Bernstein and the FBI

August 02, 1994|By GARRY WILLS

CHICAGO — Chicago. -- Thanks to the American Civil Liberties Union in Los Angeles, the FBI has turned over its massive files on the spying effort against Leonard Bernstein, one that lasted almost 40 years.

What is revealed follows a familiar pattern. Its familiarity should not dull us to its importance. During World War II, when Russia was our ally, the FBI was already collecting material on anyone who seemed too friendly toward that ally. Bernstein, because of his musical contacts, was one of those.

Bernstein was also a liberal who supported worthy causes in the arts and in humanitarian endeavors. The FBI tried to prove that he was a communist. When it failed at that task, it did everything it could to show that he was a vaguely dangerous man, a bad influence, not the kind of American J. Edgar Hoover approved of.

Most of this activity was not a collection of evidence for possible use in court or in official proceedings of any kind. It was a form of harassment, denigration and subtle sabotage meant to destroy his career. Presidents were warned against him, to cut down on his performances at public events. His travel was hampered. Fake demonstrators were mobilized against him. Every opportunity was taken to find out damaging things about him. Plans were formed to leak defamatory information to the press.

One huge gap exists in the files released. Anyone who knew Bernstein well knew that Bernstein was bisexual and had an increasingly intense gay life. Recent biographies dwell on this aspect of him. It is impossible to believe that those who spied on him obsessively for years did not.

Yet there is no mention of this in the FBI records given over to the ACLU. I presume the FBI justifies this in terms of not vilifying the man himself, or any third parties involved -- a belated nicety entirely out of character for the FBI. What was it doing all that time but, precisely, trying to vilify him and his associates?

Bernstein had the talent, temperament and contacts to succeed against all the efforts of the FBI to undermine his support, to blight his success. But how many less well-known performers did have their professional careers poisoned at the margin that could make the difference between success and failure? That we can never know. There is evidence that the FBI pursued ordinary people as well as famous ones. (They even kept a file on me.)

The thing that always impresses me at the release of FBI files is the sheer waste of it all, in money, manpower, energy and idealism. How many FBI agents of greater sensitivity either quit the bureau or gave up their ideals in such a disanimating atmosphere? The FBI boasted of its intensive agent training, yet these ''crack'' agents wasted endless man-hours in the pursuit of harmless people, the spinning of fantasies, the effort of manipulating public opinion.

The thousands of people surveyed over whole lifetimes, the refusal to give up on any target who must be destroyed, the contempt for the American people -- all these facts are bad enough.

There is something worse: Hoover was glorified and the FBI romanticized for setting the standards of patriotism, for love of country. Yet these agents were the effective enemies of the country, of its Constitution, of the traditions they pretended to safeguard. It is something to remember when you hear so-called patriots denouncing others as un- American. It was patriots in America who lynched blacks in the 1930s, imprisoned Japanese Americans in the 1940s, bombed black neighborhoods in the 1950s and beat civil-rights marchers in the 1960s.

I believe in patriotism, and aspire to it. But who is to protect patriotism from such ''patriots''?

Garry Wills is a syndicated columnist.

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