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Sunday, September 9, 2012

President Ronald Reagan's Personal Spying Machine

Official Portrait of President Ronald Reagan.
IN 1961, when Ronald Reagan was defining himself politically, he warned that if left unchecked, government would become “a Big Brother to us all.” But previously undisclosed F.B.I. records, released to me after a long and costly legal fight under the Freedom of Information Act, present a different side of the man who has come to symbolize the conservative philosophy of less government and greater self-reliance.
When Reagan needed government help, he was happy to take it, which is particularly interesting in light of the current debate over “entitlements,” and which might give pause to members of both political parties who speak glowingly of the Reagan legacy.
The documents show that Reagan was more involved than was previously known as a government informer during his Hollywood years, and that in return he secretly received personal and political help from J. Edgar Hoover, the longtime F.B.I. director, at taxpayer expense.
Reagan’s F.B.I. connection is rooted in the turbulent years of post-World War II Hollywood, a time when, Reagan has written, his worldview was coming apart. His film career, his marriage to Jane Wyman and his faith in the political wisdom received from his father, an F.D.R. Democrat, were all faltering.
The timing was thus significant when, one night in 1946, F.B.I. agents dropped by his house overlooking Sunset Boulevard and told him that Communists were infiltrating a liberal group he was involved in. He soon had a new purpose; as he wrote, “I must confess they opened my eyes to a good many things.”
The newly released files flesh out what Reagan only hinted at. They show that he began to report secretly to the F.B.I. about people whom he suspected of Communist activity, some on the scantiest of evidence. And they reveal that during his tenure as president of the Screen Actors Guild in the ’40s and ’50s, F.B.I. agents had access to guild records on dozens of actors. As one F.B.I. official wrote in a memo, Reagan “in every instance has been cooperative.”
Reagan went on to make his fight against Communism in Hollywood a centerpiece of his talks as spokesman for General Electric in the 1950s. Those eventually became broader warnings about what he saw as creeping socialism. The founding fathers, he declared in his 1961 speech, believed “government should only do those things the people cannot do for themselves.”
But that guidance apparently didn’t apply to Reagan himself. According to F.B.I. records, in 1960 he turned to the federal government for help with the kind of problem families usually handle themselves. That March, his close friend George Murphy reached out to an F.B.I. contact, explaining that Reagan and Ms. Wyman, now divorced, were “much concerned” about their estranged daughter, Maureen, then 19. She had moved to Washington, and, her parents had heard, was living with an older, married policeman.
According to an F.B.I. memo: “Jane Wyman wishes to come to Washington to perhaps straighten out her daughter, get her back to Los Angeles, but before doing so desires to know the following: (1) Is [the man in question] employed as an officer of the Metropolitan Police Department?; (2) Is he married?; (3) Is his wife in an institution and what are the details?; and (4) Any other information which might be discreetly developed concerning the relationship.”
At F.B.I. headquarters, supervisors reviewed a background report on Maureen Reagan that they had prepared the previous year, when she applied to work at a federal agency. It provided a glimpse of her family life and quoted an administrator at Marymount Junior College, in Arlington, Va., from which she had dropped out: “Maureen was the victim of a broken home, and because she had resided in boarding schools and been away from parental contact so much of her life she was an insecure individual ‘who could not make up her mind’ and did not achieve goals set by herself or others.”
An assistant F.B.I. director, Cartha DeLoach, recommended that the F.B.I. grant the Reagans’ request, even while noting that “there does not appear to be any F.B.I. jurisdiction here.” Hoover quickly approved the inquiry. Posing as an insurance salesman, one agent made a pretext phone call to neighbors; another contacted a police source; a third interviewed the maid at Maureen Reagan’s rooming house.
The investigation confirmed that Ms. Reagan was living with the married patrolman, and Mr. DeLoach ordered an agent to tell the Reagans via Mr. Murphy “on a highly confidential basis.”
This government assistance did not solve Maureen Reagan’s problems, however. The officer left his wife and married her, but as Ms. Reagan later wrote, he repeatedly beat her. They divorced in 1962. Nor did it bridge the gap between Reagan and his daughter. “I still haven’t spoken openly to my parents, or to anyone in my family, about the details of what I went through,” she wrote in 1989.
Hoover helped Reagan with another family concern, in early 1965, not long before he embarked on his first political campaign, for governor of California. That January, the F.B.I. was closing in on Joseph Bonanno, known as Joe Bananas, the head of one of New York City’s five Mafia families, who owned a house in Arizona.
F.B.I. agents in Phoenix made an unexpected discovery: According to records, “the son of Ronald Reagan was associating with the son of Joe Bonnano [sic].” That is, Michael Reagan, the adopted son of Reagan and Ms. Wyman, was consorting with Bonanno’s son, Joseph Jr. The teenagers had bonded over their shared love of fast cars and acting tough.
(In my legal fight for these files, the F.B.I. initially redacted Michael Reagan’s identity on the ground that this information concerned “law enforcement” activities. But Judge Marilyn Hall Patel of the United States District Court in San Francisco ordered the F.B.I. to disclose it.)
Joseph Jr. was not involved in organized crime, but he was spending time at his father’s home, the inner sanctum. In October 1964, he had been arrested in connection with the beating of a Scottsdale, Ariz., coffee shop manager. And in January 1965, The New York Times reported that the Manhattan federal prosecutor Robert Morgenthau had subpoenaed him to testify about his father.
Following routine procedure, F.B.I. agents in Phoenix asked agents in Los Angeles to interview Ronald Reagan for any information he might have gleaned from his son. The investigation, after all, was a top priority. But Hoover blocked them from questioning Reagan, thus sparing him potentially unfavorable publicity. Declaring it “unlikely that Ronald Reagan would have any information of significance,” Hoover instead ordered agents to warn him about his son’s worrisome friendship.
Reagan expressed his gratitude to an F.B.I. agent, William L. Byrne Jr., on Feb. 1, 1965. Reagan “was most appreciative and stated he realized that such an association and actions on the part of his son might well jeopardize any political aspirations he might have,” according to an F.B.I. report. “He stated that the Bureau’s courtesy in this matter will be kept absolutely confidential. Reagan commented that he realizes that it would be improper to express his appreciation in writing and requested that SA [Special Agent] Byrne convey the great admiration he has for the Director and the Bureau and to express his thanks for the Bureau’s cooperation.”
Newspapers carried sensational stories about the F.B.I.’s Bonanno investigation, but the boys’ troublesome relationship never came up. During his campaign for governor, Reagan focused on other people’s children, making protests at the University of California, Berkeley, one of the hottest issues.
Days after he took office in January 1967, Governor Reagan called the F.B.I. and requested a briefing on the demonstrations at Berkeley. Hoover again obliged, confidentially providing information from the bureau’s domestic surveillance files.
Here was Ronald Reagan, avowed opponent of overdependence on government, again taking personal and political help from Hoover.
Perhaps now and then we all need a little help from Big Brother. 

Seth Rosenfeld is the author of “Subversives: The F.B.I.’s War on Student Radicals, and Reagan’s Rise to Power.”



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