Is Bill Turner the most valuable journalist now writing? Is he the most underrated? His new book certainly seems to advance those arguments. Rearview Mirror is a memoir of Turner's professional career since his enlistment into the FBI as a young man in 1951. It then takes us through his resignation about ten years later and his attempt to expose J. Edgar Hoover's inefficient and public-relations minded FBI regime. The book then highlights Turner's journalistic career, first at Ramparts and then as an independent journalist and author. When one looks at the books and articles that have come from that career, Turner's stature seems to me to be quite high. In an era when the left values such people as Alex Cockburn and right exalts writers like Bill Kristol, Turner seems an undervalued jewel. Consider some of his achievements. Hoover's FBI was one of the earliest and best exposures of the hollowness of J. Edgar Hoover's tyranny of the Bureau. Power on the Right was an early look at the then eccentric and relatively sparse religious right that would later, under men like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, become a political juggernaut. His book, The Police Establishment, showed how conservative and connected to the FBI your supposedly independent local police force was and is. His two major articles on Jim Garrison in Ramparts were perhaps the two finest short pieces written on the investigation at the time. (And his unpublished book on that probe is also a quite creditable effort.) The Fish is Red (later reissued as Deadly Secrets) is still the best volume on America's extended aggression against Castro's Cuba. And his 1978 book The Assassination of Robert F. Kennedy is also the finest volume yet produced on that tragically ignored political murder. Can any other living journalist equal such a record of high achievement on so many divergent and important topics? If so, I can't think of one. And I should add that in my view it is one of the top ten books written on any of the assassinations of the sixties, a comment that takes in a lot of ground.
And when one considers the fact that most of the volumes above stand independent of Turner's newspaper/magazine output, his achievement is even more impressive. And I for one cannot ignore the fact that Turner is a fine writer whose phrasing is always smooth, easily digestible, and, at times, quite felicitous. This quality makes the, at times, complex issues he discusses e.g. the Manchurian Candidate aspects of the RFK case, much more easy to understand and even assimilate. In a field where one has to wade through the obstructionist prose of some, to be kind, untalented writers, Turner's books are like driving on a California freeway at four in the morning. Cruise control.
Rearview Mirror is structured as a chronological memoir. It begins with his unsuccessful battle to expose Hoover's hollowness, a battle that secured turner's eventual departure from the Bureau. Turner was one of the earliest insiders to complain about Hoover's blindness to the powers and influence of organized crime in America. Turner and a friend of his, Skip Gibbons, did all they could to get a public hearing to air their gripes about Hoover. They tried at a Civil Service Commission hearing, they tried for an audience with Attorney General Robert Kennedy, they tried to get to political stalwarts like Estes Kefauver and Jacob Javits in the senate. Almost of necessity, because of Hoover's long reach and unseemly tactics, it was fruitless. And because there were no whistleblower laws at the time--laws designed to protect government employees who report malfeasance--Turner left his job, at considerable personal sacrifice.
And this is where one of the outstanding features of the book appears. For it is not only a memoir. Turner has provided the reader with a stereophonic view of the past. He has decked it out with archival releases that retrospectively illuminate events and actions. For instance, Turner now knows that John Mohr of the FBI discussed his civil service appeal with Civil Service Staff Chief Ed Bechtold. Bechtold told Mohr that they would sustain the Bureau's discharge of Turner.
When Turner wrote his 1964 article on John Kennedy's murder for Saga, Hoover's assistant Cartha DeLoach monitored his every move both pre and post-publication, and then retaliated through his press flacks like Drew Pearson. Turner also details the attempts by CIA to undermine Ramparts after that now legendary magazine exposed the agency's use of universities in support of the Vietnam War and the later exposure of its program to infiltrate the National Students Association. Codenamed Operation CHAOS, the program actually seems to have started as an attempt to wreck that magazine although it later spread out to much of the antiwar underground press. CHAOS is another program suspected by Turner at the time, but only confirmed much later.
Another retroactive perspective is an appearance made by Turner on "The Joe Pyne Show" in 1968. Pyne was an earlier version of the now all too common right-wing yokel who liked to make a lot of noise without generating much light: a sixties Rush Limbaugh. His producer called the local office of the FBI for information to counter the derogatory writing by Turner on the Bureau. The request reached all the way up to Hoover's desk. Another fascinating episode has Turner penning an article on Hoover's nonexistent war against the Mob. Playboy was interested in featuring it but they passed it on to Sandy Smith of the Time-Life circuit. Smith took the piece to his pals at the Bureau and then told the magazine not to run the story because it was too error-strewn. How obsessed was the Bureau with Turner? When the author was on tour to push his book Hoover's FBI, the Bureau faked a phone call as "John Q. Citizen" to an earlier version of the Tom Snyder show.
For me, and for most of his longtime admirers, the highlights of this distinguished and fascinating book were the chapters on the Garrison inquiry and the one on the Robert Kennedy murder. The first is done as a dual look at both the inquest and the press coverage of it (the latter is appropriately titled The Media's Circus.) Again Turner has updated his previous work with much newly released material on both Garrison and the press. So the pieces form a good short summary of what we now know about that ill-fated and sandbagged probe. The chapter on the RFK case is basically a truncated magazine version of his extraordinary book (co-authored with Jonn Christian). But as they say at the racetrack, that is an admirable sire. As many have said, the RFK case is a more provable conspiracy than the JFK case.
Turner closes his book with an overview of developments since 1975. He discusses the CIA/Contra-Cocaine connection. He delves into the fey inquiry into the JFK-MLK murders, the House Select Committee on Assassinations. He updates the King case by noting the pro-conspiracy verdict in the 1999 King family civil lawsuit and the subsequent Justice Department report on that case. Turner warns us of the encroaching and insidious power of "the dark parapolitics of the FBI, CIA, and private intelligence triad." He needn't have. He's a crusader nonpareil who's been at it for 40 years. Bravo Bill.