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The Eliot Ness Monstrosity

Feb 3, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 20 • By THE SCRAPBOOK
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Among the many topics of discussion that do not keep The Scrapbook awake at night, the naming of federal buildings is high on the list. The Department of Justice building, for example, was recently named for Bobby Kennedy—not the most distinguished attorney general in American history—and the U.S. Senate office buildings on Capitol Hill are named for senators (Richard Russell, Philip Hart, Everett Dirksen) of slightly lesser historic resonance than, say, Daniel Webster or Henry Cabot Lodge or Robert Taft.

BATFE

That’s life, and politics. Indeed, there is a recurring debate about whether the name of J. Edgar Hoover should be removed from the ghastly FBI headquarters building, which will probably be settled when the FBI moves, as it is scheduled to do. (For what it’s worth, we tend to think that Hoover gets an undeservedly bad rap.) Our favorite story involves the Edward A. Garmatz Federal Courthouse in Baltimore, named in 1972 for a local Democratic congressman, whose 1978 bribery trial took place in the Edward A. Garmatz Federal Courthouse. (In fairness, charges were dropped when it was learned that the state’s key witness had lied to a grand jury.) 

Even the world-weary Scrapbook, however, must draw the line somewhere, and we find that line in a proposal from the two Illinois senators, Republican Mark Kirk and Democrat Dick Durbin, to name the headquarters of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms in Washington after the onetime Prohibition agent Eliot Ness. 

Ness was by no means a villain—he seems to have been a perfectly adequate Treasury agent, although his subsequent record as Cleveland’s “safety director” was decidedly mixed—but his fame rests almost entirely on The Untouchables (1957), a ghostwritten, highly unreliable, and thoroughly self-aggrandizing account of his career, later made into a popular television series (1959-63) and movie (1987). All three give the distinct impression that Eliot Ness was Al Capone’s nemesis during the Roaring Twenties and brought him to justice in 1931. He was not, and he didn’t. 

But that’s not the point. The point is that Eliot Ness’s undeserved fame is entirely a product of Hollywood, and that naming a federal building for him is the bureaucratic equivalent of a celebrity product endorsement. On that basis, the next FBI headquarters should be named for Herbert (I Led Three Lives) Philbrick, or failing that, perhaps the Efrem (The F.B.I.) Zimbalist Jr. building. The U.S. Marshals Service headquarters might be named for Wyatt Earp—or better yet, actor Hugh O’Brian who, as every baby boomer knows, played Wyatt Earp on television (1955-61), and was “brave, courageous, and bold.” 

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