J. Edgar’s ‘Bipolar Legacy’

J. Edgar Hoover with Bobby Kennedy

The United States is without an FBI director this morning, while White House officials presumably search for a replacement. In a sign of the hyper-partisan era we live in, Democrats who had previously demanded James Comey’s firing are now in high dungeon that Donald Trump actually did it.

Then again, it’s not exactly a normal occurrence for an FBI director to be heading a Justice Department investigation into whether a sitting president colluded with Moscow to abet his election chances.

Replacing the chieftain of the FBI doesn’t happen very often. When Bill Clinton pushed out William Sessions in 1993, the Congress Research Service felt compelled to issue a statement explaining that the president did, in fact, have such authority. And the battle of wills that involved Sessions’ successor, Louis J. Freeh, over Clinton fundraising scandals underscored the tension that can arise between independent-minded law enforcement officials and politicians willing to cut corners in service of their own re-election.

Also, as regards the FBI director, an outsized sense of one’s own rectitude seems to come with the job. It certainly did with the first man who held that post. J. Edgar Hoover assumed the mantle on this date in 1924. He never relinquished it, either, holding the reins until the day he died. It wasn’t a great precedent — and was problematic in other ways.

In May of 1964, J. Edgar Hoover had led the FBI for four decades. A bachelor with no family obligations and little in the way of outside hobbies or interests, he had no inclination to step down. Except that federal employment regulations required him to leave the post when he turned 70 on his next birthday.

But Hoover had a friend in high places. The highest place. No, not heaven. I mean the Oval Office. Hoover and Lyndon Johnson had been friends and neighbors on a leafy Washington street named 30th Place for two decades. So Johnson, who had been president for less than six months, simply issued an executive order exempting Hoover from mandatory retirement.

Johnson didn’t do this surreptitiously, either. Venerated as a dedicated and successful crime-fighter, Hoover was immensely popular at the time. (Hoover’s ugly campaign to discredit Martin Luther King had not yet been revealed, although Johnson certainly knew about it.)

On May 8, 1964, however, LBJ was all smiles as he extended Hoover’s tenure at a brief Rose Garden ceremony.

“J. Edgar Hoover has served … nine presidents and this Sunday, May 10th, he celebrates his 40th year as the director of the FBI,” Johnson said at the White House that day. “Under his guiding hand, the FBI has become the greatest criminal investigation body in the history of the world. The country has been made safer from groups that would subvert our way of life and men who would harm and destroy our persons.

“Edgar Hoover has been my close personal friend for almost 30 years, and he was my close neighbor for 19 years,” Johnson added. “I know he loved my dog, and I think he thought a little bit of me as a neighbor, and I am proud and happy to join the rest of the nation this afternoon in honoring this quiet and humble and magnificent public servant.”

It was a touching service, unless you were one of the hundreds of thousands of Americans whom the FBI had investigated for supposed communist ties, or unless you were among the small group of civil rights leaders who knew that the bureau was spying on the Rev. King. Yet, the coziness seems jarring today even if one ignores those considerations. Was there more going on here?

Well, yes, and I’m not alluding to anything nefarious. Lyndon Baines Johnson had become president after a gruesome assassination in Dallas. The first lady had been spattered with her husband’s blood that day. Vice President Johnson was in that motorcade, too. Three days later, he was alone with Hoover and he posed questions anyone would have asked.

“How many shots were fired?” (Three, Hoover said.)

“Were they aiming at the president? (“They were aiming directly at the president,” Hoover replied. “There’s no question about that.”)

“Any of them fired at me?” (“No.)

Near the end of the conversation, the following exchange took place:

LBJ: “Do you have a bulletproof car?”

Hoover: “Why, yes I do.”

LBJ: “Do you think I ought to have one?”

Hoover: “You most certainly should.”

After his death, Hoover’s reputation took a well-deserved hit, which is not to say that everything said about him is true. Cross-dressing? There’s no evidence of that. But there is plenty of evidence that he was in the FBI job far too long. Hoover biographer Kenneth D. Ackerman debunked some of the fictions about the man and concluded that he left a “bipolar legacy.” Yes, he built the FBI into a modern, professional crime-fighting organization that for a while made it harder to become an FBI agent than to get into an Ivy League college.

“But,” Ackerman added, “he also stands as a reminder that 48 years of power concentrated in one person is a recipe for abuse.”

Carl M. Cannon
Washington Bureau chief, RealClearPolitics

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