Clint Eastwood is now eighty-one, a mellow age that tends to breed a gentle tolerance, if not sardonic forgiveness, for life’s brutes and rogues. This may explain the curious lack of menace in the J. Edgar Hoover he conjures up in J. Edgar, his low-voltage cinematic speculation on the character of America’s most famous cop. J. Edgar Hoover without menace is like Boris Karloff without bolts in his head. Not an old softie, to be sure, but Eastwood’s Hoover—though a sly, neurotic, and occasionally vicious bureaucrat—is scarcely a patch on the real-life Hoover who, as creator and director of the FBI from 1935 to 1972, once lurked in the nightmares of almost everyone with an interest in government and many more who simply went through life feeling guilty.
That was a Hoover of dark presence, a man so scary that even presidents did not dare to fire him, the keeper of secret files on tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands of Americans who were subjected to FBI surveillance because they were deemed to be not above suspicion. Suspicion of what? This was not always clear, but suspicion of unorthodox opinion was thought to be cause enough for opening a file.
Nobody could be sure, of course. The FBI chief trafficked in fear, which flourishes best when the fog is thickest, the uncertainty deepest, and people who have always thought themselves above suspicion begin to wonder if perhaps there is some long-forgotten incident in their distant past that might be dug up, exposing them to public humiliation, congressional investigation, criminal indictment, destruction.
It is a rare life that hasn’t a few deplorable incidents in its chronicle. As Willie Stark observes in Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men, man is conceived in sin, born in corruption, and “passeth from the stink of the didie to the stench of the shroud,” and when someone looks deep enough for dirt, “There is always something.”
Hoover’s favorite method of spreading terror seemed to involve exploiting the morbid American obsession with sex and politicians’ terror of being caught in unorthodox sexual conduct. The director let all Washington know that he was just as knowledgeable about who was doing what and with whom in bed as he was about who was taking orders from Moscow. Now and then Washington would fill with twitterings that the FBI had secret evidence of the scandalously licentious goings-on of some political eminence or other, and indeed it often did, as we know from FBI leaks about Jack Kennedy’s liaison with the gangster Sam Giancana’s mistress, Judith Exner, and Martin Luther King’s relations with prostitutes. Politicians’ fear of Hoover’s secret files helps explain why they were so reluctant to replace him. Lyndon Johnson is said to have observed, “It’s probably better to have him inside the tent pissing out …