Madisonian Stuns Nixon With Anti-War Comment
December 3, 1970 Madison, WI
She was just a teenager when she stood up to the most powerful man in the world, an act which caused a lot of old men in suits to fume and rant.

"She came from Madison, Wisconsin," J. Edgar Hoover wrote, "which should have made us stop, look and listen." What did a Madison teenager do to cause Hoover, the notorious longtime FBI director, to write such a memo on the afternoon of Dec. 3, 1970? The declassified memo is posted on the Web site, which also this week posted FBI files detailing counterculture guru Timothy Leary's cooperation with the agency in the '70s.

Hoover's Dec. 3 memo mentioning Madison was written after a ceremony at the White House that morning, which Hoover attended. President Richard Nixon was giving public service medals to four young Americans, including Debra Sweet. A Madison West grad, she was being honored for planning the Walk for Development in Madison, which raised $25,000 for charitable causes.

Sweet was the last to get her award, and shaking hands with Nixon, she said, softly, "I find it hard to believe in your sincerity in giving the awards until you get us out of Vietnam."

Nixon appeared stunned. "We're doing the best we can" the president said.

In his memo, Hoover wrote, "I told attorney general John Mitchell that after the president returned to his office and I had returned to my office, he (Nixon) called and said he assumed I heard what was said. I told him I had. He thought it was outrageous and I did too." Hoover goes on to say the fact that Sweet was from Madison and "too much inclined to the 'hippie' viewpoint" had made him suggest she not even be presented the award. "But I was outvoted" Hoover said.

Historians have noted Hoover was rarely anchored to the truth. Debra Sweet, today an artist and activist in Brooklyn, N.Y., said over the phone Thursday that parts of the declassified memo, which she had not yet seen, were nonsense. "When the incident happened," Sweet said, "he (Hoover) sort of doddered over to me and said, `That was very nice, dear.' He couldn't hear. He was out of it."

But after taking the outraged call from Nixon, Hoover worked up his own outrage. In his memo of that afternoon, Hoover wrote, "After (Nixon) left the room, I shook hands with all of them and this girl did not say anything to me but gave me a dead fish look and at first I thought she might be mentally retarded."

Apparently, Hoover also ordered Sweet and her family followed. Charlie and Jean Sweet, who still live in the Woodside Terrace home in which they raised Debra, were in Washington that day with their daughter. "We were definitely followed," Jean was saying Thursday. "The door of the hotel room across from ours was open and there were men in white shirts watching us. When we went out they took our picture. It wasn't the press, the press came later."

It sure did. Debra's soft-spoken words made worldwide headlines. "I didn't realize at the time what a big stir it made" she said. "I was 19. I think that they had grown so scared of what the American people felt about the war that they'd pretty much sealed him (Nixon) off. I brought the protest right into the White House. It shook them up."

Debra Sweet 19