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Aubrey Sarvis

Aubrey Sarvis

Posted February 24, 2009 | 01:34 PM (EST)

Hoover, Valenti, Gaydar, and DADT


The story on the front page of Thursday's Washington Post -- and referenced prominently on HuffPo -- about the late FBI director J. Edgar Hoover's salacious pursuit of the sexual skinny on Lyndon Johnson's aide Jack Valenti is yet another example of what's wrong with Don't Ask, Don't Tell and why it doesn't work.

It is also another example of the power of the reputed cross-dressing director and the organization he misused to intimidate, terrorize, and destroy the reputations and careers of those on whom he fixed his prurient gaze.

All the principals are dead now, of course, and beyond the reach of the morals police. Besides, most normal people today really don't care in which direction a person's sexual compass points, except as the subject of gossip and the gossip goes both ways, so to speak.


But there is one important exception to that general rule: the armed forces of the United States of America. Credible allegations that a man or a woman is gay can cost that person a career. In Jack Valenti's case those allegations were vague and totally unsubstantiated. They may or may not have been correct but they remained only allegations, and not very credible ones at that. Nonetheless, the fact that Hoover ferreted out the information that an unnamed, reputedly gay photographer went to a few parties at Valenti's Houston apartment and spent the night there on two occasions...well, if the late presidential aide and head of the Motion Picture Association were in the army now (or then) that could have triggered suspicions and talk of an active investigation. Eventually it might have gotten the decorated former World War II pilot (51 missions) booted out of the Army, to put it delicately.

Just as in the bad old days of the 1950s when Senator Joe McCarthy of unhappy memory and his counterparts on the House Un-American Activities Committee were pursuing "pinkos and queers" in the government with a zeal worthy of Savonarola, anyone so inclined and determined can destroy the career of a service member today. It doesn't take much -- an e-mail here, a personal letter there, the wrong book or magazine left carelessly on a table. Any one of them could raise more suspicions.

Hoover never served in the armed forces, but it is worth noting that had he been in the military today, he might well have popped up on the DADT radar. Perhaps gaydar is the better word. After all, Hoover was a bachelor his entire life as was his assistant Clyde Tolson, the man the Post describes as his "constant companion," a phrase immortalized years ago by Time magazine as a euphemism for lover. Highly suspicious, no? Indeed, maybe worth an investigation at taxpayers' expense.

According to a 1993 Frontline report as quoted in the newspaper of record, an acquaintance tells of being at a party given by Roy Cohn (another "homosexual" leader of the post-war inquisition) where Hoover wore "a black chiffon dress, very short with ruffles and black lace stockings and high-heeled shoes and a black curly wig and black false eyelashes."

Imagine that! Actually, it's pretty hard to imagine. In any case, that in itself might not have been enough to get Hoover kicked out of the military but it sure would have provided great material and a beautiful snapshot. Would he have lost his job? We can debate that but it is certain that it would not have helped his career, either in the military or in the FBI. Miss Hoover regrets he's unable to lunch today -- he's got a run in his stocking. It wouldn't have gotten his "constant companion" any merit badges, either.

Times change, and the customs change with them -- thank God -- except, apparently, in certain musty corners of the Pentagon and among the few remaining members of the House and Senate still reliving the glory days of the 1950s when men were men and queers were queers and there were no gays in the military. Or in the unlikely event that there were, let them keep quiet about it. Button your lip, kid, or you're outta here.

One of these years -- maybe even this year, with luck -- these Rip van Winkles from another era will wake up to discover that the American people are way, way ahead of them. The polls agree: the vast majority of the American people simply don't care. Their representatives shouldn't either.