Guy W. Farmer: Movie spurs memories of Nevada battle with J. Edgar Hoover
For the Nevada Appeal
I was transported back to 1960s Nevada as I watched “J. Edgar,” a movie based on the strange life of late FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. As it happened, I was the press spokesman for the Nevada’s gaming control agencies when Hoover picked a fight with the Silver State.
In the mid-1960s, I worked for two-term Nevada Gov. Grant Sawyer, a Democrat who ran on two major policy issues: civil rights and gambling control. Sawyer integrated the casinos, no minor accomplishment in “the Mississippi of the West,” as Nevada was known in those days, and he implemented a tough gaming control policy designed to rid our state of organized crime figures. The gaming control agencies issued a “Black Book” of mobsters barred from Nevada casinos, and we revoked the gambling license of crooner Frank Sinatra for hosting Chicago mob boss Sam “Momo” Giancana at North Lake Tahoe’s Cal-Neva Lodge, which Sinatra owned.
So far so good, but Hoover, who denied the existence of organized crime, injected himself into the political picture by engaging in a widespread program of illegal bugging and wiretapping of Nevada casino owners. Sawyer protested and even visited his friend President John F. Kennedy in an effort to put an end to Hoover’s illegal activity. But JFK was unable to rein in Hoover and his boss, Attorney General Robert “Bobby” Kennedy, the president’s feisty younger brother. That led to an old-fashioned political showdown between a small western state and the all-powerful federal government.
As I recalled in my 2001 University of Nevada oral history, “Gov. Sawyer went back (to Washington) and asked Jack Kennedy to call off Bobby and the (federal) strike forces, and to stop all the bugging and wiretapping. Sawyer was also angry at J. Edgar Hoover, who always came out with per-capita crime statistics such that our 1 million residents got credit for every petty theft committed by every small-time gambler who came through Nevada.” In one heated exchange, Sawyer called Hoover “a Nazi,” and all hell broke loose.
Hoover responded by publicly endorsing Sawyer’s Republican opponent, Lt. Gov. Paul Laxalt, in the 1966 gubernatorial election campaign. “I won’t say that he (Hoover) cost Gov. Sawyer a third term,” I wrote, “but he certainly didn’t help our cause.” Laxalt defeated Sawyer and went on to become a high-profile U.S. senator who was one of President Ronald Reagan’s best friends.
As “J. Edgar” points out, Hoover went downhill from there and died before President Richard Nixon could fire him for insubordination.
The movie certainly shows Hoover’s strengths and weaknesses, and it included a possible homosexual relationship with his longtime deputy and inseparable companion, Clyde Tolson.
Although I think it’s highly likely that Hoover was a closet homosexual, many former FBI agents disagree, including Richard Schneider of Carson City, who sent me a column describing Hoover as “a strong public figure who dealt with controversial issues during tumultuous times.”
While that may be true, Hoover was no hero here in 1960s Nevada.
• Guy W. Farmer, of Carson City, was a Nevada gaming control official in the mid-1960s.