John Fox, Jr. has an intriguing gig. As the official historian for the Federal Bureau of Investigation, he navigates the multiple perceptions of the storied and infamous Federal Bureau of Investigation.
From the sympathetic portrayal of John Dillinger by Johnny Depp in 2009’s Public Enemies to the secret life of J. Edgar Hoover in Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar, Fox stands on the front lines of interpreting history from the FBI’s perspective. The Inlander spoke with him by phone before his lecture at Gonzaga to talk about history, pop culture and what he thinks of Hollywood actors as G-men.
INLANDER: How did the FBI come into the public consciousness?
FOX: J. Edgar Hoover took over the bureau in the mid-1920s. At the time, it was fairly unknown. You only had a couple hundred employees, its responsibilities were pretty limited, the federal criminal law was not very broad. In the early 1930s, there really became a national concern with crime, especially violent crime. This is in the waning years of Prohibition, which is about to go out. You had the Lindbergh kidnapping, then you have the Midwest gangsters: Dillinger and “Pretty Boy” Floyd and Bonnie and Clyde. In some ways, these criminals kind of captured people’s imagination, in … the sort of Robin Hood way. But they were also kind of scary, because they were willing to engage in gun shootouts in public and kill people and thumb their noses at the law, and it seemed like the law wasn’t able to deal with these gangsters effectively.
And the FBI comes into it and, of course, makes its mistakes but ends up bringing down a lot of these folks. And where a sense of concern had been in some ways more towards the criminals in the early ’30s, there was a real shift, and that image of the G-man almost came to replace that image of the Robin Hood-type John Dillinger.
What was your take on the presentation of J. Edgar and Public Enemies?
As far as history goes, they changed a number of things. They put together almost a 20-some [year] span of bureau history and made it kind of look like a very close-together chronology in movie time. Obviously, that creates some issues of trying to understand what actually happened. … Chronology, for a historian, is very important, and movies don’t treat it in the same way that we do.
Do either of those movies aggrandize anything? Obviously J. Edgar focuses on the possibility that J. Edgar Hoover was gay and had a secret life.
The pop-culture perception of the FBI makes certain aspects of it bigger than life, whether it was the fedora and the white shirt almost-anonymous FBI agent of the ’30s and ’40s and ’50s, to today, where you look at Silence of the Lambs and X-Files. In some ways they portray aspects of the bureau accurately, but they’re telling an entertaining story. And it often reflects things that have happened. Not really in the case of X-Files so much as the others, but that image has an impact on the way the people see the FBI. Certainly it’s important — it would be important for us — that the bureau be portrayed more accurately than less accurately, especially since something like Silence of the Lambs can have a big impact on whether people see themselves as an FBI agent.
What’s an example of something that people don’t realize about the FBI from movies?
There’s a lot of drudge work that goes into it that Hollywood or TV, [they make] the pace a lot quicker, the resolutions are a lot starker. You look at, say, CSI’s portrayal of forensic science and its application to crime. [In a real] investigation, obviously, you don’t see DNA analysis in 20 minutes.
You don’t find all sorts of that kind of physical evidence all over the place. So ultimately, in some ways, it seems, it’s less exciting because it’s drawn out over a real period of time. On the other hand, it’s often a lot more interesting. More challenging.
Your job seems pretty unusual. How’d you get it?
I needed to look for employment while I finished up the doctorate, and the FBI was hiring at the time, so I got my foot in the door. And very soon after I did, the office that I’m in began looking for a historian, so I stuck my head in the door and introduced myself and they said ‘Well, we’re still looking, we’d like someone with a doctorate, but if you’d like to do some history stuff for us, we’d be glad to have you.’
What was the foot-in-the-door position you got with the FBI?
I was a [Freedom of Information Act] analyst. I was looking through the old files applying the exemptions, the things that we have to take out, protecting personal privacy, classified material and things like that.
That must have been interesting.
thought so, especially since I’d been spending the last couple of years
on the other side, looking at the documents with all the black in them.
It’s a frustration of researchers, but I also understood the reasons
why the bureau did the things it did.
“Histories of the FBI: The Roles of Popular, Public, and Academic History in Understanding the Bureau” lecture by John Fox, Jr. • Tues, Jan. 24, at 7 pm • Gonzaga University • Cataldo Hall Globe Room • Free • 313-3691