BROOKE GLADSTONE: All in all it hasn't been a good week for the FBI. Timothy McVeigh asked for a stay of execution because the FBI bungled the delivery of documents to the defense, and veteran FBI man Robert Hansen, accused of spying on the agency for 15 years, pleaded innocent. On the positive side, the four defendants fingered by the FBI for the 1998 embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania were convicted, but over the last several years in such debacles as Ruby Ridge and Richard Jewell, Waco and Wen Ho Lee, the FBI has developed a serious image problem. Oh, for the halcyon days of Hoover when our hearts were young and gay.
MAN: [SINGING] GEE BUT I'D LIKE TO BE A G-MAN AND GO BANG, BANG, BANG, BANG I'D BE A BRAVE GANG-BUSTING HE-MAN AND GO BANG, BANG, BANG, BANG I'D PUT ON DISGUISES OF ALL DIFFERENT SIZES AND WOULD I WIN PRIZES FOR TELLING WHO SPIES IS....
RONALD KESSLER: I'll tell you. Things have really changed.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Ronald Kessler is author of Inside the FBI: The World's Most Powerful Law Enforcement Agency.
RONALD KESSLER: Under Hoover, the Bureau created this image of this invincible agency where they always got their man. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER] They did this through the media, through radio shows, TV shows, movies that they controlled.
ANNOUNCER: Many of the incidents in the story you are about to hear are based on the actual records and authentic experiences of Matt Sevetik [sp?] who for 9 fantastic years lived as a Communist for the FBI. Here is our star, Dana Andrews, as Matt Sevetik.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:J. Edgar Hoover, the agency's public face, policed the agency's image through an office with the impenetrable name of The Crimes Records Division. It was charged with furnishing what were called interesting case memoranda to the radio shows and later the TV shows and movies over which Hoover exercised an invincible veto power. He was ever-vigilant in pursuit of good PR.
J. EDGAR HOOVER: I am your new director. I did not ask for the position, but now that I have it, I intend to give it the best I have. The Bureau will operate solely on efficiency, and we are going to do it as a team. Henceforth it will be a "we" organization.
DAVID EDELSTEIN: Once upon a time Hollywood loved the Organization.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: David Edelstein is the film critic for Slate.com.
DAVID EDELSTEIN: There was something very, very reassuring about the discipline, the order, the routine, the sticking-to-the-rules. There was something very reassuring about those men in those gray suits, all with identical haircuts.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:But the love affair had cooled for the average American round about 1975 with the Senate investigation of the FBI under Frank Church. Richard Powers is the author of G-Men: Hoover's FBI in American Popular Culture.
RICHARD POWERS: That pretty much blew the lid off all of the FBI horrors that Hoover had kept, you know, bottled up over all those years. The Church Committee delved particularly into the FBI's harassment of Martin Luther King, Jr. And so as you had King emerging as one of the great heroes of American life in the 20th Century, his great antagonist was J. Edgar Hoover.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Hoover always said justice would prevail, and it did. After the revelations of the Church Committee, Hoover's attempts to destroy King as a leader boomerang'd.
RICHARD POWERS: Once you have an image that the FBI promoted during the 1930s of being an omnipotent, all-knowing, all-powerful agency that never could make a mistake, it was setting itself up for a terrible fall.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Already the culture was tiring of the Organization Man. It was the end of a long battle Hoover had waged with Hollywood since 1935 when James Cagney played a renegade G-Man. The agency hated the film but grew to love it, because it boosted the FBI's popularity like-- gangbusters. Author Richard Powers says that Americans always embraced characters that were square pegs in round holes, even as Hoover labored to shave the edges off.
RICHARD POWERS: And that's what successful adventure entertainment is all about, and it was completely contrary to the FBI image, and so they were really at loggerheads.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:So the image of the FBI splintered. Films like the Die Hard series showed up the FBI as officious and obstructionist bureaucrats.
[CLIP FROM DIE HARD SERIES PLAYS]
BRUCE WILLIS, HERO: Hal, talk to me -- what's going on here?
HERO'S SECOND IN COMMAND: [DISGUSTEDLY] Ask the FBI. They got the Universal Terrorist Play Book and they're running it step by step.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Meanwhile the Bureau regained a measure of its old omniscience with a Jodie Foster vehicle!
[CLIP FROM SILENCE OF THE LAMBS PLAYS] FBI
MAN: Go ahead, Starling. Tell me what you see.
JODIE FOSTER AS CLARICE STARLING: Well he's a white male. Serial killers tend to hunt within their own ethnic groups. He's not a drifter. He's got his own house somewhere. Not an apartment. FBI
JODIE FOSTER AS CLARICE STARLING: What he does with them takes privacy. And he's never impulsive. He'll never stop. FBI
MAN: Why not?
JODIE FOSTER AS CLARICE STARLING: 'Got a real taste for it now, and he's getting better at his work. FBI
MAN: Not bad, Starling!
JOHN DOUGLASS: Clarice Starling in Silence of the Lambs probably did more for the Bureau as a fictional case than any real case, any real [LAUGHS] publicity that the bureau could have done. It was amazing!
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Ex-profiler John Douglass is the model for Agent Starling's mentor, Jack Crawford, played by Scott Glenn.
JOHN DOUGLASS:The character was very, very serious, and I always told the people working with me after we saw the movie if, if I was that serious day in and day out, I'd be wearing a blue chiffon dress, smoking a cigar. I just-- wouldn't be able to keep up that intensity.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And just as Cagney's G-Man infuriated the Bureau for a while, so did Silence of the Lambs.
JOHN DOUGLASS:A lot of high ups in the FBI itself at first didn't like the movie. They said it was very, very violent. And when I went to a movie screening I got up and I said I don't know what the rest of you think in the FBI - what kind of work we're doing here, but I see this work day in and day out; this violence does exist in our country.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But the higher ups piped down when recruitment soared.
DAVID EDELSTEIN: Damn! You know? Who wouldn't want to sign up and, and go out and hunt themselves some serial killers?
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Critic David Edelstein says that despite anecdotal evidence to the contrary, the gods of Tinseltown have consistently favored the Bureau with positive portrayals.
DAVID EDELSTEIN: In the beginning the FBI was all that stood between us freedom-loving Americans and those nasty immigrant gangsters. Then the FBI was all that stood between us and that evil Communist Menace. Then when the Communist Menace no longer seemed so imminent, suddenly the FBI was, was out doing battle with right wing white supremacists and the Ku Klux Klan. [THEME MUSIC FROM THE X-FILES UP AND UNDER]
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Even the X-Files which depicts a dark and dangerous place; an agency at war with itself, has proved a boon to the FBI. As long as it seems powerful, the Bureau can't lose!
DAVID EDELSTEIN: It's only in very - very, very rare instances that the FBI is portrayed as incompetent, which seems to me the worst danger to an organization that thrives on secrecy and that presents itself as a model of superhuman and enlightened efficiency.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Actually, according to a Washington Post-ABC poll released last week, 52 percent of the public believes the handling of evidence in the Oklahoma City Bombing Case is a sign of deeper problems at the FBI, and just 53 percent of those polled have a favorable impression of the FBI, down from 82 percent 6 years ago! Maybe the Bureau should look for its next director in Hollywood. [OLD TIME SONG ABOUT THE FBI PLAYS]
CRIMINAL COME BUT THEY HAVE ONE WAY TO GO GANGSTERS ARE DONE FOR, BY NOW THEY OUGHT TO KNOW [...?...] THE GANG YOU OVER THERE HOOVER WILL BRING THEM TO THE ELECTRIC CHAIR
[A, B, C] D, E, F, G-- G-MAN, G-MAN HOOVER! RAT-TAT-TAT TAT RAT-TAT-TAT TAT RAT-TAT-TAT TAT 38:30
BOB GARFIELD:Coming up we consider the casting of actors, race matters less on Broadway and beauty is over-rated in Hollywood. Also your letters.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media from National Public Radio.