The FBI and the SBC

Through ten American presidencies, five Republicans and five Democrats, one fixture of our American political empire remained the same: the Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Honorable J. Edgar Hoover. He weathered scandals and assassinations, Prohibition and Civil Rights, two world wars, Korea and Vietnam. He fought against Communists with Richard Nixon and Joe McCarthy; he fought against blacks with Lyndon Johnson and George Wallace; and he despised anybody with the last name Kennedy. He saw politicians come and go, and often he was the reason for both. From his lofty perch at the Justice Department Headquarters on Pennsylvania Avenue, Hoover kept a watchful eye on Congress, the Supreme Court, and the White House with the attentive scrutiny and conniving interference of an Olympian god.

J. Edgar Hoover was Washington D.C. for three generations, and by means of a close circle of loyalists who reported directly to “The Boss” he was able to maintain a system of secret files on every major governmental figure, all the moneymen in the nation, most actors and actresses in Hollywood, and anyone who posed a potential threat to his clenched grip on the gears of political power. Those who underestimated his influence or will to exert it did so to their own peril. Tape recordings were made and kept on file. Mail was intercepted. With a promise to keep things out of the public eye, Hoover could seal a candidate’s electoral victory. With a threat of disclosure or a caution about political suicide, he could keep a name off the ballot. Hoover’s political tentacles stretched into all three branches of government and could squeeze every cabinet office. A phonecall, or a letter, or even a raised eyebrow could end a man’s career, or launch it. He could get something in the papers, or keep it out. By the end of his life, J. Edgar Hoover controlled more pieces of the American political pie than any man in the history of our nation; and while every president wanted him gone, none could muster the political clout to force his ouster. This, of course, was for one simple reason: he knew where all the bodies were buried. If somebody could be gotten to, he would get them.

And everybody could be gotten to.

Lately I’ve been fascinated reading a biography of J. Edgar Hoover written by Curt Gentry and aptly entitled “The Man And The Secrets.” Among the most peculiar details of Hoover’s half-century reign at the FBI are the way that his secretary, Miss Helen Gandy, and his closest assistant, Clyde Tolson, were able to shield “The Boss” from most criticism and protect his dirty little secrets, not least of which was his own domestic fetish for all things frilly. About Gandy, Gentry writes:

“Although she was now seventy-five, she still ran the entire office, overseeing every phase of its operations. Her genteel manners and pleasant voice contrasted sharply with his domineering presence. Yet behind the politeness was a resolute firmness not unlike his, and no small amount of influence. Many a career in the Bureau had been quietly manipulated by her.”

About Tolson, Gentry writes:

“He was seventy-one years old, six years younger than the Boss, who, when others weren’t around, called him Junior. He’d had other nicknames over the years. One, from the thirties, was Killer Tolson, bestowed after the famous New York shootout with Harry Brunette. The men in the field didn’t think he’d heard it, but he heard everything. That was his job. Clyde Tolson’s mandate was simple: to protect the Boss from any possible attack, whether from without or within, by whatever countermeasures were felt necessary. “Hatchetman” was another epithet more than infrequently used. He didn’t particularly mind knowing people called him that. Whether it was true or not, such fear had its uses.”

As I’ve worked through Gentry’s bestselling analysis of J. Edgar Hoover, I’ve been impressed at the congruity between the way that the FBI – and indeed the Federal government – worked under Hoover’s masterful administration, and the way that certain corners of the Southern Baptist Convention have come to operate. Certainly, the scale is much smaller and the influence is less pervasive, but the system shares many similarities.

First, J. Edgar Hoover knew how to weather a storm. If his enemies were undoing themselves by saying the wrong things or by behaving badly, Hoover did nothing. There is no sense in wasting ammunition, as Hoover well knew. Hoover would let men who threatened his powerbase twist in the wind, and occasionally he would disseminate sordid details, true or not, to hasten their political demise. If the storm brewing involved him, Hoover would sit tight. Presidents, at most, are assured four years in office unless removed by Congress. Hoover’s appointment was bound by no such term limitation. When the Kennedy boys tried to edge him out, he just waited until a shot was fired from the sixth floor of the book depository in downtown Dallas. When questions were raised about the bureau’s investigation into the assassination, Hoover never responded but quietly exerted pressure on the Warren Commission to exonerate him.

Similarly, the time has come for the Southern Baptist Convention to ask some very critical questions about the wasteful way that Cooperative Program dollars have been spent. There are questions about manipulation of the nomination process by which political allies are recycled to top convention posts. There are serious questions about the way that Paige Patterson, in particular, has worked to undermine the administration of Jerry Rankin at the International Mission Board by circulating criticisms among trustees or outright telling them that the board would be more effective with a resignation at the top. The North American Mission Board has faced some terribly difficult questions about administrative negligence, and more questions continue to surface about the presence of secret caucuses formulating subversive agendas within our trustee boards. And as these questions are asked, those who hold power and feel threatened by the imminent scrutiny will erect blockades, tighten their grip, refuse to answer questions, and try to ride out the storm. When Southern Baptists see a man who will not answer questions about his administration of an SBC agency or his use of Cooperative Program dollars, they should be very suspicious. They should also prepare for “countermeasures” taken to discredit the questioners or to undermine convention confidence in their charges.

Second, J. Edgar Hoover dealt with information. His facts and his files were his key to power. He never closed his ear to a rumor, and he never forgot an offense. When necessary, Hoover would dispatch a G-Man or two to wiretap a telephone call, or to intercept a piece of mail, or to tape-record a conversation. At the time of his death, it took his secretary more than two weeks to destroy all the tapes and transcripts and pieces of correspondence that constituted the director’s secret files. Occasionally Hoover would drop a hint or hire a mercenary to accomplish his political objective. Proximity to the Boss was usually reward enough for eager agents with bureaucratic ambition.

In a similar way, talk of who knows “where the bodies are buried” colors Southern Baptist conversation. The efforts to collect information on political “enemies” goes on with little conflict of conscience, and I will give two examples to prove my point. On July 3, 2003, an email was sent out to all Southeastern Seminary students preparing for six weeks of intensive training at the IMB’s Missionary Learning Center in Rockville, VA. In that email, the director of Southeastern’s mission program requested that young missionary candidates collect information and record in detail what they saw and heard during their training and report back to him. In the email, he disclosed that he was working with IMB Trustee Bill Sanderson of Wendell, NC, to prepare a dossier in order to address the “problems” at the International Mission Board. You can read about this whole ordeal, here. Within a few months, Paige Patterson was circulating to all IMB trustees a “white paper” written by the same Southeastern professor and which contained severe criticisms of the Rankin administration. During the time, I myself was involved in several conference calls with a caucus of trustees at the International Mission Board where plans were discussed to bring an end to Jerry Rankin’s tenure. Among the participants in those calls were Diane Reeder of Louisiana, Albert Green of Texas (being replaced by Nathan Lino, mentioned earlier in this blog), and Wyndham Cook of Texas, and others. Moreover, I was personally offered a job working at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in February 2004 to listen to multiple hours of audio-recordings of Jerry Rankin, collected by the seminary president’s office, and cull them for suspicious theology, potential instances of charismatic teaching, or questionable statements that could be interpreted as contrary to the BFM2000. Of course, I refused to accept the job or the payment of Cooperative Program dollars that came with it. Adding to the problems are the stacks of emails I have received, most of which are from Russell Kaemmerling of TX, that detail a strategy to block candidates for top IMB administrative posts and replace Rankin’s choice with Patterson’s stalking horses. These, and other materials, I will provide to the investigative committee formed as a result of Wade Burleson’s motion at this year’s annual meeting in Greensboro, NC. (It should be remembered that Kaemmerling was appointed to the IMB post during Patterson’s presidency in Orlando, FL. He was nominated to the post by Wichita Falls layman Bill Streich, who is now one of Jerry Sutton’s endorsers, according to this story.)

Third, Hoover could save a man’s career, or he could end it. Which course he took depended heavily on the perceived loyalty of the man or the perceived threat. When Abe Fortas was nominated by Lyndon Johnson to fill the post vacated by retiring Chief Justice Earl Warren, Hoover was able to get him filibustered until Nixon replaced Johnson in 1968. Once his old political ally was in the White House, Hoover was able to get an intellectual feather-weight and bumbling constitutional lawyer named Warren Burger confirmed. The propaganda machine never stopped at the FBI either. Hoover was famously small of stature, prompting the Director to have a raised dais placed under his desk to give him a taller appearance while sitting. No man taller than Hoover was promoted to the top posts just in case a photo of the two side-by-side would make the Boss look diminutive. Hoover could spin the press, never through lies but always through half-truths. Moreover, Hoover would make end runs around the president to get a bigger budget for the FBI’s covert operations. Whatever Hoover wanted from the Congressional Budget Office, Hoover usually received. If a congressman or senator started to ask questions about financial oversight at the bureau, he could anticipate that his political challenger in the next election cycle would have defaming facts at his disposal. Where he got them, nobody wondered.

When it comes to spinning the media and cooking the numbers, the SBC is in a serious state of ethical disintegration. Whether it is pastors who inflate the numbers of their churches’ membership rolls or support of “SBC causes”, or seminary presidents who overstate their enrollment numbers, we are facing a crises brought about by a baptized version of Goebbellian propaganda. We have also had to deal with SBC entity heads lobbying Executive Committee members for additional money from the convention’s allocation budget. When their percentages of the pie have been increased only slightly, request for more “special offerings” in the form of Lottie Moon and Annie Armstrong have piled up. When neither have squeezed another nickel from the Cooperative Program, designated funds solicitation has increased whereby pastors of large churches and wealthy businessmen are encouraged to contribute directly to the agency rather than through the Cooperative Program, thus short-circuiting the means of supporting all SBC causes in a manner consistent with the convention’s stewardship plan and opting instead to build the endowments of some institutions to the neglect of others. Often times, the biggest donors are awarded with choice trusteeships at the institution where their dollars were directed.

I could go on and on about Hoover’s use of scapegoats when he needed to deflect criticism, or his use of moles in other governmental agencies, or his attempt to bring all the intelligence agencies under his own command, or his ability to have large buildings in Washington named after him to preserve his legacy, or his racism that kept black agents beating the streets in the worst posts and their representation in the bureau minimal, or the house full of antiques and linens and silver service and oriental rugs and taxidermed animal carcasses that were piled on top of each other on the morning that Hoover’s naked body was carried from his official residence in an armored limousine. But that would take more time than the readers of blogs can afford.

At Hoover’s funeral, the president of the United States offered the following eulogy:

“J. Edgar Hoover was one of the giants. His long life brimmed over with magnificent achievement and the dedicated service to this country which he loved so well. One of the tragedies of life is that, as a rule, a man’s true greatness is recognized only in death. J. Edgar was one of the rare exceptions to that rule. He became a living legend while still a young man, and he lived up to his legend as the decades passed. His death only heightens the respect and admiration felt for him across this land and in every land where men cherish freedom.

“The greatness of Edgar Hoover will remain inseparable from the greatness of the institution he created and gave his whole life to building . . .. While presidents came and went, while other leaders or morals and manners and opinion rose and fell, the director stayed at his post . . .

“He personified integrity; he personified honor; he personified principle; he personified courage; he personified discipline; he personified loyalty; he personified patriotism. The good J. Edgar Hoover did will not die. The profound principles associated with his name will not fade away. . .

“In the Bible, the book which Edgar Hoover called his ‘guide to daily life,’ we find the words which best pronounce a benediction on his death. They are from the Psalms: ‘Great peace have they which love Thy law.’ J. Edgar Hoover loved the law of his God. He loved the law of his country. And he richly earned peace through all eternity.”

Of course, at the moment Richard Nixon was praising J. Edgar Hoover moral virtue and administrative excellence, special agents were carrying boxes women’s clothes out of the director’s closet, and the President himself was plotting break-ins and political retribution. I suppose the lesson for us all is that we should not allow our convention to become dominated by any one person or party, we should never allow the conservative resurgence to be identified too closely with any one single individual, and we should never let our concern for legacies and loyalties to overshadow our concern for the truth.

Some people will think that I’m painting with too broad a brush. Others will suggest that I’m overstating my case. Still others will comment that linking SBC personalities with J. Edgar Hoover is unfair. To the last objection, however, I must ascribe merit.

J. Edgar Hoover never used his office to endorse a presidential candidate publicly.

Incidentally, people should remember that nobody believed that Hoover was as involved as he was until years after his death when agents and aides and attaches started coming forward to tell their stories and provide the evidence to support their claims. Before then, Hoover could do no wrong. Today, his legacy is strong but balanced, and the FBI is stronger for it. His name remains etched on the Justice Department building, for another shall not arise like him.

For that, America should be grateful.