Joseph Sabino Mistick: Democracy requires 'a little faith'
“It's complicated.” If you grew up during boom times in the industrial towns of the Northeast, that may be the most accurate thing you can say about your relationship with the FBI.
Surely, every boy was enthralled with the “G-men” of the movies and television, who fought for justice. Then, as now, brave FBI field agents were seen as heroes, never hesitating to put themselves at risk for others' safety. But their boss was a different story. The FBI's tone in those days was set by J. Edgar Hoover, a power-ravenous bureaucrat of considerable political talent, all of which he spent on self-promotion.
Because of Hoover, if you were a first- or second-generation American, or you came from a family of liberal Democrats or unionists, you saw the dark side of the bureau, too.
Hoover was the FBI and vice versa. He targeted labor unions, the same ones that were responsible for decent wages, health benefits, job safety, pensions and weekends off. And anyone with a good ethnic name was a suspected communist or mafioso.
Hoover ordered agents to infiltrate the civil rights movement, smear Martin Luther King Jr. and stand by while civil rights workers were beaten and worse. Later, he did the same with peaceful anti-war demonstrations in cities and on college campuses.
He used “dirty” files to coerce public officials to bend to his will, from presidents on down. And he announced his credo, showing true colors, with this quote: “Justice is merely incidental to law and order.”
With Hoover's death, there was a chance for a fresh start, but there were stumbles. Richard Nixon, who treated the Justice Department like his personal law firm, appointed L. Patrick Gray as acting FBI director. In short order, Gray was pulled into the Watergate swamp and resigned after a year.
None of this made the FBI popular around the blue-collar dinner tables of the era. But in time, things changed, as professional leadership worked its way and encouraged and rewarded field agents for their independence and integrity.
Throughout the bureau's history, even in troubled times, “law and order” Republicans stood with it. But somehow, the FBI and the Republican Party have gotten turned around. Now, top Republicans launch daily attacks on the bureau, while many others stand by silently, unwilling to speak in its defense.
Nothing could be more American than questioning government authority and demanding answers from its leaders. But there is another side to that, too.
As author Bill Bishop wrote in The Washington Post, “Political scientists tell us that democracies require a little faith. … You have to assume that institutions will be fair and that leaders will act in the country's best interest.”
This is the balance that we have lost.
The FBI is not a perfect government institution, and it should be questioned. But hysterical sweeping attacks, designed to derail the investigation of Russian interference in our presidential election with groundless claims and manufactured “evidence,” are not the American way.
That can only further weaken what little faith we have left.
Joseph Sabino Mistick is a Pittsburgh lawyer (joemistick.com).