By Doug Moe
I heard about Clint Eastwood’s new film, “J. Edgar,” starring Leonardo DiCaprio as the late FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, and right away I thought of Debra Sweet.
Debra grew up a block south of me on Woodside Terrace. She graduated from West High in 1969. A year later, near the end of Hoover’s life, she had an encounter with Hoover and his boss, President Richard Nixon, that made headlines around the world.
The episode prompted a memo from Hoover, in which the FBI director noted that Sweet was from “Madison, Wisconsin, which ought to have made us stop, look and listen.”
Sweet was 19 then. She’s 60 now, living in New York City. When I reached her by phone one morning last week, and asked if she intended on seeing Eastwood’s Hoover movie, Sweet said, “I probably should.”
It may be hard for her to find time. All these years later, she’s still making waves. On Oct. 21 Sweet was arrested in Harlem with a group that included the civil rights activist Cornel West. They were protesting the New York City Police Department’s “stop and frisk” policy.
When we spoke last week, Sweet was operating on little sleep, having spent the night helping people get out of jail after yet another “stop and frisk” protest, this one in Brooklyn, where Debra lives.
Despite the lack of sleep, she sounded energized. The Occupy Wall Street movement and its various offshoots have seen to that. Sweet called the current protests “a breath of fresh air” but in fact she has devoted her life to activism and protest. In 2005 she founded a group called World Can’t Wait — “to stop the crimes of our government” — and currently serves as its director. Yet it all began with Hoover and Nixon, and a trip to the White House in December 1970.
Sweet was there to receive the Young American Medal for Service. While still at West High, she helped coordinate a Madison event called the Walk for Development which raised $25,000 for a variety of charitable causes.
But she had also, by her late teens, become increasingly radicalized. West High isn’t far from the UW-Madison campus, and Sweet would recall tear gas from the anti-Vietnam War protests reaching the school windows. While at West, she wrote a paper against the war.
Her mindset was such that when word arrived that she had won an award that would be presented at the White House by the president, Sweet gave serious thought to not attending. In the end, she did. The government flew Debra and her parents, Charles and Jean Sweet, to Washington for the Dec. 3, 1970, ceremony.
There was a limousine to take them to the White House. Sweet was torn about what, if anything, to say when presented with her award. Four medals were being presented, and hers was last.
Nixon and Hoover were standing with the recipients and reporters filled the room, in part because Nixon, with criticism of the war mounting, had made few such appearances in the preceding months.
Prior to the awards ceremony, Nixon made a brief speech that sealed the deal for Sweet. The president spoke of the good young people who were being honored today, as opposed to the American youth who were protesting in the streets.
Sweet realized she had to say something. After Nixon handed her the award, and shook her hand, Sweet said, “I find it hard to believe in your sincerity in giving the awards until you get us out of Vietnam.”
Nixon appeared stunned, muttered “we’re doing the best we can,” and walked away. Members of the press had heard “Vietnam” and a buzz went through the room. Apparently only Hoover didn’t realize something had happened. He walked up to Sweet and said, “That was very nice, dear.”
Back in their offices, Nixon called Hoover, who by then had been briefed on what Sweet had said.
“He thought it was outrageous and I did too,” Hoover wrote in a memo to three FBI colleagues that afternoon. The memo was declassified in 1999. Hoover claimed he had tried to keep Sweet off the stage, but had been outvoted. “I felt she was too much inclined to the ‘hippie’ viewpoint,” Hoover wrote, and went on to mention Madison.
News outlets around the world carried the story. Sweet was applauded and condemned and has never looked back. Hoover died in 1972. “J. Edgar” opens nationwide this week.