WASHINGTON | For decades after 1924 the ominous shadow of J. Edgar Hoover loomed almost menacingly over the Federal Government, from Capitol Hill to the White House. The persnickety, demanding young lawyer who had been given charge of an ineffectual, lethargic Bureau of Investigation in the Justice Department was determined to build the premier law enforcement agency in the country.
To accomplish this, he changed the hiring model that had filled the nation’s police departments with ill-trained, low-paid and often corrupt officers. He immediately recruited from the upper classes of professionals in law, accounting, military, business and education, making as certain as possible that each new agent could meet his strict standards in every aspect — dress, deportment and morals.
Still, his men were restricted from advancing his cause by demands that forced them in some places to be unarmed and accompanied by local authorities in making an arrest. So he armed them with press releases, frequently structuring what he called the “Federal” Bureau of Investigation’s reputation on a foundation of shaky achievement. Eventually following a 1933 shootout in Kansas City, an outraged public the following year forced passage of a set of (anti)crime acts that gave the FBI authority to carry guns from state to state. They provided the manpower and support to bring down even the most prominent of bank robbers, John Dillinger, Ma Barker and her sons, and Charles “Pretty Boy” Floyd among others.
Suddenly, “G-Men” became the superheroes of the day and Americans waited breathlessly to see who United Press would next label “Public Enemy No. 1” Melvin Purvis, an aide to Hoover who had killed Floyd, began preparing future agents by the thousands in a wildly successful boys program that called them Jr. G-men. Despite warnings of too much power, Hoover was well on his way to building the formidable organization he sought.
When World War II ended, Gen. William “Wild Bill” Donovan proposed to replace his Office of Strategic Services with something called the Central Intelligence Agency to oversee all the nation’s Cold War spying activities. Hoover’s clout with Congress almost scuttled the proposal over turf.
The director ultimately demanded and received jurisdiction over all domestic counterintelligence activity, leaving the new CIA with authority over half the spy pie. President Truman denied Donovan its leadership.
But suddenly Hoover’s apparent obsession with the Communist threat had begun to dampen the bureau’s popularity. And it lessened with the anti-Vietnam movement and the revelation of illegitimate surveillances like “COINTELPRO,” which spied on violent college activists, many of whom it couldn’t seem to apprehend.
Hoover died in May 1972, leaving his own top guns frantically trying to verify that their much-feared boss had actually compiled secret dossiers implicating powerful congressmen and others in questionable activity. As far as anyone knows they were never found if they existed. His death came just as the worst scandal in the nation’s governmental history burst on the scene when burglars were caught bugging Democratic Headquarters in the Watergate complex.
President Richard Nixon immediately named a non-bureau replacement — former submarine commander L. Patrick Gray — to replace Hoover, and the fat was in the fire. Longtime Hoover Lieutenants were infuriated and their leaks to veteran correspondents about what they had discovered ultimately led to Nixon’s resignation. Whether Hoover could have controlled the situation is anyone’s guess but he certainly could have curtailed the leaks.
Now finally after the years of immunity to any mistake or action, and the failure of Congress to conduct proper oversight, including such blatant misadventures as those at Waco, Texas and Ruby Ridge, Idaho, where the bureau was challenged over potential lethal civil rights violations, the most publicized police agency in the world is facing the worst crisis in its history. Whether its overwhelming influence can survive allegations of political bias is doubtful.
One director fired and another facing the same fate from an angry, petulant and afraid president and his party over a congressman’s questionable memorandum may ultimately knock Humpty Dumpty off his wall into the hands of a relentlessly ideological proletariat. One could almost hope there were some secret files to be found. It was inevitable, I suppose, sticking one’s nose too far into a presidential election on either side. But even Hoover would have avoided what has brought this about.
Dan Thomasson is a Tribune News Service columnist and a former vice president of Scripps Howard Newspapers. Sendemail to firstname.lastname@example.org.