Clint Eastwood’s new movie “J. Edgar” opens Wednesday, and anyone who saw its star, Leonardo DiCaprio, deliver his touching portrayal of the deeply weird Howard Hughes in “The Aviator” a few years back will be looking forward to what he does with another deeply strange figure in American history: J. Edgar Hoover.
My guess is that many people reading this may not even remember who Hoover was, so completely has he fallen out of our historical awareness through the double whammy of revelations of official perversion of justice and allegations regarding his personal life.
Hoover, without question, twisted the Federal Bureau of Investigation during his nearly half century as its director, from 1924 to his death in 1972, using the FBI to harass and terrorize innocent Americans who chose to exercise their freedom of speech in ways that he and his reactionary buddies didn’t like. While portraying himself as a tough G-man protecting America from its enemies, he vigorously used his power to subvert peace movements, blackmail politicians and spy on leaders such as Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., dragging his private life into the public sphere where the haters could happily chew on it and regurgitate the mash as if it meant something significant.
Which was doubly ironic given claims that Hoover was a homosexual and a cross-dresser himself, widely disseminated by Anthony Summers’ book Official and Confidential: The Secret Life of J. Edgar Hoover.
As one of those old-fashioned types obsessed by whether things are true or not, I should point out that despite Summers’ book and subsequent breathless claims, evidence that Hoover was gay is circumstantial: The lifelong bachelor was very close to aide Clyde Tolson. There were rumors. The two vacationed together and are buried side by side. Evidence he was a cross-dresser is flimsy enough for it to be an urban myth.
Not that it seems to matter; this is a powerful example how a colorful sexual detail catches more attention than political truth.
For instance: Summers’ book came out in 1993. In 1994, the principal at J. Edgar Hoover Elementary School in Schaumburg petitioned to change the school’s name.
“They wanted a more positive role model,” a District 54 spokesman said at the time in a newspaper article that asked the musical question: “How do you explain to kids in kindergarten to 6th grade that their school honors a man widely trumpeted in tell-all biographies and documentaries these days as a cross-dressing, wire-tapping, Constitution-stomping, blackmailing bully?”
“When they found out J. Edgar Hoover preferred evening gowns, they figured it wasn’t too good an example for kids to follow,” said Al Larson, Schaumburg village president since 1987. “Some of the things that came out — illegal taping — the school board decided if they were going to be Hoover, they’d rather have Herbert Hoover.”
It’s somehow reassuring that the school was embarrassed by the connection even
before the cross-dressing talk became public.
“I was involved with Hoover School for seven years, and we never did anything to acknowledge the school’s namesake,” Sharon Johnson, then PTA president, said in 1994. “It was always kind of a stigma.”
The FBI still grapples with that stigma.
“There’s been a lot of changes to the FBI since Director Hoover died,” said Ross Rice, spokesman for the FBI’s Chicago office. “Everyone that’s objective would say he was director for an excessively long period of time, which is why Congress passed a law limiting the director’s tenure to 10 years.”
Rice added Hoover still “is considered to be the father of modern law enforcement for the things he brought into play — forensics training, fingerprint identification, all a direct result of his foresight and leadership.”
To end with what’s truly important, the school changed its name again last year, to Hoover Math and Science Academy. The school of 580 students has labs, a community greenhouse that donates to a food pantry, a garden, plus solar panels on the roof.
“We’ve got a lot of great things going on in our building,” said principal Jake Chung. “A terrific staff, and the students are dedicated and hard-working, with a strong sense of curiosity for math and science.”
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