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Authors: Garry Wills

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I learned that Ivanhoe liked to set people back with challenge on a first meeting. But if you stood up to his bluff, he opened up to you—as he did to me. One night in Washington we went to visit another black leader, who was throwing a party for visiting Africans. One of the guests, a white woman from South Africa, got the Ivanhoe treatment. He denounced her for South Africa's racial policies. She was foolish enough to say that the policies, though wrong, were understandable. A tense argument followed, which culminated in Ivanhoe's slapping her. The host went into his bedroom and came out with a pistol, telling Ivanhoe to get out of his apartment. Ivanhoe whispered to me that he could talk the man down, but I should go wait for him in the reception hall of the apartment building. I did so. Shortly after, Ivanhoe came down smiling. I asked if he had smoothed things over. He said, “Of course.” He was a charmer.
It was late, and I said I had better get my car for a return to Baltimore. He assured me, “No need,” and invited me to stay with him in an apartment he was using. It turned out to be a large and lavish apartment loaned him by a rich backer who was out of town—Ivanhoe had a gift for cultivating wealthy patrons. Later, he became an adviser to Washington mayor Marion Barry, access to whom Ivanhoe used to line his pockets. When the police caught on to what was happening, Ivanhoe was convicted and sent to jail.
Though I had resisted the idea of requesting FBI files, since others had told me that it is a cumbrous process—you have to prove that you are you and then you have to wait for all the legal reviews and redactions to take place—I thought that by now I had enough radical acquaintances that J. Edgar Hoover might have some record of them. But when I got my files, seventy-two pages of what are called “Bufiles,” I learned that the Bureau was ignorant of what was really questionable. Hoover was interested in nothing but my views. The Bureau put extra and useless energy into thought-police activity rather than crime control.
Hoover began his scrutiny of me because of the interview with General Carl Turner. Because of the
article, he asked that an agent go see Turner. Since the general was in Europe at the time, the agent could talk with only one of the public relations people who had sat in on my interview. The PR man said that I was hostile (it was Turner who had bristled at the very idea of the interview) and that I was “sensational” and “twisted the truth.” The only factual point the Pentagon challenged was that I said the FBI manual on riots had been written by a military man. The PR rep said that, in fact, a military man had been heavily drawn on and quoted in the manual, though he had not written the whole of it.
Okay, why was it “sensational” to claim that he had? I had not said that this made the manual less important or less true. It was not relevant to the main point I made about the interview: that Turner's claim that seizing guns and using armored cars in sniper control was the basic “doctrine” of riot control. On that the Pentagon said nothing. Nonetheless, when several people—journalists and Hoover acolytes (their names crossed out in the files released to me)—wrote to J. Edgar Hoover asking if he “had anything” on Garry Wills, he answered that the Bureau had made an investigation and found that I was “sensational” and “twisted the truth,” quoting the public relations person as if that were the result of a Bureau investigation.
But the thing that most upset the Bureau was a newspaper column I wrote when a congressional investigation turned up the facts about the “COINTELPRO” (counterintelligence program) operation of the FBI. Hoover himself wrote a letter protesting my column to the head of the syndicate that distributed my column. That person, John McMeel, sensibly ignored the protest. What I referred to was the way the FBI tried to foment violence between the Black Panthers and other radical black organizations in Chicago and San Diego—faking letters of vituperation between them, sending forged insulting cartoons, and making anonymous phone calls. The Bureau argued in internal documents that it was trying to
violence by making it impossible for these activist groups to cooperate.
It could not be preventing violence when one of the forged letters, sent to Chicago's Blackstone Rangers leader Jeff Fort, ostensibly from a black sympathizer, said: “The Panthers blame you for blocking their thing and there's supposed to be a hit out for you. . . . I know what I'd do if I was you.” The latter invitation to murder was like the invitation to suicide in the FBI′s famous anonymous letter to Dr. King. The same files that brought me Hoover's letter saying I was egregious in suggesting that the Bureau was fomenting violence brought me the confirming documents that proved that it was. God bless the Freedom of Information Act.
In 1972, I got a phone call in Baltimore from a man saying he had a message for me from my Chicago police friends, Hutch and Duke. It was too important to discuss on the telephone. Could I meet him in Washington? I went to the hotel he named as our meeting place. When I got there, he said he had rented a room: we could not talk in a public area. We had to wait for an empty elevator to go up to the room—he refused to get on one with other people. When we got there, he patted me down to make sure I had no gun. Then he pulled the shades down, went to the bed in the corner, sat on it, edged himself back into the corner (“I always keep my back to a wall”), pulled out a pistol, and laid it on the bed beside him.
I was surprised when I met this fellow, since he was white, and Hutch and Duke had told me there were few whites other than Joe Woods that they would ever trust. But the man assured me he was a constant adviser to my friends—in fact, he knew all the black leaders (including “the two Big Jims,” James Farmer and James Bevel)—and was a full-time protector of the civil rights movement. Indeed, he was forming an elite paramilitary troop to step in when riots occurred, to keep police from mowing down the blacks. He wanted me to be the chronicler of his efforts—it was Jim Bevel time all over again. But this man was even crazier. He held me for three hours spinning his fantasies of power. He claimed that Nelson Rockefeller would be the patron of his squad, and that this would make Rockefeller president. He and I would prove to be kingmakers. Every time I tried to get up and leave, he put his hand on his gun—now I knew too much about his plans for him to let me go until I joined the cause. At last, promising to give his ideas the most careful thought, I got free. Luckily, I never heard from him again. I did not call on Hutch or Duke to see if they were buying this man's nonsense. I did not have the heart to do it, since I feared they might be. In all the odd things I witnessed during those turbulent years, this was the oddest. Like Bevel, this man dismissed me when he could not bully me into his scheme.
hen my wife and I moved to Baltimore, for me to teach at Johns Hopkins, I continued to be an outsider, a journalist in the academy and a professor in journalism, but it was the second most settled time of my life (I would spend even more time at Northwestern). The only real Baltimore insiders in the family were our children. Two of our three came there as preschoolers, and the third was born there. Each acquired a Baltimore accent as a toddler, which shows how powerful is peer influence. They did not hear Baltimore sounds from their parents, or from the radio or TV. It was their playmates they wanted to imitate. So they said “speeyoon” for spoon, “meeyoon” for moon, “telephayown” for telephone. They had the Tidewater diphthongs. They shed these mannerisms only when they went away to college, where they imitated different peers.
Tommy Three
One of the great Baltimore institutions I observed was Thomas D'Alesandro III—Tommy Three as he was known—the mayor in the late sixties. Now I suppose he is most famous as the brother of Nancy Pelosi. She is often attacked as a San Francisco liberal; but I knew her as a Baltimore Italian political pro. I met her when she came back to town for the vote count on election nights, a family tradition. She and Tommy Three are the children of Thomas D'Alesandro Jr., the former Maryland congressman and Baltimore mayor.
Tommy Three is a wonderfully down-to-earth person, unpretentious and funny. He loves to tell stories against himself. He recounted for me once how he went to a political dinner in Pennsylvania and asked the man sitting next to him what he did for a living. “I'm a painter.” Since it was winter, Tommy said, “Isn't that seasonal work?” He soon found out it was not seasonal work for Andrew Wyeth.
I served with Tommy on an ecumenical education board, and found out how useful it can be to have a good politician as one's partner. We had to deal with a founder of one seminary program, a man who had aged beyond his ability to keep his own project working. We wanted to ease him out, but he did not want to go. Tommy said there was no problem. Just invent a new title for him, give him several awards, and flatter him to the sidelines. He had the fulsome skills to make that strategy work—and it did.
But Tommy could also be blunt. In this, he resembled his father, Tommy Jr. When journalists were pestering “Big Tommy” (as he was known), one reporter said, “My desk needs an answer to this
right away
.” Tommy Jr. held up his hand, leaned over, put his ear down on his own desk, lifted his head, and said,
desk tells
desk to go to hell.”
When Dr. King was killed, Tommy Three had the gruesome task, as mayor, of riding around the city in an armored vehicle during the riots that followed on that tragedy. It deeply disturbed him: “This is not the Baltimore I grew up in.” He decided in the aftermath of his own turmoil that he no longer wanted to stay in politics. But when he said he would not run for re-election as mayor, so great is the assumption that those in power cannot relinquish it that rumors of ethnic scandal were whispered to explain his retirement: “You know these Italians. There must be some Mafia tie involved in this.” Tommy laughed things off, but the rumors persisted. So he called in the City Hall reporters and said, according to what he told me, something like this:
I've heard what they are saying about my not running again. I want to give you the real story. I have not told it to anyone but you. This is a nice job. Every morning I get up and there is a limousine waiting outside my house, heated in winter, cooled in summer. I get in and there is a newspaper for me, and a cup of coffee. I arrive here and everyone is nice to me as I come in—“Hello, Mr. Mayor. How are you, Mr. Mayor?” I come into my office and sit down behind this big desk, and my secretary comes in with a big silver tray. It is piled high with shit, and she asks, “Will you please eat this, Mr. Mayor?” It takes all day, but I get it down by the time I have to leave. And the next day she has another tray ready. Why should I want to keep doing this?
The TV series
The Wire,
based on Baltimore politics and created by a reporter from the
Baltimore Sun,
had its fictional former mayor tell something like this story, but this is the version I heard from Tommy's own lips in my own house.
When Jerry Brown first ran for president in 1976, he won the Maryland primary and was flying high. I went back to California with him on his plane, and he thought his victory had set him on the road to the White House. I later learned from Tommy why he actually won there. The state's governor, Marvin Mandel, was under federal investigation and would shortly be going to jail, but he could still muster his machine's forces—they turned out for Brown, since Mandel hated the other primary candidate, Jimmy Carter, with whom Mandel had clashed at governors' conferences. Nancy Pelosi had known Governor Brown in California, and she introduced him to Tommy, who showed him around town. After one event, Brown got back into the limousine and beamed a question at Tommy. “What do you think, Mr. Mayor?” Tommy replied, “I think you're a prick, Mr. Governor.” Why? “Those people on the dais with you worked all night getting this thing together. But you didn't pay tribute to a single one, mention a single name, shake a single hand.” Tommy said he had been deliberately harsh, to shake Brown out of his bad habits. But Brown kept up the same behavior in the following meetings. Finally, driving him to his last evening rally, Tommy said: “Do me a favor. Don't mention anyone's name or shake anyone's hand. I'll just say it's our campaign strategy.”
Nancy Pelosi has the same needling humor as her brother. I saw her soon after the death of Robert Drinan, the lawyer-priest and antiwar activist who served in Congress until Pope John Paul II ordered him to leave political office. She spoke at the funeral Mass for Father Drinan, and noted that the pope had clearly played a providential role. When Drinan stepped down, the voters put in his place the openly gay congressman Barney Frank.
Jonah House
BOOK: Outside Looking In
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