Looking at Jack Valenti's FBI file
By Joe Stephens
Washington Post staff writer
Jack Valenti's FBI file arrived at my desk in a plain brown box. Inside were 310 pages -- and one big surprise.
Valenti was a senior White House aide during President Lyndon B. Johnson's administration who went on to national fame as the president of the Motion Picture Association of America. I had no idea whether the bureau kept a file on Valenti when I requested it two years earlier, under the federal Freedom of Information Act. But, under the leadership of the late J. Edgar Hoover, the Federal Bureau of Investigation kept tabs on an astonishing number of individuals.
Some of those files were kept for good law enforcement reasons. Others provided information that helped Hoover maneuver behind the scenes to remain in his post for decades. Presidents came and went; Hoover stayed.
In Valenti's case, much of the dossier turned out to be mundane. Some pages were indecipherable due to the heavy redactions made by government censors. Among other things, censors had covered with white boxes the names of most private individuals whom they believed to still be alive.
Valenti's dossier contained the results of the standard background check conducted when Valenti went to work for Johnson in 1963. Nothing of much import was discovered.
But halfway through the pile of paper was something completely unexpected. The FBI had spent substantial amounts of time and effort trying to substantiate a tip that Valenti had what the files described as "an affair" with an unidentified man. The files also showed that the bureau was looking into the sexual orientation of others who worked in the White House.
That was perplexing on several levels. The FBI's own file described Valenti as a former ladies man who was, by the mid-1960s, happily married to Johnson's former secretary. And even after the FBI's investigation, there was absolutely no evidence to support the tip -- a tip that Valenti's friends today say they consider ludicrous on its face. And yet, Hoover and Johnson, perhaps the two most powerful men in the nation, spent substantial amounts of their time and taxpayer's money wrestling with the issue. And this was amid the Cold War, in the wake of a presidential assassination.
The FBI had removed the name of Valenti's friend from every memo in which he was mentioned. And, once again, the file gave no reason to believe there was any substance to the rumor. Ultimately, the investigation was dropped.
I contacted members of Valenti's family who, after discussion, asked that they not be mentioned or quoted in our article on the file. I told them we would respect their wishes. It was also clear that the existence of Hoover's dead-end investigation was no surprise to some of those close to Valenti.
Readers have written to tell us they thought the material in the file was important in a number of regards. Some said it adds another piece to the puzzle of Hoover, further illuminating his methods and those of his deputies. Others said it provides additional information about how Hoover and the president interacted. The tone of the communications between the men in the file makes them sound like allies in trying to find and expose any internal threats within the administration. Between the lines, though, once might infer a hint of menace in their interactions, as well.
Finally, the files provide a vivid reminder of the mindset towards homosexuals, real or imagined, in the Washington of the early 1960s. One reader offered this:
"It is really great to see a piece in the Post that looks back at what gays suffered in Washington, D.C. in the 60s. The story of the FBI harassment of gay men and gay organizations in Washington, D.C. has not been fully told.
"I would only have added one sentence, after your line that being found out in the 60's "could end a career". Homosexuals at the time were explicitly banned from any federal employment, prohibited from security clearances, and banned from any work at the State Department because they were thought to be incapable of open service, being subject to blackmail.
"The "Lavender Scare" at the State Department ended more careers and ruined many more lives than Hoover's Communist witch hunts of the time."
Take a look at a previously confidential FBI document, redactions and all.
By The Editors |
February 21, 2009; 4:53 PM ET
Previous: Another Hill Staffer Caught In Abramoff Scandal: 'What? No Hot Dogs?' | Next: Missing Tour Bonuses, Break in the Levy Case and Hitch in Classifying Memos
Please email us to report offensive comments.
Posted by: forparity | February 22, 2009 7:10 PM
Posted by: briefal | February 23, 2009 1:11 AM