By Anthony Edward Schiappa Jr.
Sunday, August 16, 2009
I grew up revering two men: J. Edgar Hoover and my dad. I was elated when Dad joined the FBI in 1962; it was as if the Yankees had hired him to pitch. My father had been job-hopping, having worked at five newspapers over the previous eight years. While my parents were pleased with the job security and benefits of the FBI, I had ecstatic visions of my father as a commie-fighting, crime-busting G-man. John Dillinger, the Karpis-Barker gang and "Machine Gun" Kelly were as familiar to me as Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris. "The FBI Story" was the first book longer than a comic book I ever read. When I was 7 years old, I couldn't name the president, but I knew
who the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation was. I still have letters my father wrote during his training at the FBI Academy in Quantico: "Daddy is working and studying very hard to become a good FBI agent. I will be home in August and I will show you my badge and my gun." What could be cooler?
Through my boyhood eyes, my father personified the FBI motto of Fidelity, Bravery, Integrity. Six feet tall with looks like Cary Grant, he made the dark suit, white shirt, subdued tie and homburg hat of FBI fame appear stylish. As my father's new-agent training report noted, "This man makes a very substantial initial impression." Reticent, he wielded the driest of wits. He signed my fifth-grade autograph book: "To my son, Eddie; may his father lead a long and prosperous life."
As for Hoover, his career turned out to be stunningly inconsistent. His leadership alternated between brilliant and boneheaded; his tremendous accomplishments sometimes have been overshadowed by his idiosyncrasies. Forty years ago, my family got a taste of the best and worst that Hoover had to offer.
In 1966, my father was transferred to the FBI resident agency in Manhattan, Kan. -- his fourth assignment in five years. As one of two special agents in Manhattan, he investigated any of 100-plus federal crimes over which the FBI had jurisdiction, including bank robbery, extortion, interstate transportation of stolen property, forged checks, theft from interstate shipment, crimes on government property (such as nearby Fort Riley, stuffed with conscripts for the Vietnam War), murder, theft of government property, and what Dad called "a potful of deserter cases." My dad and his partner had their hands full. Much of their work was investigative reporting -- conducting interviews, developing informants and assembling facts into coherent narratives about who, when, what, how and why. Because my father had been a journalist, he was good at his job, and his immediate supervisors knew it. Every review he received from 1962 to 1967 yielded a performance rating of "excellent," and he received numerous commendations for his work. A bright future beckoned.
One Saturday morning in February 1967, my father needed to go to work for an hour or so and asked if I wanted to tag along. This was the first (and, not coincidentally, the last) time I received such an invitation. With four kids plus my mother and grandmother in our house, private time with Dad was a rare treat.
I should have been tipped off when Dad didn't strap on his revolver's holster, as he did regularly. His office was more boring than a doctor's waiting room -- at least there I might find a comic book or magazine to leaf through. The room held two desks, a table and a couple of filing cabinets. That was it. Dad went to work, motioning me to the deserted desk. There was absolutely nothing for a 12-year-old kid to do except sit and think.
I sat and stewed. Why was I there? To hang out with my father. But why were we there on a Saturday? Because he had too much work to do. And why did he have too much work? Because two FBI agents were not enough for this office. The solution to all my problems erupted into my consciousness: I would occupy my time by writing a letter to J. Edgar Hoover to persuade him to assign a third agent to my dad's office. It was a glorious plan. My father would get his weekends back, and the cause of justice would be better served with a terrific trio of crime-fighting FBI agents instead of a tuckered-out twosome.
I told Dad I was going to write a letter "to a friend," and he gave me permission to rummage for the necessary supplies. He then literally turned his back on me to focus on his work.
Here is the letter I wrote, retrieved from FBI archives:
My father is in the F.B.I. He is stationed in Manhattan, Kansas. Do you know what is out here? For one a military base Fort Riley, another an university K.S.U. and an airport. Do you know there is only two [underlined three times] agents out here? Each man has an average of 65 cases a month! That's 130 for both!
Taking a quick look around I see how much they need at least 1 more man. Cigarette butts overflowing ashtrays, worn out phone books and type-writers. Having to work either Saturday or Sunday or both every weekend! This is a big place with crime all around. I ask you, I beg you to send someone.
Mr. [D] in Kansas City MO has never even said maybe. Please we need another man.
[stamped in ink]
Special Agent in Charge
Federal Bureau of Investigation
U.S. Department of Justice
P.O. Box 2449
Kansas City, Missouri 64142
P.S. My dad doesn't know about this note.
P.P.S. Please! We need a 3rd Man.
The letter contains facts I had picked up at the dinner table, such as my father's caseload and the name of the special agent in charge (SAC) of the region, but I embellished. Manhattan, Kan., was not and is not a "big place with crime all around." The "overflowing ashtrays" and "worn out type-writers" were products of my imagination. I honestly did not know if the SAC had ignored my father's requests for help.
I addressed the envelope to "J. Edgar Hoover, U.S. Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Washington, D.C." To make sure my letter was taken seriously, I wrote "Important" in five places on the envelope. I then slid the letter down the glass mail chute in the hallway outside my father's office. I had done a good deed. I hoped Dad would be proud of me.
Perhaps with a director less easily riled, or perhaps if the letter had not named names or mentioned numbers, it would have been ignored or dealt with by an underling. But this was J. Edgar Hoover's FBI, so the letter made its way directly to his desk mere hours after being opened at FBI headquarters.
Unbeknownst to me, my father soon received a phone call from the SAC in Kansas City, who read a copy of my letter to Dad. My father was stunned. Chagrined that someone at FBI HQ had not simply called him before passing the letter up the chain of command, he knew Hoover's reputation well enough to expect that trouble was brewing. He radioed his partner and asked to meet him at the office to talk. Dad said it was nothing to worry about, then corrected himself: "Maybe better worry a little bit."
Two weeks after the fateful letter was mailed, Dad came home one evening and asked me to come upstairs while he executed his nightly ritual of changing out of his suit for dinner. Such invitations were proffered for only two reasons: to plan a holiday gift for Mom, or because I was in trouble. When I got up there, he deadpanned, "Heard from your pen pal lately?" He handed me a letter, which was short and to the point: "I received your letter of February 19, 1967, concerning your father's work. You may be assured that the Special Agent in Charge of our Kansas City Office will discuss this matter with him. Sincerely yours, J. Edgar Hoover."
My father made it clear that I was meddling with matters beyond my understanding and instructed me, calmly but authoritatively, to come to him before writing to the likes of J. Edgar Hoover. Then I was excused from the room. I was not punished.
That summer, inspectors from FBI HQ coming through Kansas for an annual review confided that Hoover thought my father had put me up to writing the letter. I have tried to imagine how one could be persuaded of such an Olympian inferential leap. Looking at my scrawled handwriting, did he really envision a cowed little boy hovered over by a career FBI agent masterminding this ingenious plot to increase staffing in his office? Hoover had only two conclusions to make: Either I wrote it without Dad's knowledge, or my father judged that the most persuasive case he could make was to abandon all standard procedure and get his 12-year-old to write to a boss infamous for his imperious rule.
Forty years later, I realize that such intellection was vintage J. Edgar Hoover: The ultimate investigator, Hoover also could be suspicious and vindictive. Hoover's biographers have documented his philosophy of holding executives responsible for all errors within their divisions, as well as his obsessive scrutiny of every special agent. It is not hard to imagine him holding the father guilty of the sins of the son. The explicit statement in the letter that my father did not know about it and the obvious errors in spelling and grammar were, to the paranoid conspiracy theorist, simply evidence of my father covering his tracks.
Memos I recovered through the Freedom of Information Act show that my letter was read by a who's who of the FBI: Clyde Tolson, Hoover's longtime second-in-command and in charge of administrative and disciplinary matters; Nicholas P. Callahan, at the time assistant director of the administrative division, later fired by Director Clarence Kelley for unspecified "abuses of power," according to "The FBI: A Comprehensive Reference Guide" by Athan Theoharis; James B. Adams, the top personnel officer at the time; John Mohr, assistant to the director for administration, who wielded enormous power by preparing the bureau's budget and influencing personnel assignments. Mohr was also responsible for the FBI's millions of files and denied the existence of Hoover's infamous secret files when asked about them shortly after the director's death. Last but not least, Mark Felt received a copy of my letter. At the time, Felt was assistant director of the bureau and would be known later for his role in the Watergate affair as "Deep Throat."
The Kansas City SAC reported on my father's caseload, his overtime, the condition of the typewriters, the custodial service for the building, the whole works. The fastidious Hoover had a thing about dirty ashtrays, I later read, so apparently I struck a nerve. To his credit, the SAC made it clear that he believed my father's claim that he was unaware of my letter. He also passed on my father's opinion that I was "incapable of understanding the various ramifications of 'case load.' " Both the SAC and personnel officer recommended no additional action be taken; Hoover's "OK" apparently signified his agreement in a memo dated March 9, 1967.
But things were not okay.
At the time I wrote Hoover, Dad was on the verge of being transferred to HQ in Washington, the holy grail of assignments in the FBI. The publications unit had spied his background in journalism and wanted to add him to the staff of the FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin. An April 7, 1967, memo described the Bulletin's need for additional staff and identified my father as "exceptionally well-qualified for the job," given "his excellent record in the Bureau, his schooling and experience in writing and photography." The memo also noted that my father "has indicated an interest in assignment" to FBI HQ, which meant that he had been contacted -- as was standard procedure -- to confirm his willingness to transfer. The memo sang my father's praises, calling him "the right Agent for the job," but since his entire personnel file would have accompanied this recommendation, it also included a brief mention of my letter and quoted the recommendation that "no further action was necessary."
Alas, not everyone agreed. Next to the reference to my letter, someone wrote, "We don't want this agent here." I recently shared a copy of this memo with then-Personnel Officer Adams, along with the foremost historian of the FBI, Theoharis, professor emeritus at Marquette University. They independently confirmed that Tolson, Hoover's right-hand man, made and initialed the marginalia. Adams noted that Tolson would "cut off recommendations at his level when he was absolutely sure of Hoover's feelings." The veto of my father's promotion "clearly" represented the director's will, according to Theoharis: "All decisions were Hoover's decisions." My father's spotless record was irrelevant. Hoover, via Tolson, had spoken: We don't want this agent here. Because all transfers to FBI HQ had to be approved directly by Hoover, no one would risk his ire by again recommending the promotion of my father with such a remark in his file.
My dad was marooned in Kansas for another five years. Hoover was notorious for punishing agents with "disciplinary transfers" that assigned them to quaint burgs like Butte, Mont. Leaving Dad in Kansas was a variation on a familiar theme.
Dad did make it to Washington, though. Hoover died in May 1972. My father was promoted to FBI HQ weeks later, soon after I graduated from high school. No longer a captive of Hoover's caprice, Dad went to work in the Office of Public and Congressional Affairs and, within three years, was promoted to chief of the research unit of the external affairs division. He spent the rest of his career at FBI HQ, including stints as spokesman to the media, aide to high-ranking FBI officials testifying before Congress, a speechwriter for two FBI directors, and technical consultant to films and the TV series "Today's FBI."
The Letter, as my father still refers to it, was briefly renowned at FBI HQ. A few months after Dad was transferred to Washington, he gave me a tour of his new workplace. When Dad introduced me to someone, chances were good that the person would exclaim, "Oh, you are the one who wrote the letter!" The first time, I blushed and looked at my shoes. The second time, I looked at Dad for a clue on how I ought to respond. What I saw was not feigned amusement; nor was it embarrassment. I saw simple acknowledgment: "Yes, this is my son."
Schiappa holds the Frenzel Chair of Liberal Arts at the University of Minnesota and lives with his family in St. Paul. He can be reached at email@example.com.