorably. Schott's account of Fort Worth's preparations for this historic event, the event itself and its aftermath occupies some 30 pages and is the highest spot in a book that has many high ones. It begins with a long briefing by Fort Worth's SAC (special agent in charge) in which the route the guests would be driven from Love Field airport in Dallas to the Stephen F. Austin Hotel in Austin was traced inch by inch. "No sweat," Schott said, to which the SAC responded: "There's one catch. . . . There will be no left turns." That, as Schott says, "startled everybody," until "a good explanation" was put forth:
"In California several months before, the Director's chauffeur-driven car, while making a left turn, had been struck by another car from behind. The Director had been shaken up. He had been sitting on the left side behind the driver. Now he refused to sit on the left rear seat any more and had forbidden all left turns on auto trips."
That was only the beginning. The agent in charge of hotel accommodations for the dynamic duo had to reserve a suite with living room and two bedrooms, private bath for each bedroom, mattresses "must not be too hard, not too soft, must be just right." Each bed required four down pillows. "All appliances in rooms, such as radios and television sets, must have typed instructions explaining how to turn on and turn off. Typing must be neat." Flowers okay in living room but not bedrooms. "If liquor placed in suite, Director drinks Jack Daniels," at which point the SAC interrupted: "Jack Daniels black label, Sid! . . . Let's get that right!"
On and on it went. Immaculately clean ashtrays. Check out the house doctor: "I want to be sure the doctor looks and acts O.K., not like a fairy or a hophead or a pharmacist's mate off a Chinese gunboat." In the bedrooms, identical brochures for both men "of general interest about Dallas and this vicinity -- industries, history, that kind of stuff," as the SAC put it. And, passing along information he'd been given by an agent at SOG: "Be damn sure you have exactly the same brochures in each package. I repeat. Be damn sure you have exactly the same stuff in each package. Callahan says that if one gets something the other one doesn't, there's hell to pay."
What went on in that suite once the two old maids arrived, no one knows. Then as now there were rumors that "an 'unnatural' relationship existed" between Hoover and Tolson, but whatever they did or didn't do, they kept to themselves. We do know that they didn't touch the liquor, which the agents happily drank in an impromptu party to celebrate the visit's apparent success and, most of all, its end. Schott still had a dozen years to get through before he could exit Hoover's madhouse with full retirement benefits and make a place for himself in the real world, but everything must have been downhill after that.
"No Left Turns" is out of print and hard to find.
Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.