Publication Date

May 1, 1997

Editor's note: The following essay and the response (which begins on page 26) were submitted by Ray Browne, secretary-treasurer of the Popular Culture Association. We are pleased to offer them as part of our regular column of essays and notices from the AHA’s affiliated societies.

From Aristotle to the present, the first rule of rhetoric has always been "know your audience." For a writer, that means knowing what baggage readers carry with them when they pick up a book, the questions they expect to be answered, the issues they suppose to be important That means writers have to listen to the voice of history in popular culture, being aware of the historical information and misinformation that any reader who has not been hiding under a rock has absorbed simply by living, as popular culture separates historical artifacts from their historical contexts and combines them for sensational effect. We also have to listen to what the voice of popular culture is whispering in the reader's ear when we try to describe a different past than the one popular culture has led the reader to expect.

I have been thinking about all this as I work on a new history of the FBI. I've already written a couple of books on the subject, but times have changed' since those books came out in 1983 and 1987. The FBI has undergone massive changes in its strategic focus, changes that have as yet had little impact on the bureau's popular culture image. The bureau has also been involved in events such as Waco and Ruby Ridge and the standoff at Jordan, Montana, that have changed popular attitudes toward the bureau. The bureau has also been shaken by the arrest of an agent supervisor, Earl Edwin Pitts, on charges of spying for the Soviet Union, an event that amazingly enough seems to have been shrugged off by the public as inconsequential, although it has been deeply demoralizing within the organization. And, finally, there has been a flood of popular entertainment about the bureau that draws on the history of the FBI, thus revealing how public attitudes toward that history have evolved, or devolved, depending on one’s point of view.

The changing image of the historical FBI in American popular culture over the quarter century since J. Edgar Hoover's death could function as a gauge of Americans' identification with and alienation from their government, but discussing that in detail would obviously be beyond the scope of this article. For present purposes I will simply state that within today's popular culture image of the bureau there coexist two contradictory character traits—a commitment to science and a reliance on force. These have their roots in the celebrated criminal investigations that first brought the bureau so spectacularly to the attention of the American public during the 1930s.

The most famous of those cases illustrates a process in popular culture that occurs so regularly that it has to be taken account of by historians writing about events well known to the public. When John Dillinger began the rampage that ran from his release from jail on May 22, 1933, until his death at Chicago's Biograph Theater on July 22, 1934, the public responded at first as though the manhunt for the bank robber was a modem version of a dime novel Jesse James adventure. While Dillinger was robbing banks, escaping from jail with a wooden pistol, eluding FBI ambushes, and generally making the combined forces of the local, state, and federal police look like idiots, the public responded with a mixture of hilarity, admiration, and breathless suspense. When Melvin 'Purvis and the FBI finally closed in and gunned down Dillinger at the Biograph, the mood suddenly shifted. Dillinger's corpse appeared on front pages over the caption, "Crime Does Not Pay." Melvin Purvis was lionized as the national hero who had "gotten Dillinger." The nation basked in the warm glow of a victory of the law over lawlessness. In other words, popular culture went with the winner, and the winner was the FBI as the national symbol of a successful war against crime. More to the point, the public identified with the power demonstrated by the FBI in killing Dillinger, which, given the parlous circumstances of the Depression, seemed to be reassurance devoutly desired by a country that wanted the security provided by a government that could marshal overwhelming and deadly force against a public enemy.

Over the next few months, however, the Dillinger legend was transformed yet a third time by Hoover's publicists in the bureau's Crime Records unit. Hoover had committed himself from the beginning of his directorship in 1924 to the progressive concept of science as the solution to the problems of modem society, specifically, in his area of responsibility, to science as the solution to crime. He had modernized the nation's system of fingerprint collection, had taken control of a nationwide system of crime statistics, and had established the bureau's trademark crime laboratories. As far as Hoover was concerned, Purvis's derring-do and the lucky break of the Lady in Red, Anna Sage, who tipped off the bureau, were embarrassing distractions from the real significance of the Dillinger case, which was that it demonstrated that the FBI had developed an infallible method for solving crimes and capturing criminals: the modern science of crime detection. And so when reporters came to the bureau for fresh angles on the case, bureau publicists spoon-fed them accounts of the scientific techniques the bureau had been applying in the Dillinger manhunt and which, if it had not been for the accidental intrusion of the Lady in Red, would have solved the case the way it should have been solved. Judging by the movies, radio shows, pulp magazines, and even gum cards about the case, Hoover's efforts were successful, and so the bureau came out of the 1930s with the reputation of guarding the nation with the double weapon of overwhelming force and invincible science. Until the A-Bomb came along with a more dramatic rendering of the same symbolism, the bureau reigned as the paramount embodiment of those values in American popular culture.

During the fifties the popularity of Hoover and the bureau were so great that few noticed the FBI had departed from the public relations formula that had made them famous. Perhaps Hoover's realization that tommy guns and fingerprints were puny competition for B-52s loaded with nukes (even Jimmy Stewart was hedging his bets, starring in both The FBIStory and Strategic Air Command) was a factor in his decision to identify the bureau with Mom and Apple Pie during the cold war. FBI-sponsored entertainment during the 1950s and 1960s made church, school, and the family circle the new weapons against crime and communism. By the time Hoover died in 1972, there was nothing that distinguished the pop culture FBI agent from the general run of domesticated American males who had devolved from heroes to husbands. TV’s long-running The FBI was little more than an organization man’s cops and robbers show in which Efrem Zimbalist, Jr., demonstrated how dignified and decorous crime fighting could be.

After the collapse of Hoover's reputation during the U.S. Senate's Church Committee investigations of 1975, the FBI formula was defunct. In the early 1980s ABC's Today's FBI put Robert Conrad in charge of a team that included a mildly assertive woman and a black man whose Afro hairstyle, though moderate by today’s standards, was probably enough to scare the little old ladies in tennis shoes who murmured their nightly prayers to J. Edgar. By now, nothing at all was left of the original FBI formula of science and power, and the popular entertainment industry was having much more luck in casting the FBI as formula villains bringing the full weight of Big Brother and Big Science to bear on a hapless citizenry. Such was the role of the FBI in Dog Day Afternoon and A Perfect World.

If we jump forward to the present, we see some interesting developments. History has resurrected the FBI formula in a postmodernist setting that depends for effect on lingering echoes of the bureau's one-time role as the symbol of the nation armed with power and science. There is evidently still enough left of the FBI's old-time association with science that when crime dramas indulge in scientific hocus pocus, white labcoated FBI agents will make an appearance, as in Silence of the Lambs (based on the real-life Special Agent Jack Douglas, who developed criminal profiling for the bureau), or The Rock, in which Nicholas Cage as the square-peg-in-a-round-hole FBI scientist was paired with Sean Connery in a battle with terrorists. Science furnishes the plot gimmicks of the weekly adventures of The X-Files on the Fox network. The X-Files also uses the bureau’s old identification with overwhelming, unreasoning force, as FBI SWAT teams, helmeted and clothed in dire black, regularly swarm out of black helicopters and smash down doors with battering rams in scenes out of the nightmares of the Montana militias (scenes that came to life at Waco and Ruby Ridge).

The image of the FBI in today's popular culture reveals some deep reservations Americans now have about the government, about science, and about officially sanctioned violence. The X-Files's Agents Scully and Mulder dutifully put on their black assault uniforms with the rest, yet there are usually moments when they acknowledge that they are doing something wrong. And science is as often as not something used to cover up official conspiracies, or a red herring that leads Scully and Mulder down the primrose path of conventional thinking and away from the truth that has to be pursued along the less traveled road of what is politely known as “alternative” logic.

I mentioned at the beginning that history speaks to popular culture, but popular culture speaks back, too. It is really more of conversation than a monologue. Contemporary popular attitudes toward historical events and personalities have to be taken into account by writers who want to engage their readers effectively. A writer who is retelling the Dillinger case has to bear in mind the public's unease about the overwhelming use of force in effecting an arrest. Failure to take this into account led to the bureau's fiascoes at Waco and Ruby Ridge. By learning from these mistakes (a lesson made easier by the fact that they occurred under his predecessor), Director Louis Freeh was able to bring the standoff at Jordan to a bloodless and highly applauded conclusion.

A description of the ambush of Dillinger at the Biograph must now take into account the reader's instinctive distaste for a surprise assault by a dozen armed agents on a single fugitive surrounded by innocent bystanders, some of whom were indeed wounded in the shootout. The first reaction of a reader today may well be to question the prudence, even the legality of such a confrontation, and to wonder why similar questions were not raised at the time.

As for Hoover's insistence that science offered an absolute answer to the problem of solving crimes, readers will have spent upwards of a year absorbing the spectacle of FBI agents presenting evidence at the O. J. Simpson trial, only to have their methods trashed by former FBI technicians deriding the competence of Hoover's vaunted laboratories. Perhaps readers will have agreed with the jury that tossed out DNA evidence that tied Simpson to the murder with almost absolute certainty, and instead nodded sagely to Johnnie Cochran's "if the glove doesn't fit, you must acquit." In other words, today's readers counter Hoover's faith in science with their own loss of faith. The writer somehow has to mediate the confusion, perhaps by conceding that Hoover's boundless faith in science verged on superstition, as does today's popular culture's rejection of science.

Or take the matter of espionage. Over the past few months the FBI has arrested two moles from deep within the inner circles of the country's security apparatus, one a CIA agent who turned over a significant portion of our European network of informants to the Russians, another a successful FBI agent who had spent years chasing Russian spies in New York. Although both cases received due notice from the press, there was a total absence of public interest, let alone outrage. The public evidently regards espionage and counterespionage as anachronisms, and seems to wonder, "why all the fuss?" That means that a writer dealing with the great spy cases of the 1940s is going to have to remotivate readers to take an interest in Alger Hiss, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, Judith Coplan and others., and to establish that at one time they did make a difference, and why.

The recent revelations that political operatives in the Clinton White House requested and received FBI files on leading Republicans signally failed to spark any outrage from self-professed civil libertarians. The public may feel that all such incidents in history were simply a matter of whose ox is gored. A writer is going to have to take this into account when discussing the earliest civil liberties campaigns on behalf of the Wobblies, or later crusades for Sacco and Vanzetti, the Scottsboro Boys, or the Hollywood Ten.

Judging by recent current events and popular entertainment, readers have lost interest in the ideological issues that long were the bread and butter of writers on the FBI: justifying, condemning, or just explaining the role of the FBI In the domestic cold war. Moreover, they have lost interest in the values represented by J. Edgar Hoover, and can have their interest piqued only by gossip about extreme and bizarre sexual behavior, much to the annoyance of some of Hoover's long-time ideological enemies in the historical profession. The thrust of Athan Theoharis's recent attack on Anthony Summers's scurrilous biography of Hoover seems to be Theoharis's outrage that attention seems to be diverted from Hoover's alleged illegal policing of domestic communists and fellow travelers to the director's sexual predilections.

Yes, if the voice of history may be heard in today's popular culture, so too the voice of today's popular culture is whispering in readers' ears as they follow a writer into the past. This means that writers have to be aware that theirs is not the only voice the reader is listening to. Writers have to assure the reader that they too hear the voice of popular culture; that they know what the reader thinks he or she knows about the past, and that if they offer a different version of history than popular culture's, they have persuasive reasons. A writer dreams of having the reader to himself, to have his way with the reader's imagination. In reality, however, to snuggle up to a reader means to get in bed with every book a reader has ever curled up with, every movie or television program he has ever sprawled in front of. But there is probably only one way to keep this metaphor from getting any further out of hand, and that is by ending this with thanks to you for hearing me out.

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