“Oh, Rabbi Goldberg, we will send you a copy of the book, but you won’t need to pay. Please, just write a review.”
Me? A review of a book about the FBI?
What do I know about the FBI?
No, I’m not a candidate to review Bob Pence’s memoir of his years in the FBI.
The IJN receives many more books for review than we can possibly review, or even read. Often enough, people press a book on me, insisting on sending it even though I tell them that I have no time to read it or no competence to review it. Still, I feel guilty when these books pile up and I do not review them. I know how much it means to an author to see his or her book reviewed.
But the FBI? I knew right off the bat I can’t review this book, so I came up with a strategy to fight off both a review and my guilt. Since Bob Pence is a friend, I said:
“Sure, send the book. But also send a bill. I’m paying for it.”
I am in no way obligated to review the book and I’m free of guilt.
The book was sent.
I paid the full price.
I was relieved.
Famous last words.
I glanced at the book out of curiosity and then found I couldn’t put it down.
I quickly saw that I didn’t need to know anything about the FBI to enjoy My Non-Political FBI: From Hoover to a Violent America (Fulcrum, 2020). In fact, this book is just for someone like me, who knows nothing about the FBI, but who does enjoy a good story.
This book is entertaining! It’s very well written and in many places dramatic. It’s as suspenseful as a mystery novel but better, because you know everything in here actually happened.
Take the section on bank robbers and bank robberies, and the FBI methods devised to catch them.
Along the way are some great personality profiles and, surprisingly enough, not a small amount of empathy. Pence, who is committed to public safety, put a lot of brains and people into play in order to catch these felons. But to do so, he and his team need to dig into the lives of the criminals. This can yield a certain sympathy for their circumstances. Not always, to be sure; and certainly not for the criminal acts per se. But FBI work is often psychological work. I would never have thought that an FBI memoir would leave me with some illuminating portraits of criminals that often are anything but black-and-white.
Another thing I did not appreciate about the FBI or about our government more broadly: There are a lot of agencies out there fighting crime, and there is a lot of cooperation between them. A lot of agencies and branches of the military have crime-fighting divisions. At least under Bob Pence’s leadership, but I suspect much more widely, too, these agencies share methods, information and often human resources to catch the bad guys.
There’s a chapter on what it takes to become an FBI agent. Among the many qualifications, one in particular surprised me: the extent of the physical qualifications. It sounded just short of boot camp for the Marines. Then, I was surprised to learn that mandatory retirement age is 57.
A major strength of this memoir is Pence’s interest and ability to set the context for every major episode he presents. He is a man with a broad vision combined with a lot of facts at his fingertips. For example, in discussing the FBI during the Vietnam War, he deftly summarizes both the war and the domestic opposition to it, articulating many sides of the picture.
No memoir by an FBI agent who worked under J. Edgar Hoover can be complete without addressing the controversial J. Edgar Hoover.
My image of Hoover was shaped by my status as a student during the 1960s, when it was widely reported that the FBI spied on Martin Luther King, Jr., seeing him as involved in undermining the US government, and conducted other unsavory activities.
Here is Pence’s differentiated view of Hoover:
Hoover cared deeply about his agents and went to extremes to make certain they were safe.
Hoover stayed in the position too long (50 years), not understanding that crime and criminals had changed; not understanding, in particular, that undercover operations were necessary.
Hoover was extremely strict, ready to reprimand or discipline an agent if his shoes were not perfectly shined, his shirt not perfectly clean, etc.
Hoover could show strong appreciation to his agents for jobs well done by writing them strong letters of appreciation.
Pence writes that rumors flew that Hoover kept secret files on enemies.
Pence confirms that there was a special file room requiring special access, which contained information on celebrities, politicians or controversial personalities reported to the FBI that might not have any factual corroboration. That is why, says Pence, these files should be protected from perusal by FBI employees merely out of curiosity.
Pence doubts that Hoover ever leveraged this information to influence decisions, but says he really doesn’t know one way or the other.
On the Vietnam War era, Pence writes of allegations of subversive activity against the US government. On the one hand:
“Many, and, frankly, most [allegations] were determined to have no merit and were based on fear, hatred, revenge, or a frenetic instability and uncertainty caused, or, at least, occasioned by the war.”
On the other hand, the FBI was close to the breaking point dealing with the threats, fires, attacks and other violent incidents that did occur.
Pence reports on these incidents in detail.
At the same time, serious business is always leavened by Pence with a piece of suspense — or amusement — in the lives of the agents. For example, as FBI agents looked down from upper floors as the new FBI headquarters was going up across the street, a literal army of Washington’s subterranean population emerged daily at dusk to devour lunch leftovers and anything else their appetites could handle. The members of this population were as big as cats and, indeed, the agents thought they were cats until they took a better look.
They were rats.
Copyright © 2020 by the Intermountain Jewish News