By CBSNews.com's Daniel Carty
Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Art Buchwald poked fun at the powerful during his storied career - but one frequent target, longtime FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, wasn't laughing.
Hoover, who ran the federal law enforcement agency for nearly a half century, ordered agents to keep close tabs on the humorist - even having one G-man report on a Buchwald interview in Playboy, the columnist's FBI file reveals.
Buchwald's columns - including one in which he suggested Hoover didn't exist and was a phantom named after the vacuum cleaner company - apparently rankled the FBI boss. Hoover repeatedly referred to Buchwald as a "sick comic," according to the file, amassed over nearly two decades.
The 239-page file was obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, which allows such documents to become public after the subject dies. Buchwald, whose Washington Post-based column was syndicated for decades, died in January 2007.
Editor's Note: CBSNews.com producer Daniel Carty obtained the FBI file on Art Buchwald last year while a student at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism.
Buchwald's file dates back to June 18, 1956, when an unnamed FBI informant told agents the writer had received a visa to visit the Soviet Union while working for the New York Herald Tribune.
The informant, whose name was redacted from the FBI files, had been interviewed by Buchwald two years earlier and apparently held a grudge against the columnist for making him, in his words, "look like a fool." The informant described Buchwald to agents as a "screwball."
The bureau launched an investigation into the Soviet Union trip and found that Buchwald, who was traveling with a contingent of Air Force officials visiting an air show, had committed no acts of disloyalty and no further action was taken.
Buchwald reappeared on the bureau's radar in 1961 when, in a satirical column, he claimed to have uncovered the "Orlov Plan." Buchwald often created fictitious characters, and in this column said Soviet agent Serge Orlov revealed a plan to cripple the United States by using right-wing anti-communist groups to sow seeds of distrust in the nation.
"When I proposed the plan in Moscow the Kremlin thought I was crazy. But they figured they had nothing to lose. Well, you can see the results for yourself. The seeds of doubt about America are being planted by their own people and we've been making more progress in wrecking the U.S. Constitution in the last few years than my predecessors have been able to do since the Revolution," Buchwald quoted "Orlov" as saying.
Hoover, spurred by readers' letters, renewed his interest in Buchwald. There is a handwritten note from the agency director in the margin of a clipping of the Orlov column: "Let me have summary on Art Buchwald."
The following year, after moving from Paris to Washington, Buchwald visited FBI headquarters and met with Cartha DeLoach, a high-ranking official who rose to deputy director by the end of his 28-year career in 1970. During the visit, DeLoach criticized Buchwald for a column that suggested one-fifth of the 8,500 registered communists in America actually were undercover FBI agents.
According to a memo prepared for DeLoach, "Buchwald apologized for having written in the vein he did but noted that he meant no harm and was sorry that it was misinterpreted."
In December 1964, Buchwald turned his pen directly on Hoover, joking that then-President Lyndon Johnson couldn't fire the FBI director - because the lawman didn't actually exist.
"What happened was that in 1925 the Reader's Digest was printing an article on the newly formed Federal Bureau of Investigation and as they do with many pieces they signed it with a nom de plume," the column read. "They got the word Hoover from the vacuum cleaner - to give the idea of a clean-up. Edgar was the name of one of the publisher's nephews, and J. stood for jail."
The column attracted much attention, with citizens ranging from Nebraska housewives to Indiana high school students writing to the director seeking the truth, according to correspondence in the bureau's files. In many cases, they received notes personally signed by Hoover, often with enclosures like "Communism and The Knowledge to Combat It!"
The column did not endear Buchwald to Hoover. In June 1965, an unnamed ABC News correspondent called DeLoach to inform him that Buchwald would be at his house one evening for a monthly poker game, in which the humorist had won money in 17 out of the last 18 sessions. The goal of the call was to set up a prank to throw Buchwald off his game. Hoover was to place a call to Buchwald during the evening informing him that agents had been ordered to pick him up following the article questioning the director's existence.
The crowd of would-be card sharks, which was to include key U.S. diplomat Llewellyn Thompson and officials from the White House and U.S. Information Agency, optimistically dubbed the game "Buchwald Will Lose Tonight."
Hoover's response: "I most certainly would have nothing to do with such a motley crew."
Besides tracking poker games, agents also filled out their Buchwald files by perusing the April 1965 issue of Playboy magazine. The columnist told Playboy, "You're allowed to make fun of the FBI because they have such a good sense of humor." The FBI agent who read the interview was careful to note the rest of magazine was "typical trash," according to internal memos.
Through the years, Hoover's responses to Buchwald's work got more colorful and personal. In response to one 1966 column predicting that communists would win the 1984 elections and actor George Hamilton would be the president overseeing the crisis, Hoover responded, "Who is the author of this tripe?" On a number of occasions, handwritten notes in the file labeled Buchwald a "sick, alleged humorist."
In 1975, three years after Hoover's death, Buchwald requested his own file, at which point the FBI stopped compiling information about him. In subsequent years, Buchwald continued to entertain audiences with columns and numerous books.
In 2006, when he started experiencing kidney failure, he chose to discontinue dialysis treatment and opted instead to live his remaining few weeks in hospice care. Even then, Buchwald's humor was irrepressible.
Still alive five months after entering the hospice, he claimed to have earned the nickname "the man who would not die." He even left the hospice in July 2006 to return to his Martha's Vineyard home, where he completed a book titled "Too Soon to Say Goodbye," which included eulogies from family and friends that had not yet been delivered.
He finally passed away on Jan. 17, 2007.
By Daniel Carty