Some things you don't have a right to know

February 17, 2000|By William F. Buckley Jr.

A NONPOLITICAL story told last week of the FBI's no doubt unhappy release of one more file by the bureau's late director, J. Edgar Hoover. The file discloses important things about Mr. Hoover and vital things about the United States.

The Freedom of Information Act amendments of 1974 require federal agencies to give up files that pertain to any American citizen who petitions to see them. There are common-sense exceptions: You can't write in to find out what somebody said about you when the FBI was conducting a security check.

What transpired last week were bureau memorandums on the activity of Murray Kempton (1917-1997). Kempton had briefly joined the Young Communist League in the 1930s and, after the war, wrote a provocative newspaper column. He was correctly acknowledged, by colleagues in the craft, as supreme, but that isn't what Hoover cared about.

He cared about Kempton's general impiety and his sallies in the 1970s in defense of individual members of the Black Panther movement.

There are those who believe the FBI has no business keeping an eye on writers. This seems on the face of it absurd, the equivalent of presuming that writers can't engage in illegal activity. What is interesting in the Kempton file isn't that the FBI was keeping its eyes on him. It is that the material by Kempton, shown to Director Hoover, elicited comments from Hoover that reinforce what we now know about him, thanks mostly to author Natalie Robins and her book, "Alien Ink: The FBI's War on Freeedom of Expression."

Hoover could not stand unorthodox opinion, especially if it touched on the FBI. The material relating to Kempton reveals scribbles in the handwriting of the director expressing himself on Kempton. On one column brought to his attention he wrote, "I am surprised that Scripps-Howard are taking on this rat." On another, "He is a real stinker."

I can contribute to the story line the following: While a student in college, I conducted a forum on the FBI and its activity, which so endeared me to Hoover that he offered me a job and subsequently posed for a photograph with my 6-year-old son. In 1967,

cf03 National Review

cf01 published a parody, a facsimile of the

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cf01 featuring the kind of news liberal Americans would most relish seeing ("Regents Hand Over Campus to Students in California," "Federal Curb Demanded on Big Business," "Papal Encyclical Abandons 1870s Infallibility Rule"). One story reported that Director J. Edgar Hoover had been arrested on a morals charge. We at

cf03 National Review

cf01 thought this hilarious and did not learn until the publication of Ms. Robins' book that Hoover greeted the parody with thunderous denunciations, ordering the bureau to boycott me.

It was so with Kempton. He learned of this in 1989 (17 years after Hoover's death), and wrote: "My career's vicissitudes have all been of my own doing, and my malice toward Hoover, which was always small, and his malice toward me, which seems to have been outsized, were alike inconsequential for help or harm."

It is fine that the animosity of the head of the FBI can be -- undetectable. The people on whom Hoover breathed fire in his quarters were simply untroubled, so long as they abided by the law.

It can be argued that Kempton's singular charm was his protection from Richard Nixon and his administration. There is a point here. Even Bishop John Spong, the unorthodox Episcopalian who retired last month with many fireworks, might have forgiven Kempton's treatment of him. The sentence here quoted is from a letter from Kempton, revealing that on some subjects he was anything but unorthodox: "My church was inspired by a languid but dutiful zeal to serve the royal will with a bill of divorce. The Book of Common Prayer -- the envy even of you Romans who deserve to be envied for everything else -- was established as the foundation of this shadowed faith; and every line and comma was passed through the gimlet eye of Elizabeth I. --

"A church founded on premises so entirely dubious has of course a special duty to proceed thereafter with the strictest logic toward its conclusion, which makes it curious to see so many bishops still debating the ordination of women and homosexuals without ever troubling their brother Spong in Newark, who expresses his doubt about the Resurrection on National Public Radio and then dispenses the wafers at Easter Communion and indulges the cardinal ecclesiastical sin of collecting your rations and quarters and then stiffing the hotelkeeper by declining to sing for your supper."

Imagine dubbing such a man a stinking rat!

William F. Buckley is a syndicated columnist.

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