Tuesday, January 21, 2014

The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover's Secret FBI, by Betty Medsger

Knopf, 2014
596 pp


 "There are certain points in history where a society goes so wrong, and there are certain people who will say, 'I won't stand for that...I will risk career, life, limb, family, freedom...And I will take this risk, and I will go and do it.' "
                                                                   -- David Kairys (538)

A couple of weeks ago in between airplane changes I caught a brief glimpse of a TV  interview of some sort and heard the words "FBI office," "70s" and "burglary," and I mentally promised myself I'd check on whatever that might have been when I had some free time.  When I finally got the chance, I put those exact words into google and came up with The Burglary, by Betty Medsger.  Looking at the synopsis, I knew I absolutely had to read this book.  Now that I've finished it, I'm recommending it to everyone.  It's that good.

It's not that  J. Edgar Hoover's abuses of power have been a secret up until the publication of this book; au contraire: there have been several  very good books published by credible authors on just how far reaching those abuses have been, as well as a number of documentaries about the same.  However, if you're thinking that this is just another book out to trash J.Edgar Hoover, so why bother, think again.  Ms. Medsger  starts her work from an entirely different place.  Her focus is on how the burglary of the files from a small FBI station in Media, Pennsylvania committed by a small group of nonviolent, antiwar activists led to the "opening of the door"  of J. Edgar Hoover's "Secret FBI."   It was through the theft and then publication of most of these files (the ones containing ongoing "real" criminal investigations were not publicized)  that the public got its first glimpse of how Hoover and his agents were actively violating the constitutional rights of American citizens through surveillance, "dirty tricks," and other less than above-board measures.  These files revealed that
"...there were two FBIs -- the public FBI Americans revered as their protector from crime, arbiter of values, and defender of citizens' liberties, and the Secret FBI.  This FBI...usurped citizens' liberties, treated black citizens as if they were a danger to society, and used deception, disinformation and violence as tools to harass, damage, and -- most important -- silence people whose political opinions the director opposed,"
and revealed an FBI that was "obsessed with monitoring what seemed to be, in many cases, lawful dissent." The publication of the information discovered in these files, aside from revealing a "government agency, once the object of universal respect and awe," that had for years been "reaching out with tentacles to get a grasp on, or lead into, virtually every part of American society," also became the catalyst for the first-ever real investigation into the activities of the Bureau and more pointedly, those of its Director; the revelation of just what the FBI with its squeaky-clean image was really up to also started the first national dialogue regarding the fine line between domestic intelligence vs. civil liberties  in the context of a free and democratic society.

America in 1970 was an "extraordinary time in the life of the country."  Nixon had let loose the news about the US invasion of Cambodia after the secret bombings there, setting off another wave of antiwar protests, more "than ever before, including in towns and on campuses where antiwar protests had never taken place." Kent State was put under martial law, and four peacefully-demonstrating students were shot  by National Guards who had been ordered onto the campus, "the first time Americans were killed while protesting the war."  Unarmed African-American students in Jackson, Mississipi also met their their deaths at the hands of law enforcement; then shortly afterwards, a number of students were beaten with crowbars and other tools by "hundreds of construction workers" during a noontime vigil for peace.  Onlookers who tried to help were also beaten; the construction workers were "honored" by Nixon at the White House later for their "patriotism." When the future organizer of the Media break in, William Davidon, learned that the American government was "suppressing Americans' right to express dissent," he realized that there was a major problem here: 
"how could a government that claimed to be fighting a war for people's freedom in another country at the same time suppress its own people's right to dissent?"
Davidon felt that he had to have some sort of evidence of active suppression of dissent, and after Hoover made some powerful but unsubstantiated accusations about antiwar dissenters Philip and Daniel Berrigan, and Congress quickly supported the Director when his actions were challenged, Davidon realized that he'd probably find the evidence he needed in an FBI office. Gathering other individuals, he organized a nonviolent break in of the small FBI station in Media, PA, timed to coincide with the upcoming Ali/Frazier fight, "the most anticipated heavyweight title fight" since 1938's Louis v. Schmeling bout.

The book takes the reader through the burglary and through what each of the burglars interviewed went through in the aftermath as the FBI pulled out all the stops to find out who'd committed this act;  the author also examines the history of J.Edgar Hoover and the building of his empire within the FBI and his own unchecked growth of power; she examines what kinds of information the burglars found and publicized, including a word not seen before by the public: COINTELPRO and then the journalist who waged a years-long battle with the FBI to get to the root of exactly what COINTELPRO was; the post-publication call for investigation into the Bureau and into Hoover, especially after his death;  she also questions and tries to understand  the long period where there was virtually no oversight by Congress or anyone else for that matter.  Later, Ms. Medsger delves into the problems of a modern FBI whose bureaucratic structure is largely dominated by people of the same minds as Hoover -- and how our current politicians are using this agency and others to swing the pendulum back to a focus on domestic spying once again, especially against ordinary citizens whose opinions may not match with those who run our government.

Above all, much as in Tim Weiner's Enemies: A History of the FBI, the point is driven home that while there clearly is a need for national security, there comes a point when people have to understand that there's a fine line between protection of natural interests and the abuse or potential loss of civil liberties guaranteed by our Constitution.  And before anyone says "yeah, well, I've got nothing to hide so I don't care if these agencies know everything about me," think about another point raised in this book:  perhaps there may come a time in the future when, as Ms. Medsger notes, some form of tyrannical government forms -- and then the seemingly benign information that our intelligence-gathering agencies have gathered can be used against citizens with unlike minds.  I'm seriously NOT a conspiracy nut by any stretch of the imagination, but it is really good food for thought.

Obviously, there's much more to this book than I can possibly set down here so it's one that people must read for themselves to experience the full wham! this book delivers.  I hope it's not simply a matter of preaching to the choir, because The Burglary deserves the widest audience possible.  Ms. Medsger has done a most thorough job here, and is fair in her assessments of how and why Hoover could get away with what he did for so long.  Reader response so far has been very favorable, and like most people who've come away very impressed, I highly, highly recommend this book.

 as an addendum, I somehow bought two copies of this book, so if you live in the US and you'd like my extra copy, be the first to leave a comment here on this post saying you want it. I will pay postage; all you have to do is to email me with an address. 

Friday, January 17, 2014

Kansas City Lightning: The Rise and Times of Charlie Parker, by Stanley Crouch

Harper, 2013
365 pp


"What he gave the horn, it gave back. What it gave him, he never forgot."

The ultimate reading day for me includes the following: rain (which we get a lot of down here in the south), a cup or two or three of strong black coffee (no pods -- I love freshly ground) and most important, the jazz music playing in the background.  One of my favorite musicians is Charlie Parker, about whom this book was written.  I have been wanting to read a biography about Parker for a long time; when Kansas City Lightning was published last year, I scooped it up.  But here's the thing:  this is less of a biography than I thought it would be.  At first I was disappointed, but I kept flipping back to the book cover with its subtitle "The Rise and Times of Charlie Parker," and came to terms with the fact that a standard biography was not the author's intention.  I say that up front so that if you start reading and Parker disappears for long periods of book space, don't despair and keep going. The end product as a whole is informative and frankly, quite a ride, one not solely for the jazz lover.  It also speaks to African-American culture of the time, and expands out into a look at  blues, swing and jazz in the context of a wider American culture.    

Starting out at New York's Savoy Ballroom, the "Madison Square Garden of the battles of the bands", the story takes you back in time to the Kansas City and the origins of Parker's eventual rise to fame.  It was a place where musicians held court at 18th Street and Vine, where the blues morphed into a new form of jazz.  The book is filled with the people, music, culture etc that influenced Parker, often related via interview by people who were there who had a connection with him. There are also times where the author goes off on serious but informative tangents and  not just in the world of music: he spends time talking about the Buffalo Soldiers, the impact of D.W.Griffith's "Birth of a Nation," which portrayed African American men as the white man's worst enemies vis-a-vis white women; there is a also a brief history of minstrelsy which eventually serious African-American musicians refused to be a part of; the rise and downfall of boxer Jack Johnson and his later betrayal of Joe Louis among many others.  But it's when he's into the music and the musicians that the writing shines;  the descriptions of after-hours jam sessions where musicians were free to be themselves are amazing.  Even though there are a number of gaps in Parker's personal life story here (as the author notes, it's largely because so much of his early years remain undocumented), the beauty of this book lies in the world surrounding Parker and how it influenced his near fanatic drive to create something new, something  already inside him needing to come out. 

While sometimes the writing meanders, when he's ready to bring Parker back into the scene, he's in tight control.  Some of these parts  are reimagined, while others are based on personal memories and research. At the same time, he lets the reader know when discrepancies arise -- for example, stories told by Parker's first wife Rebecca don't always mesh with the eyewitness accounts of her sister.  But while in places the writing might strike an off-key note (for me there were a few, especially when he equates "Charlie's curiosity about narcotics" to his affection for Sherlock Holmes mysteries) taken as a whole, the book has a cool flow to it, filled with vivid jargon in a style that is truly his own. 

Reader response has been generally favorable toward this book; after perusing several professional reviews, the same is true on that level as well.  I also discovered that Kansas City Lightning is just one of a two-volume set, so I'll sit tight and eagerly anticipate the next book.  In the meantime, I can very highly recommend this book, especially to fans of jazz and of Charlie Parker, but also to anyone who is into African-American history.  A definite no-miss.