tv Firing Line With Margaret Hoover PBS July 9, 2022 5:30am-6:00am PDT
>> a secret history of our nation's capital this week on "firing line." before the gay pride movement, gay people in washington wielded power from inside the closet at constant risk of being exposed. >> there was no greater secret that was more dangerous than being gay. it was actually worse and more threatening than being a communist. >> the so-called lavender scare ruined the lives and careers of thousands of gay men and women. >> the pervert is easy prey to the blackmailer. >> james kirchick is an award-winning journalist and author. his best-selling new book, "secret city," chronicles a hidden history. >> i just saw a gay angle to all these stories and presidential administrations and episodes that a lot of people had missed. >> with historic advances in america's gay-rights movement
and a new backlash once again targeting lgbt people, what does james kirchick say now? >> "firing line with margaret hoover" is made possible in part by... corporate funding is provided by... >> james kirchick, welcome back to "firing ne." >> thank you for having me. >> look, we've known each other for more than a decade, and i'm delighted to welcome you back here to talk to you about your new book, which debuted on the new york times best-seller list called "secret city: the hidden history of gay washington." why did you write the book? >> well, a few reasons. one is, as a journalist, i'm always trying to say something new. and i realized living in washington, reading history of the city and its politics and its life,
that there was no greater secret that was more dangerous or more threatening to a political career in the 20th century than being gay. it was actually worse and more threatening than being a communist at the height of the cold war. and so i figured this story needed to be told. it needed to be put together into one overarching narrative. and so i set out to do that. >> you're an author, you're a columnist. you're also an openly gay man who lives in washington, d.c. you defy stereotypes. i've always known you to be more closely associated with the center right. where do you place your politics these days? >> i think right and left have become sort of obsolete terms, but i would say classical liberal. >> how do you define classical liberal? >> believing in liberal, small-l liberal values, individual rights, freedom of speech, the rule of law. >> how much of yourself anyour own story as an openly gay man in washington now
informed your interest in pursuing the history of gay washington and the secret history of gay washington? >> very much so. and i actually felt myself in a lot of these characters who are mostly men because this was a period when it was mostly men who were running things in washington. and a lot of them were around my age. a lot of them were in their mid-to-late 30s. and it was very tragic to read about a lot of these figures, very highly accomplished people who, solely because of their secret... >> yeah. >> ...which is the secret that i shared with them, had their careers destroyed, their lives ruined. and i felt that it was important to memorialize that and to collect these stories and to present them to the world. >> one review of your book notes that "the gays and lesbians in kirchick's book formed a rotating cast of forrest gumps, appearing at the center of every major political event the latter half of the 20th century."
tell me more. >> yeah, i just saw a gay angle to all these stories and presidential administrations and episodes that a lot of people had missed. for instance, there's a whole gay story to the founding of the oss, which is the predecessor organization to the cia. there were a number of gay people in that institution. there's a whole gay history to the battle between the fbi and the cia, the bureaucratic turf war in the early years of the cold war. there's a whole gay story to iran-contra that i tell, an entire chapter on that. there's a whole gay story to the kennedy assassination. so that's what i was -- that's what i was trying to accomplish. >> you detail how the state department, the intelligence services, disproportionately had gay power brokers represented in them. why is that? >> the era before the cold war, the state department wasn't a particularly attractive place if you were a gay man. it was an all-male institution.
you could travel overseas. you could also perhaps get away with being a bachelor in a job like that. you could give the excuse, you know, "i'm too busy. i'm traveling, i'm living overseas. i'm changing places every couple years." and that would be a kind of convincing excuse for why you were unmarried. the intelligence services as well, because if you think about it, what do spies have to do? they have to lie, they have to deceive, they have to pretend to be something they're not. and those are skills that gay people in this particular generation would just naturally acquire better than straight people. straight people didn't have to go around lying every day about who they were or pretending to be something else. and so we see in these institutions in particular, there's a higher quotient of gay people. and that all begins to change in the early years of the cold war. >> in writing "secret city," you consulted thousands of pages of declassified documents, conducted more than 100 interviews, unearthed material from presidential libraries and archives from around the country. i'd like to ask you a question that i recently heard
you ask but you didn't have an answer to and i wonder if you've thought of the answer since. who was the most powerful gay american in washington in the 20th century? >> well, it depends on how you would define whether or not someone's gay. so, you know, if j. edgar hoover was gay, then he would probably qualify for that role. but there's no evidence that he was gay or straight. there's a lot of circumstantial evidence that j. edgar hoover might have been gay. >> well, let's talk about the circumstantial evidence. >> i mean, sure, he had a very close relationship with his number two at the fbi, clyde tolson. they would eat lunch every day at the mayflower hotel, they would travel together on vacations, they lived right near each other. you can see photos of the two of them looking quite admiringly at one another. when hoover died, tolson is buried just a couple of plots over in congressional cemetery. but as a historian, i have to be very scrupulous. and to me, this is not evidence that he was gay, right?
this is not sufficient to makthat declaration. i document extensively how sensitive and concerned both the director and his entire organization were about him being perceived as gay. >> and yet there's no evidence. >> there's no evidence. none. nor is there any -- even more absurd is the claim that he was a cross-dresser, which is one of the most widely believed beliefs about j. edgar hoover. >> but also the most easily debunked. >> absolutely. i mean, that story comes from a divorced widow of a mob boss who was paid to tell the story to a writer for british newspapers. but, yeah, that's one of the most -- when i was telling people i was writing a book about gay washington, one of the first things that i would always hear was, "oh, you must be writing about j. edgar hoover being a cross-dresser, right?" i mean, i used to kind of roll my eyes at that. >> you describe a transformation which you alluded to earlier in washington that actually sort of prior to world war ii, this was seen as a private vice.
>> right. >> whereas between world war ii and through the cold war, there became this national security component to being homosexual. >> yeah. >> that it was a real liability. what caused the change in attitudes? >> so prior to world war ii, the united states was isolationist and it didn't have an intelligence apparatus. and world war ii transforms the united states -- becomes a global superpower. and the management and the collection of secrets becomes very important. in fact, the concept of "national security" doesn't really exist until world war ii. and with that, the keeping of secrets, homosexuality then becomes a great liability because the belief is that a homosexual will go to any lengths to keep this shameful secret secret, including turn over sensitive information to an adversarial power.
so gays are believed to be the most susceptible to blackmail. and this then becomes the basis for purging gay people from the government, from denying them security clearances. >> it strikes me how different presidents had remarkably different attitudes towards gay professionals working in their administration. i want to ask you about fdr's under secretary of state, sumner welles, who you spend a lot of time on telling his story. who was he and what was his influence on public policy? >> so, welles probably was -- you asked me earlier who's the most powerful gay person i document in the book. it probably would have been him. he's the under secretary of state in the roosevelt administration. he's a very talented diplomat. he basically writes the atlantic charter, which is the declaration of allied war aims in world war ii. he is an old roosevelt family friend, extremely wealthy, blue blood, new england background. and in 1940, he's riding on the presidential train back from the funeral
of the speaker of the house, william bankhead, tallulah bankhead's father. and he drunkenly propositions a number of porters on the train, and this news finds its way into the hands of his enemies within the administration. >> and welles becomes the first government official to be fired. >> yes. >> for being gay. roosevelt finally asks for his resignation. >> and he delivers it. yes. >> so why hadn't that happened earlier? >> i think it's because of what i mentioned earlier about world war ii and the securitization of homosexuality. so there may have been gay scandals prior to that time. i couldn't come across any because there just wasn't this fear of blackmail and national security. >> so your book spans the fdr administration to the clinton administration. there were thousands of government employees between those two administrations who were purged for being gay. and you write...
now, we all know about the red scare. >> yep. >> talk about the lavender scare. >> so the lavender scare, if you could point to a beginning, it would be in february 1950. and on the 9th of that month, joe mccarthy gives his infamous speech to the republican ladies of wheeling, west virginia, where he waves a paper in his hand that he claims has the names of 205 communists in the state department on it. and then just a couple weeks later, dean acheson, the secretary of state, is called up to capitol hill to testify about these claims. and he brings along with him a deputy. and just in passing, this deputy mentions that 91 homosexuals have been fired over the previous three years. and this is a shocking revelation. no one knew that there were homosexuals in the state department, never mind 91 of them. and a senate subcommittee is called to investigate the subject of sexual perverts in the government. this is how gay people were referred to at the time.
and over the next, you know, decade, i think you could say, thousand-- about 7,000 to 10,000 people were purged from various government jobs. some of them were gay. some of them, who knows? just the mere accusation could spark an investigation. i came across records of people, you know, ratting out colleagues because they had a certain -- they walked a certain way. they talked a certain way. the evidentiary standards were not high, put it that way. >> there's another group about which i hesitate to talk, but i think the picture isn't complete unless we do. the pervert is easy prey to the blackmailer. they're dangerous to this country. >> the lavender scares became entwined with the red scare. and you write extensively about roy cohn, who worked for senator joseph mccarthy. he was his chief counsel
duri the mccarthy hearings. roy cohn was a closeted gay man, and you have said that while roy cohn was a terrible human being, you call the real villain the closet. >> mm-hmm. >> explain your thinking about that. >> well, i think that the closet makes people do terrible things. you have to lie every day about who you are. and the closet made gay people do terrible things not just to themselves, but to other people, which is not to say that, you know, there were plenty of people who didn't commit the sort of transgressions that roy cohn did who were also closeted. but i think ultimately you have to see him as a victim of the closet in the way that all gay people were victims of the closet. >> other victims of the closet were the hundreds of people who were persecuted by j. edgar hoover. we discussed him earlier, but he vigorously pursued investigations of so-called
"sex perverts in government service." roy cohn was on a version of the original "firing line" with william f. buley jr., where he actually talks about j. edgar hoover and comes to his defense. >> he's a champ to me, and i think he's a champ to millions of people around this country who go back to kidnapping days, go up to the days when he had the guts to develop information during world war ii, when the soviet union was our ally, which was the -- without which we would have been absolutely dead in our information gathering in our attempts to expose the threats to american freedom when it turned out that the communists were after us, too, just as hitler had been. i remember what he has done for the protection of civil rights and liberties. and i think to the american people, mr. j. edgar hoover is still a pretty darn good name. >> what's your reaction? >> it's kind of pathetic because cohn and hoover worked together
to destroy gay people's lives. cohn was fully aware of what hoover was doing. >> cohn was not out then. >> cohn was never out. he never came out of the closet. he denied to his, you know, dying day of aids that he was gay. there's an overcompensation. and you talked earlier about the closet, what it forced people to do. it forced people like this to overcompensate. so you see a closeted gay man like roy cohn going out of his way to praise this man, j. edgar hoover, who was responsible for wrecking so many gay people's lives. i think it was a sense that he had to, you know, portray an image of himself so that no one would suspect the truth about him, roy cohn, which is that he was a gay man. >> there are two men in the book who you have added. one was in richard nixon's administration, his chief speechwriter, ray price. i had met ray price before he died. and i know you knew ray price
personally. when he interacted with his friends, his identity wasn't a secret. why did you feel that it was important to out him in your book? >> so first of all, i have a very high standard for outing anyone. certainly when they're alive. when they're dead, it's -- i think they belong to history at that point. but here i thought even then, it needs to be justifiable in some way. and i think it tells us something about richard nixon that he could have this very close adviser. and one of the most loyal nixonians was ray price. i mean, he was defending richard nixon long after nixon was -- resigned and disgraced, that he could have this very close aide who he knew was gay. yet simultaneously, we can listen to the tapes, the white house tapes, where nixon is just engaging in the most gratuitous and vulgar homophobia. >> mm-hmm. >> and i think it tells us something about richard nixon, the man, in the same way that he could engage in theost vulgar anti-semitism
and yet have a series of aides, very close aides who were jews. and it's a recurring theme in the book, right, is that these presidents, almost all the presidents i write about have close aides who they know are gay, but it doesn't reflect -- i mean, the humanity that they recognize in these men and some women is not reflected in their public policies. and i think that's -- i think that justified it in my mind. >> your book ends with the clinton administration at the end of the 20th century and the gay '90s, as it's been written about, in which there was really an expansion and acceptance of gayness in government and really throughout the country. and yet, in the clinton administration, the defense of marriage act was signed. >> yep. >> "don't ask, don't tell" is implemented. how do you think about this push and pull? >> i think it's a good illustration of the broad sweep, the broad story of gay people
in america, which is that it's often two steps forward, one step back, sometimes two steps forward, three steps back. and so i write about world war ii, for instance, being a very important moment in the development of the gay consciousness, and that you have all sorts of gay people for the first time meeting other gay people, right? they're leaving small towns and rural areas and they're being -- because of the military mobilization, they're being sent to military bases or overseas. and they understand that they're not alone. that's followed just a couple of years later by the lavender scare. and then in 1969, there is the stonewall uprising and this burst of gay visibility. it makes national headlines. people from all over the country are reading about this. people are coming out of the closet. there are gay pride parades being held for the first time. and this is followed by a backlash. anita bryant in her save our children campaign to repeal anti-discrimination statutes or to bar gay people from serving as schoolteachers
in california. that was one measure. and then in the '90s, there's the clinton administration welcoming gay people into the executive branch for really the first time. bill clinton lifts the ban on gay people receiving security clearances in 1995. but there's also the defense of marriage act and the ban on or the "don't ask, don't tell" regulation in the military. so it's a mixed picture, but ultimately, it is a story of progress over time. >> contemporary lgbt equality, to live openly in washington today, if you are gay, same-sex marriage is allowed not just in washington. nationally, gays are allowed to serve openly in the military. most gay people live in states where they're protected from discrimination. a gay man, pete buttigieg, was a serious contender for the
democratic nomination for president. are you concerned that there has been so much advancement for gay people that that two steps forward, one step back continues in the form of backlash? >> there's a backlash now, certainly in some states, but i think what's driving it mostly is confusion over the gender identity and transgender issues, which i don't write about in the book because it's a book about gay people and i think it's a separate and more complicated issue. i think it's also a backlash to the fact that over the past 10 years, there's been just a massive increase in the percentage of americans who identify as lgbt. it's doubled from 2010 to 2020. >> why do you think that is? >> well, we've seen it's mostly younger people that this is where the increase is coming. it's almost exclusively among millennials and gen z.
and i don't think that there's -- you know, i don't think that because the numbers pretty much remained the same throughout history. i don't think that all of a sudden, gen z people, kids -- >> you don't think there's a higher occurrence? >> i don't think there's a higher occurrence of homosexuality or transgender identity among this generation. what i think it is, is that there is -- it's actually a good thing in a way in that there is more tolerance and acceptance of homosexuality and differing gender identities than there ever haen before. and so i think young people are more willing to experiment and perhaps identify, maybe temporarily with one of these identities. and i think if people understand it that way, that it's not something to be up in arms about. >> you've written about how republican state legislators are proposing bills to prohit the discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity in classrooms, supposedly to protect students from predatory gay teachers.
you hear words like groomers. books with lgbt characters are being banned. the texas republican party just adopted a new platform which refers to homosexuity as "abnormal" and opposes all efforts to validate transgender identity. what is your take on why this is happening now? >> well, i think it's partly because there has been this burst of visibility in the same way that, you know, world war ii brought a burst of visibility. and the kinsey report that comes out in 1948 reports that 10% of men are homosexual. that shocks the country and it leads to a backlash. i think there's been just a surge in visibility gay people and transgender people in popular culture. we certainly talk about these issues more an i think we ever have before. and it inspires a backlash. >> there is something specifically more onerous
and pointed in the republican party today, particularly, and as an example, the texas republican party's platform. what do you make of that? >> it's strange because president trump, for all his many faults, this was not an issue that excited him. >> roy cohn was one of his friends. >> although he abandoned roy cohn when he got aids. but it was not an issue that -- i mean, donald trump was not animated by this issue. he actually appointed the first openly gay member of a cabinet. and i don't think it was actually a motivating issue for his voters either. i don't think if you looked at his voters and asked them, "why are you voting for donald trump?" or "what is it that's motivating you politically?" i don't think that a backlash to homosexuality or transgender identity, i don't think that's what was motivating them. >> how strong is the closet in washington today? >> i think in some isolated places, it still exists. there are probably some,
you know, very conservative congressional offices, some organizations, some very far-right organizations in washington, but beyond that, i don't think it really is a phenomenon anymore. i mean, course, there are closeted people in washington. >> there are closeted politicians -- there are prominent politicians who are closeted in washington today, i would presume. >> presumably, if we're going to go by the kinsey figure, the 10%, right, then we would expect that that number would be higher. but i don't think it's as much of an issue anymore politically because homosexuality is not really an issue anymore politically. >> let me ask you the question in a different way. if you're writing this book 50 years from now... >> mm-hmm. >> ...are there people in washington who are closeted now that would be the subject of your book? >> that's a good question. unless you can point to some sort of way in which it's affecting their views on the issue of homosexuality. so if you can point to sort of hypocrisy, then i think that they would be characters in a book that
was written 50 years from now. but i wouldn't out these people today if they're not doing anything to harm gay people. i adamantly oppose outing them. >> i think what you're saying is that outing is acceptable under certain circumstances. >> very extremely rare circumstances. if somne is using their political power to hurt gay people if they themselves are gay. in those limited circumstances, i believe it can possibly be justified. once someone dead, then i don't think that that rule exists anymore, frankly. >> jamie kirchick, thank you for your book. >> thank you. >> thank you for returning to "firing line." >> anytime. >> "firing line with margaret hoover" is made possible in part by...
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