Clint Eastwood's J. Edgar Shows That Hunger for More Power Corrupts

J. Edgar Hoover's Fetish for Authority Was More Worrisome Than His Apocryphal Sexual Hangups


Editor's Note: This column is reprinted with permission of the Washington Examiner. Click here to read it at that site.

Sick of Hollywood's standard superhero fare? You could do worse than to take in J. Edgar, the new Clint Eastwood-directed biopic about the legendary FBI director who served eight presidents over nearly five decades.

"Served" isn't quite right—Hoover mainly served himself, and the dossiers he compiled through his agency's spying on top political figures made presidents fear to replace him, lest he, as Richard Nixon put it, "pull down the temple" in retaliation.

If, like me, you've been unconvinced by Leonardo DiCaprio's career transition from teen heartthrob to action hero, you may be surprised by how good he is here as an aging bureaucratic martinet, bent on eliminating all obstacles to his control.

And, at its best, the movie is a powerful cautionary tale about the dangers of government surveillance.

For my money, however, it spends too much time on Hoover's relationship with top aide and lifelong companion Clyde Tolson—an unconsummated romance, per Eastwood's take. The implication—that Hoover's (alleged) repression drove FBI oppression—muddles an important message with Freudian psychodrama.

After all, plenty of FBI agents with conventional family lives embraced COINTELPRO, the bureau's domestic espionage program, and presidents like Jack Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, who were, let's face it, hardly sexually repressed, were themselves enthusiastic wire-tappers.

When the steel industry raised prices in 1962, JFK and RFK ordered wiretaps on company executives and had FBI agents carry out dawn raids on their homes.

"Lyndon Johnson was the most demanding" when it came to requisitioning FBI political intelligence, federal judge Laurence Silberman discovered in 1974, when, as a deputy attorney general, he was tasked with reviewing the late Hoover's secret files. At Johnson's request, the FBI even bugged presidential candidate Sen. Barry Goldwater's campaign plane.

Hoover's hang-ups, whatever they might have been, weren't the problem. The problem was, as a Senate Select Committee investigating intelligence abuses concluded in 1976, that "intelligence activities were essentially exempted from the normal system of checks and balances…. such Executive power, not founded in law or checked by Congress or the courts, contained the seeds of abuse and its growth was to be expected."

In a two-year investigation, the Church Committee discovered just how deep the rot at the FBI ran. The COINTELPRO program went far beyond mere surveillance, with agents burglarizing homes and planting "evidence" designed to discredit "subversive" groups (broadly defined).

On one occasion, FBI agents kidnapped an antiwar activist to intimidate him into silence. On another, agents bugged Martin Luther King Jr.'s hotel rooms and sent him a tape containing evidence of his extramarital affairs.

With the tape was a letter saying "King, there is one thing left for you to do. You know what it is"—that is, commit suicide.

As the movie shows, in Hoover's day, domestic spying was a comparatively low-tech affair, a matter of index cards, and on-site wiretaps. Today, modern processing power and data-mining technology have dramatically enhanced federal spying capabilities, and post-Hoover legal restraints have been steadily weakened in the wake of 9/11.

The Justice Department's latest report to Congress shows that a record 14,212 American citizens and permanent residents had records of their financial, telephone and Internet activity seized by the FBI last year through extrajudicial National Security Letters.

That's not to suggest that the agency is currently engaged in Hoover-era criminality. But it's worth considering that, as my colleague Julian Sanchez points out, "the existence of such large databases in itself increases the risk of abuse."

"Information is power," Hoover intones in one of the film's key lines—and history warns us that power unchecked becomes power abused.

Gene Healy is a vice president at the Cato Institute and author of The Cult of the Presidency: America's Dangerous Devotion to Executive Power (Cato 2008). He is a columnist at the Washington Examiner, where a version of this article originally appeared. Click here to read it at that site.


NEXT: Judge Andrew Napolitano: Why Taxation is Theft, Abortion is Murder, & It's Dangerous to Be Right When the Gov't Is Wrong

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. LBJ when asked why he didnt fire hoover famously said that he (LBJ) would rather have hoover “inside the tent pissing out rather than outside pissing in”.

    1. Lots of presidents wanted to fire him but didn’t have the balls. G. Gordon Liddy wrote that a few times, Nixon called Hoover into his office to fire him, but got cold feet and had to listen for an hour or so as Hoover rambled on about Dillinger, Ma Barker, etc.

      1. Oh, what the hell? At least J. could give a decent blowjob…Now, Agnew? Let me tell you about Agnew….

        1. Anagrammatically, I don’t even have a penis.

          1. Spiro Agnew = Grow A Penis

            1. nattering nabob of negativism

              1. beat me too it.

              2. Piss Pants Playing Professor

        2. Read this in his voice…

  2. Question: Does Eastwood incorporate visual puns into the movie, such has having Hoover meet with a romantic liaison near the Washington Monument or the IRS offices?

  3. object to J. Edgar Hoover, but they have no problem using the bullying power of the agricultural city-STATE to protect their precious land enTITLEments, which are used to restrict the free movements of peoples by using arbitrary lines of demarcation.
    Officer, am I free to gambol?

    1. Why do you keep asking the Officer if you’re free to gambol? Just go and fucking do it, pussy.

      1. My little boy has always been such a pussy

      2. Re: Agammamon,

        Why do you keep asking the Officer if you’re free to gambol?

        White Imbecile would cry like a little girl if he had to shoo away the flies from the kill left by the coyotes if in his beloved “original affluent society”, A. Cut the little wussy girl some slack.

    2. Customer number: 1243576
      White Indian

      You have withdrawn 10 internets from you account

      You know have 285 internets remaining.

  4. My little boy has always been such a pussy

  5. Wait a minute, J. Edgar Hoover was gay?

    1. Rumor has it that J. Edgar was AIDS patient 0.

  6. Clint Eastwood would be a great director if he knew how to end a movie properly.

    1. You wanted a gun-fight between Sean Penn and Kevin Bacon at the end of Mystic River, too?

      1. I did want Penn to die. Didn’t really care how.

      2. I just wanted something, anything, interesting to happen in Mystic River. And I say this as a big fan. But wow is that movie overrated.

        1. Since this is a movie thread and you and others have referenced other films, I just wanted to say that I finally watched Twilight (the first in the series) and I really liked it. I went in with an open mind with no real idea what it would be like. I was impressed with the editing and pacing. I think many would find it too slow, but it worked for me. Anyone else see it?

          Also, when time permits, I might pull a Nichole and Kristen and write Dear H&R with a girl question, if that’s okay..

          1. Let’s hear the girl question!

            (Resists urge to joke that the problem probably relates to liking Twilight…)

            1. Maybe later. But in the meantime, here’s something for Nichole to consider:

              Groom hurls himself into river hours after marriage

              A Bronx groom hurled himself into the Harlem River over the weekend ? just hours after exchanging marriage vows with his longtime love.

              Fernando Brazier, 28, took the fatal leap after leaving a suicide note for his bride, Trudian Hay, at the front desk of the Radisson Hotel in New Rochelle, where the couple and family members spent the night after celebrating their wedding.

              “He said [in the note] he couldn’t take it anymore.

              1. ::cough:: hello ::cough::

                1. I can’t read every thread.

          2. My wife did the same thing while I was gone a while back. She said it was a pretty good movie. Lots of bad or juvenile books have been made into decent movies. Not sure why that couldn’t also be true with Twilight.

            And regardless of how good it is, my God is the star actress of those movies hot.

    2. I wanted to see a washed up Hillary Swank waiting tables at Hooters at the end of Million Dollar Baby.

      1. If there’s a God, you still may get your chance.

        1. I’m sure she just inked a deal for “Boys Don’t Cry II”

    3. Re: Poet Laureate sloopyinca,

      Clint Eastwood would be a great director if he knew how to end a movie properly.

      You wanted him to have a gun in “Grand Torino”? What would the outcome be then, if not the same?

      1. Gran Torino is the exception to the rule. Walt going out that way was perfect, although the reading of the will was a disappointment because it took away from the real ending.

        It would have been better if he had left a note and the title to the car for Thou and he showed up at the scene driving it.

        1. It was fun to watch the looks on the nasty son’s family’s faces. That was great. Granted, your way is more subtle. But I liked it as it was.

          1. Gran Torino is second only to The Outlaw Josey Wales in the Clint filmography.

            1. I agree. I like Unforgiven a lot too.

            2. Doin’ right ain’t got no end.

            3. yep josie, but 2d is GBU…maybe even first. yes definitely first cause of sergio

                1. The Good, the bad and the ugly.

                  1. I love that one a lot. But that is more because of Sergio Leone than Eastwood. Eastwood was great. But Leone’s creation of a fantasy west was just brilliant.

                  2. Which, btw, is, imho, # 3, right behind Josey and Gran Torino.

              1. We were talking about movies he directed, double triple-sphincter.

                1. No love for Firefox Pink Cadillacor Honkytonk Man?

                  Seriously, though, he was tits in Kelly’s Heroes.

                  1. Kelly’s Heroes is one of the most underrated movies of all time. Donald Southerland, CPT Stubing, Kojak and Don Rickles, what a great cast.

                  2. And don’t forget Dirty Harry. The sequels left a bit to be desired, but the original is still great. He also directed Bird about Charlie Parker which is really good. And White Hunter Black Heart which is little known but awesome. I also liked Play Misty for Me and Tightrope. So much good work.

                    1. You would have to be an insomniac to stay awake all the way through White Hunter Black Heart.

                    2. No way. That movie is great. He plays John Huston to a t in that movie.

                    3. I’d give it another shot, but fucking Netflix doesn’t have it available for streaming.

                      Oh, and lest we forget The Rookie, starring Charlie Sheen.

                    4. Pale Rider.

                    5. Good one EAP. And don’t forget The High Plains Drifter.

                    6. I liked Michal Moriarty in that film (also, he was so beautifully understated in Law and Order compared to Sam Waterson) and of course Megan Penny (the daughter).


                      I LOVE YOU!

                    7. Totally agree on yor Law & Order take.

                    8. “Deserve’s got nothing to do with it.”

                      What a great fucking line.

                    9. “Keep Pounding that Rock”

            4. ‘The Outlaw Josie Wales’ was the epitome of not knowing how to end a movie. I liked most of it, but it had the makings of two or three good movies, not one.

            5. Bronco Billy.

              Particularly the sadistic sheriff scene. And the whole thing at the insane asylum.

    4. Space Cowboys would have been better if they had burned up on the launch pad…and if that had been done during the opening credits.

    5. Hereafter would have been better if the French chick Matt Damon hooked up with at the end turned out to have been dead all along.

      Also with 20 more minutes of Bryce Dallas Howard footage.

      1. Matt Damon is the Robert Redford of our time. He gets cast as the perfect character in serious spy/political dramas where you couldn’t find a sense of humor using a microscope and a C.P. fucking A.

        Everyone considers him a kind of political luminary. I expect Damon to retire to Telluride or some such place and spend his retirement talking about Carbon Credits.

        1. MATT DAMON!

  7. Stop appearing(I won’t call it acting) in movies Leo. You hit your high mark with This Boy’s Life.

    1. Some people would say it was as Romeo, but I get your point.

      1. He peaked in Wat’s Eating Gilbert Grape?

        1. Seriously? Motherfucker was solid in The Departed, The Aviator and Catch Me If You Can.

          1. Peaked. Go watch Gilbert Grape again. His character is 100% believable and creates an incredible degree of discomfort.

  8. MATT DAMON!!!!!!!! as Francois Pienaar? Um, OK?

    Oh, MATT DAMON!!!

  9. You guys are only able to comment on blogs because of your literary privilege status.

  10. I picked the wrong damn day to show up late to work. A thread about Dallas, and Sons of Anarchy. I live in Dallas, and watch SOA! I had great contributions to make!

    1. I missed the JFK thread too. Dallas and kicking around pathetic baby boomers. It was like two for one.

      1. Stephen King was just here talking about his new book, which involves going back in time and saving JFK, and he spoke on that exact topic (atmosphere of hate, etc.)

        He spent months here researching it, and said he does believe Dallas had a poisonous atmosphere at the time, but that he believes, unlike some other places, that the event shocked us into immediately going into strong self-reflection, and coming to terms with what had been going on, and dispelling it.

        He likened it to Selma, where he has also done some work, and says that there are absolutely no racial problems in that city at all anymore. The people have completely come to terms with their past, healed, and moved on.


        In the new book, even though King is an admitted lefty, the act of saving JFK royally fucks up the future (our present) for the worse.

        1. Ken Grimwood wrote that book 20 years ago. It’s called Replay. The protagonist attempts saving JFK several times and each time the ramifications get worse.

          1. So, like the “Butterfly Effect,” except without subjecting people to the acting skills of Ashton Kutcher?

            1. Essentially, though written with a baby boomer audience in mind.

              1. Good news! According to the wiki, there’s currently a film in pre-production with Ben Affleck set to star!

                Robert Zemeckis is in talks to direct.

                1. Good news!


                  1. Hahaha, I feast on your tears.

                    1. They are salty and hammy. So there is that.

            2. the acting skills of Ashton Kutcher?

              The who-what, now?

        2. If Dallas had such a poisonous atmosphere, how is it that it voted Democrat in the 1960 election? Johnson was VP for God’s sake. And while Dallas was pretty southern in its views on race, it was certainly no worse than places like Atlanta or other parts of the deep South and Kennedy was hardly a civil rights President. It just doesn’t make any sense.

          1. Because the left needs to think that the other team killed Kennedy, because for these people, everything is team politics and team politics is everything.

            I hear Frum is writing a column on how Oswald was a libertarian right now as we speak.

            1. Like I said on the JFK thread, it has been nearly 50 years. Were people in the 1950s still obsessed with the McKinley assassination? At some point, there are no more lessons to be learned.

          2. Eh, it was pretty widely known that civil rights were on the “to-do” list for JFK later on. A lot of what LBJ got passed was on the basis of his memory, since most of it was sketched out during his presidency.

            That’s still a pretty weak straw to grasp though, and I don’t buy that the “atmosphere” had anything to do with it.

        3. bah – King’s hit-to-miss ratio is about 50%. Which is better than most authors, especially ones who write on that scale, but still…sounds like a miss.

          1. My wife just finished it last night and said it was, “alright”.

        4. Kryten you’ve bollocks it up again.

    2. Sorry, Jimbo.

      By the way, I need to tell you a story about a six-pack of Firestone beer, a FedEx driver, a cop and a nervous man.

      1. Somehow I don’t think I’m going to like this story, though I hope it ends with you getting a full refund.

        1. I went to FedEx and shipped the six-pack ground. It was cheaper and seemed smarter since I don’t think bottled beer flies very well.
          About a week later, after tracking it to the station in Dallas, I noticed that it was tracking back to me.
          I called FedEx, and they said the package had become damaged and was being returned.
          After 5 days in the LA center, it was sent back to my town and was brought back to me by a friendly FedEx driver…and a fucking Visalia police officer.
          I was lectured about how it is a federal crime to transport or ship beer across state lines with the intent to give it to someone else. I was also told that I could face a $10,000 fine and up to 5 years in jail for what I had done.
          Bricks were shat.
          After a call to my lawyer and an explanation to the cop about the definition of mens rea, I was “let off with a warning.”

          Needless to say, I’m not too sure how I can get you the beer.

          1. Somehow I’m not surprised that there are rules, which would put you in a cage for 5 years, for the horrible act of shipping a legal substance to someone else who is legally allowed to possess it.

            You got your money back though, right?

            1. Actually, I don’t think I did.

              Motherfuckers owe me.

              1. I suspect your ex-wife was involved in this somehow.

                1. Interesting theory.

                  [smoke billows from ears]

                2. Interesting theory.

                  [smoke billows from ears]

          2. WTF? I’ve shipped beer FedEx several times. The beer geek in me that can’t get Firestone (unless it’s shipped) needs to know which particular Firestone product you are talking about.

            1. 3 Double Barrel Ale and 3 Union Jack. A Union Jack is what busted open during shipping, BTW.

              Pick up the phone and call FedEx. See what their policy on shipping beer is.

              1. Or you could read it here.

                As far as the law goes, I’d have been OK if I were a foreign drug dealer with guns, but since I’m just a measly taxpaying american sending a friend a few pops, I’m Al fucking Capone.

                1. If they let people like you ship beer, how would liquor store owners and beer distributes stay in business? Those guys paid good money for Congress. And you better believe they expect results.

              2. Gah! A fallen soldier…respect. I’ve not had the privilege to try those brews, but I’ve put down many a Double Jack. I know the policy/law, and it’s a shitty one. My dad works for FedEx, so I ship stuff pretty cheaply. And obsessively pack the shit out of the bottles.

    3. We spotted Epi at Pony last Saturday. He was wearing leather and everything, dancing around like Vito from The Sopranos!

        1. Bullshit. That’s +1 for Jimbo.

          1. Fine, fine. Fuck you, Jim!

            1. You have just made a very powerless enemy!

              1. Our animosity knows only some bounds!

                1. “Highlander was a documentary, and the events were filmed in real time.”

                2. It’s not possible to read this without hearing the voice of Ignignokt.

                  I’m standing here and I’m watching you blow it

                  1. “Daddy no want me! I’m gonna take a bus to Reno!”

                    1. Doesn’t take much to make you boys dance.
                      Epi, leave the chaps home next time. Ewww.

  11. As far as we know, JEH never sent the FBI to burn down a church with kids inside.

    He may have been a blackmailing SOB to presidents and such, but at least he had some standards.

    1. Key words being, “As far as we know…”

      I wouldn’t put anything past that man, esp. towards the end, when he was certifiable.

      1. He was the very embodiement of the truism that force atrracts men of low character. Good, decent, honest people just do not go in for government work.

  12. The movie actually gave me slightly more favorable opinion of Hoover. I came in thinking he had zero redeeming qualities but left saying “hey, at least he contributed a great deal to forensic science.”

    1. And he established the card catalog system for the Library of Congress.

      Seriously, what has always puzzled me about Hoover was the degree of loyalty and deference that he inspired in the FBI agents on the ground during his time. I have met agents in that era who simply treat him like a father or grandfather and only speak of him in the hush reverent tones one speaks in when talking about some heroic member of the family.

      That is the one thing I wished the movie had covered.

  13. I concur with your conclusions and will eagerly look forward to your future updates. The usefulness and significance is overwhelming and has been invaluable to me!

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.