What Really Happened Between J. Edgar Hoover and MLK Jr.

Clint Eastwood's J. Edgar presents an understandably fictionalized portrait of the notorious FBI director. The real history, though, is more interesting

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Warner Bros

J. Edgar is the biographical drama one would expect Hollywood to make.

It trots out all the familiar lore and long-standing gossip about the man who ran the Federal Bureau of Investigation from 1924 until he died in 1972: He was fixated with anti-communism, maintained confidential files on prominent Americans, and perhaps was a closet homosexual.

But the film misses the opportunity to tell a story that most of America hasn't heard—probably because it's easier to digest the accepted wisdom that J. Edgar Hoover is "diabolical" (as producer Brian Grazer recently called him) than tarnish the mythology of 1960s-era heroes, the Kennedys and Martin Luther King, Jr.

"I have been seriously misquoted in the matter of slurs against the FBI," King told Hoover in 1964.

If there is anything surprising about the film it's how even-handed the picture is, especially given the script by Dustin Lance Black, which reads like an indictment of Hoover. Credit for the restraint goes to director Clint Eastwood. For example, in a scene where Hoover tries on his mother's dress, moviegoers are left wondering whether the character does this because he's a latent cross-dresser or merely longs to be close to her.

When it comes to the real J. Edgar Hoover, separating fact from conjecture is challenging because he had so many enemies. Post-Cold War Soviet Union archives reveal that the KGB employed a decades-long systematic campaign of character assassination and disinformation against him. One wonders how much of that may have been inadvertently mainlined into the more sordid accounts of Hoover "history," perhaps even in this picture. Some dramatic license is permitted for films "based on a true story," but there's one important plot line of the picture that's flat-out fictional and not open to guesswork: Hoover's tumultuous relationship with King.

Moviegoers who see J. Edgar will leave the theater with the impression that Hoover drove the surveillance of the young civil rights leader - ordering agents to bug his hotel room and wiretap his telephone calls - because he considered the minister a threat to national security. According to the movie, Hoover persuades his reluctant boss, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, to sign off on such procedures. But records from Freedom of Information Act disclosures and the pioneering research of civil rights historian David J. Garrow tell a far different, and more insightful, story.

In the summer of 1963, Hoover wasn't the only one preoccupied with King. So was the Kennedy White House. That was because one of King's closest advisers, Stanley David Levison, and another man who ran one of King's offices, Jack O'Dell, were secret Communist Party operatives. For at least a year, the president and his attorney general brother had been receiving classified data, transcripts of wiretapped telephone calls (which they sanctioned), and intelligence reports confirming the men's affiliation with the Soviet-controlled Party. This information also chronicled the work they were then doing for King.

President Kennedy didn't worry about an espionage leak, or that the men would necessarily insert propaganda into King's speeches—although some King advisers apparently did see to it that King's plans to criticize communism ("that it was an alien philosophy contrary to us," is how King said he intended to describe it) were scrapped. Rather, the president feared the political fall-out that would come if it were revealed that the nation's foremost civil rights leader had advisers with ties to the Soviet Union. In May, President Kennedy told his brother he didn't want the minister anywhere near him. "King is so hot that it's like Marx coming to the White House," he says on a White House tape.

But by June, the president had grown weary of the risks King was causing him and decided to have a come-to-Jesus meeting with the minister in Washington. In the Rose Garden, he exhorted King that Levison, was, as Kennedy described him, a "Kremlin agent." Get rid of him, demanded the president.

King looked the Kennedy in the eye and promised he would. But King merely pretended to break off contact with Levison while actually continuing to confer with him through intermediaries. The president, however, was aware of King's back-channel communication arrangement with Levison—because his brother had already authorized wiretaps and bugs on Levison himself. Distressed, the Kennedy wondered what else King was hiding.

Later that summer, because of White House-authorized surveillance on at least one King associate, the Kennedys learned the minister was having extra-marital affairs. When tape recordings of King's "bedroom activities" surfaced, J. Edgar Hoover apparently listened. Leonardo DiCaprio deftly plays the curious old man hearing these tapes. (What Eastwood finessed is an improvement from Black's screenplay that reads, "Hoover is listening, his forehead is misty, he may even be masturbating.") In fact, the recordings revolted Hoover.

J. Edgar leads us to believe that all of this voyeurism came at the instigation of Hoover. But the date of October 10, 1963, offers a different narrative: that was when Attorney General Robert Kennedy, angered by King's recalcitrance to comply with the president's demand to oust Levison, ordered Hoover to have bureau agents wiretap King's telephones, including the one in the preacher's Atlanta home.

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John Meroney is completing a book, Rehearsals for a Lead Role: Ronald Reagan in The Hollywood Wars.

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