When being named was being shamed

Russell Baker

May 11, 1993|By Russell Baker

THE latest J. Edgar Hoover news is that Walt Disney, too, was in the late FBI director's pocket.

Ronald Reagan we already knew about. Both were name namers for Hoover.

Name namers were people who named names, and yes, I know it doesn't make any sense, but that's what they did -- named names.

Well, you had to be there. On second thought, you're lucky if you didn't have to be there. People who were there lived in constant danger of being named.

Once you were named, newspapers printed your name in headlines that said, "Named."

Let's say you were Swanson. The headline would say, "Swanson Named." Or the active voice might be used if the namer had famous-person headline appeal. If Walt Disney were the namer, and headline space was sufficient, it might say, "Disney Names Swanson."

Disney, of course, never appeared in any real headlines as a namer. He operated under cover, a secret namer as it were, naming names to designated secret FBI name receivers.

The named were the damned of the 1940s and 1950s. People who had been named were apt to be shadowed by gumshoes, fired from their jobs, browbeaten by politicians, slandered as dangerous conspirators, indicted, humiliated -- in short, made to regret the day they were named.

Sometimes potential namees could escape the worst results of a naming by agreeing to do some expiatory naming of their own for the politicians, or the police, or the bureaucrats who were threatening to have them named.

In this early form of plea bargaining the potential namee appeared in a public form to announce that he had once been so despicable that he fully deserved to be named, and that to atone for his odious past he had decided to name all with whom he had shared that odium.

This often earned him absolution from the more severe $l punishments inflicted on namees, though some who took this way out haven't been permitted to forget that they once failed some ultimate test of character.

Naming had to do with fear of communism, which led to a breakdown of civility. People were desperate to know the identities of those said to be plotting the Republic's overthrow, and in the resulting orgies of exposure -- or naming, if you will -- little attempt was made to distinguish those who were actually doing the Devil's work from those who weren't.

For the political right, naturally eager to put the left in bad odor, the naming frenzy was a bonanza. The press' role was anything but honorable. It turned the word "named" into a shorthand headline synonym for "possibly treasonous" and, with few exceptions, made little effort to distinguish between the named who committed criminal activity and the named who merely held unfashionable political views.

Walt Disney is said to have become a secret namer for Hoover around 1940, perhaps in reaction to Hollywood's vicious labor battles of that era in which communists were often influential in unions while mobsters operated on behalf of the studios.

Ronald Reagan volunteered to name for Hoover after becoming alarmed by communist influence in the Screen Actors Guild.

Both Mr. Reagan and Disney doubtless believed at the time that they were being good patriotic soldiers.

What seems right and good at one time, however, may look embarrassing and even shameful after 30 or 40 turns around the sun have disposed of old horrors. With Disney the shameful is tinged with the comical, for he apparently made a deal with the FBI director, part of which gave Hoover the right to review some Disney creative material.

So Disney apparently was not only serving as a secret namer, he was also giving the police an opening to censor his work. Hoover, never shy about seizing an offered power, tested Disney by asking for a few small changes here and there.

One such request was for a change -- how about this, Mouseketeers! -- in an episode of "The Mickey Mouse Club."

Disney obliged.

It's hard to say whether this shows what a terrifying figure Hoover was in his glory days or how craven an artist can become when he volunteers to become a secret tool for the police.

This sort of thing poisons a past that once seemed charming. Walt, you've spoiled it.

Russell Baker is a columnist for the New York Times.

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