In the early 1970s, the Federal Bureau of Investigation considered it pertinent biographical information that The New York Times' Tom Wicker suffered from “mental halitosis.” Since this is not, strictly speaking, a medical condition, they qualified the classification with “apparently.”
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Internal documents obtained by Capital New York through the Freedom of Information Act reveal that the bureau began keeping tabs on Wicker, who died last November, after he published a wide-ranging article for the New York Times Magazine asking, “What Have They Done Since They Shot Dillinger?”
The 1969 article took the F.B.I. to task for expending its resources on bank robberies and sensational murders that garnered them publicity while doing little to no work investigating criminal syndicates and the nuanced financial crimes of much more consequence to the national public interest. Wicker laid the blame at the feet of the man who embodied the bureau—its one and only director, J. Edgar Hoover—for being a practiced P.R. man more than a crime fighter, too concerned with bureaucratic protocol, too slow on civil rights, and too long in the job to right the bureau’s course.
With that article, the F.B.I. began a file on a man they had ignored as “a screwball” despite his having been the Washington bureau chief for the most influential newspaper in the country. It would contain rumors from an unknown third-hand source, a hunt for ulterior motives, and the director’s general disdain. In short, Wicker’s file provides a case study of the personal terms in which the bureau dealt with critical journalists in the final years of Hoover’s reign.
ON MARCH 30, 1970, A LETTER REACHED HOOVER at his desk in F.B.I. headquarters. It had been expedited in its delivery via the director’s “Special Correspondents List,” from a retired special agent named Leon A. Francisco. Francisco felt it his duty to report a conversation he’d had with “an acquaintance of mine here in Washington, Connecticut … a professional writer,” in which he learned that Wicker had received a $60,000 advance—approximately $350,000 today—to write a book “which will attack you and the Bureau.”
“The book is to come out within about six months, and, presumably, will be along the scurrilous lines of Wicker’s New York Times Magazine article of December 28, 1969,” Francisco wrote. His writer friend did not know the name of the publisher, only that his source was reliable and that “a $60,000.00 advance is an unusually large one.”
In an accompanying memo, assistant director for the Criminal Records division Thomas E. Bishop noted that a review of bureau files showed “previous cordial relations” with the professional writer—whose identity was not released as it might constitute an invasion of privacy—“whom we have assisted in connection with his writing.” As for his recommendation on Wicker, Bishop wrote, “This matter is being followed by the Crime Records Division with a view toward obtaining an advance copy of Wicker’s forthcoming book.”
This was not the first they’d heard of a Wicker book. An earlier F.B.I. memo recorded that on the morning of February 9, 1970, Wicker’s research assistant—name redacted—called to request an interview with someone knowledgeable at the bureau to discuss items for a possible book. Wicker, the caller said, “wanted to get the “other side,” that is “both sides,” of the various matters discussed by Wicker concerning the Director and the F.B.I. in the magazine article.”
The caller, who identified himself as “regularly employed as a reporter for Congressional Quarterly,” was likely Dupre Jones, who had managed the Times’ Washington research library and assisted Wicker on his 1968 book, JFK and LBJ. Jones passed away in January.
Observations from assistant director Bishop were that Wicker did not want to get the other side “in regards to the half truths, innuendoes and outright misrepresentations” in his article. He advised against a meeting with Wicker’s research man.
Handwritten at the bottom of the memo is Director Hoover’s verdict: “Tell [name redacted] no + that Wicker should have done his research first before he wrote the hatchet article. H.”
In fact, another bureau memo indicates that Wicker did his due diligence: His secretary phoned the director’s office five weeks in advance of the article’s publication. Hoover declined to speak with him then, too.
ON NOVEMBER 19, 1970, THE TIMES PRINTED A WICKER column titled “Calvin Coolidge’s Revenge,” after Hoover’s latest broadside against his critics. Wicker playfully mocked the director’s hypersensitivity, but noted “this kind of thing stops being funny when it is realized that the F.B.I. is a police agency” with a mountain of personal dossiers on American citizens. He concluded that no president would dare fire him or even simply “tell the old boy to shut up.”
Hoover had the article duplicated for nearly every high-ranking bureau member listed on his interoffice stationery, including a note, in excellent penmanship: “This jerk has mental halitosis,” with his powerful “H” struck beneath.
The column appeared just as Hoover received an update from Special Agent Francisco, with more news from the professional writer. “[Name redacted] informed me yesterday that the publishing of the book had been held up for reasons not known to him, but that now his agent has advised him that the book is being prepared for publication on an unknown date by Random House.”
The publisher identified, they now had leverage. Milton A. Jones, a top aide in the Crime Records division, wrote in a memo, “As you are aware, Random House published Don Whitehead’s 'The F.B.I. Story,' as well as a young reader’s edition of this work, and 'J. Edgar Hoover on Communism,' and has indicated an interest in publishing a book by the Director on the New Left movement.”
Jones also dug up some pertinent information on Wicker at the request of Clyde Tolson, Hoover’s faithful Number Two. The memo included a brief sketch of Wicker’s early life, career, and his relationship with the F.B.I.
“The Bureau has never conducted an investigation concerning Wicker,” the final memo said. “Files do reflect that he was characterized by at least one associate as a 'screwball.' In 1957, he reportedly went over Great Falls in the Potomac River and received considerable publicity.” Wicker, then a correspondent for the Winston-Salem Journal, capsized in his canoe and became one of two people known to have survived the 76-foot plunge and its multiple drops over massive, craggy rocks.
More to the point of Jones’ memo was determining the source of Wicker’s discontent with the F.B.I. It reported that Wicker had taken his son and a group of boys on a tour of bureau headquarters in 1967, and that the journalist had once been invited to a party for a Communist leader held at the Cuban mission to the United Nations (it could not be confirmed whether he attended). The memo catalogued his criticisms of Hoover going back five years, taking offense at a 1968 column that suggested President-elect Nixon could have gotten dovish presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy to join his administration if he had named McCarthy director of the F.B.I. and Hoover ambassador to the United Nations.
Yet finding no outwardly symptoms for his criticisms, Jones pointed the finger at two familiar culprits: the Kennedys and the Times.
“A review of [Bureau files] fails to indicate any obvious reasons for Wicker’s antagonism towards the F.B.I. Would appear he is strongly entrenched in the Kennedy political camp and the longtime antipathy of 'The New York Times' is well known.”
It continued, “Wicker wrote the introduction to [name redacted’s] current book and probably wrote most of the book for [redacted].” This almost certainly refers to John Osborne’s first annual installment of The Nixon Watch, which had just been published.
And, as with many small insults the director bothered to write, Hoover’s diagnosis became F.B.I. dogma. Regarding the “Coolidge’s Revenge” piece, the memo on Wicker to the bureau files would read, “In connection with this column the Director commented that Wicker is apparently suffering from mental halitosis.”
"MENTAL HALITOSIS" WAS A FAVORITE INSULT OF HOOVER'S, one he used many times over the years. That it was directed at Wicker was originally reported by Anthony Summers in his 1993 book Official and Confidential: The Secret Life of J. Edgar Hoover, along with other instances of the Director’s hyperbolic media commentary. Drew Pearson was “a jackal” and Jimmy Wechsler “a rat,” while Walter Lippmann was the “coyote of the press” and Art Buchwald a “sick alleged humorist.” Hoover did worse to others, maliciously divulging secrets, like telling the White House that columnist Joe Alsop was gay.
More slights toward Wicker would follow and be filed away for reference. Hoover distributed a 1971 William F. Buckley, Jr., column that accused Wicker of selective reporting on the prison death of Black Panther George Jackson. “This clearly portrays Wicker’s bias + tendency to angle the real facts. H.” He had this to say about a 1971 Wicker article in the Boston Globe: “The usual Wicker lies interspersed with innumerable “faceless informers.” H.” (Along with that clipping, the name of the paper’s editor was attached.)
In the meantime, the F.B.I.’s concerns over a Wicker book had been put to rest. A December 11, 1970 memo from Bishop relayed a conversation he had had with someone—name redacted—at Random House, who “emphatically stated that Random House was not in the process of publishing any book written by Wicker and would not under any circumstances publish a book by him that would be critical of the Bureau or the Director.” (Though Wicker may have explored the idea, his high-dollar book advance was nothing but a rumor.)
The redacted Random House employee “stated that he would like Mr. Hoover to know that he considers the Director a “friend” and would never publish any book critical of him.” Furthermore, the source “stated that he saw Wicker a week or so ago at a cocktail party, at which time Wicker told him he was very busy with his normal duties for the “New York Times” and that he has no time to write any books.” Yet, the Random House source couldn’t rule out whether Wicker might be collecting material for a future publication.
WICKER'S FILE TOOK A TURN IN TONE after Hoover’s death in May of 1972. The article clippings with reassuring letters from Hoover loyalists around the country stopped. Wicker continued to make mentions of the bureau in his reporting, but with Hoover gone, it had stopped paying attention.
Then in June 1974, Wicker called F.B.I. headquarters to request some interviews for a follow-up to his 1969 Times magazine piece. An internal memo said, “He intends that the current article … to be a comparison of the Bureau today with what it was at the time of the previous article.”
The memo revisited the Wicker file compiled in the Hoover years and then made these observations: “Although experience demands that we be guarded in our approach to Mr. Wicker, his requests afford us an excellent opportunity to demonstrate the professional validity of the “open stance” policy with the media and to present our side of many crucial issues to a major news outlet.”
Two weeks later, a date was set for Wicker to interview the F.B.I. director.
The article never ran.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.