Special Report

The Devil Made LBJ Do It

When Democratic presidents violate civil liberties, J. Edgar Hoover is always to blame.

By 2.23.09

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Don't blame President Lyndon Johnson for digging up salacious gossip on future Motion Pictures Association President Jack Valenti. The devil made him do it.

"Previously confidential FBI files show that [J. Edgar] Hoover's deputies set out to determine whether Valenti, who had married two years earlier, maintained a relationship with a male commercial photographer," a page-one Washington Post story revealed last week. "Johnson initially blocked the FBI from obtaining a sworn statement from Valenti or approaching the photographer, asserting that Valenti was 'attracted to the women and not to the men,' files show. But under FBI pressure, the president relented and approved an investigation of his close friend."

The investigation evidently concluded that the ad-man-turned-Johnson-aide-turned-Hollywood-lobbyist was not a homosexual. "Even Bill Moyers, a White House aide now best known as a liberal television commentator, is described in the records as seeking information on the sexual preferences of White House staff members," the Post further reported. "Moyers said by e-mail yesterday that his memory is unclear after so many years but that he may have been simply looking for details of allegations first brought to the president by Hoover."

The Washington Post's scoop, and Moyers's non-denial denial, regurgitates a familiar excuse: Hoover did it. In this time-worn script, the FBI director plays the role of Mephistopheles, with various liberal presidents cast as the innocent with the pesky devil upon his shoulder.  

Don't blame President John Kennedy, or his attorney general brother Bobby Kennedy, for sleazily bugging Martin Luther King's hotel rooms. The devil made them do it.

Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. contended in Robert Kennedy and His Times that tapping King's phone "had been on Hoover's agenda for some time." "The Bureau kept up its pressure," Schlesinger wrote, and "Kennedy finally assented." Schlesinger pled with the reader to understand "the dilemma in which Hoover had placed the Kennedys": "If Robert Kennedy refused a tap on King and anything went wrong, Hoover would have a field day. On the other hand, a tap might end the matter by demonstrating King's entire innocence, even to the satisfaction of the FBI." The Kennedys' motives, Camelot's court historian implied, were entirely benign. "The Kennedys authorized the taps for defensive purposes—in order to protect King, to protect the civil rights bill, to protect themselves."

Don't blame Harry Truman for ordering suspected Communists out of federal government jobs. The devil made him do it.

Biographer David McCullough noted that Hoover had pushed for more stringent measures weeding out loyalty and security risks from federal jobs, claiming that the "whole concept troubled" Truman and the "political pressures bore heavily" upon the 33rd president. Truman didn't want to do it. Alas, the devil made him do it: "On Friday, March 21, 1947, nine days after his address to Congress, Truman issued Executive Order No. 9835, establishing an elaborate Federal Employees Loyalty and Security Program. And he did so with misgivings." As a postscript to the affair, the Truman biographer notes: "Truman's concern over J. Edgar Hoover continued to trouble him."

Don't blame Woodrow Wilson for jailing (e.g., Eugene Debs, Kate Richards O'Hare, and "Big" Bill Haywood) and deporting (e.g., Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman) radicals. The devil made him do it.

A 2007 book by Kenneth Ackerman places much of the blame for the first "Red Scare" on J. Edgar Hoover, despite being just 24, fresh out of law school, and a low-level bureaucrat, and makes excuses for Woodrow Wilson, despite being president of the United States. "J. Edgar Hoover had been [attorney general A. Mitchell] Palmer's special assistant when the raids began on November 7, 1919, and he had his fingerprints all over them," contends Young J. Edgar: Hoover, The Red Scare, and the Assault on Civil Liberties. How did the young mastermind escape notice from contemporaneous chroniclers? "Edgar carefully kept his name out of the all the press releases and news accounts of the day; Palmer wanted all the headlines for himself. But no one could deny this was Edgar's job from start to finish." Tying Woodrow Wilson to the policies of the Wilson administration proved more problematic for Ackerman. "And what did Woodrow Wilson think? Nobody quite knew, because the president never quite said." As Ackerman would have it, "the president's mind was elsewhere," making it difficult to connect him to his own policies.  

J. Edgar Hoover is necessary to square the soaring liberal rhetoric on civil liberties with the atrocious civil liberties records of liberal presidents. With an ideology extolling civil liberties crashing into its record of smashing civil liberties, ideologues reshape the facts to fit the ideology. The blame-Hoover template asks readers to believe that the president takes orders from the director of the FBI rather than the reverse. It portrays the world-class arm-twister Lyndon Johnson as a man prone to crying uncle, Woodrow Wilson as secretly opposing his administration's policies, and the Kennedys acceding to electronic surveillance on Martin Luther King only for his own protection.

The familiar narrative of the FBI director making liberal presidents go against their better judgment is convenient but false. J. Edgar Hoover's posthumous ability to make liberal academics and journalists to go against their better judgment, on the other hand, grows ever more powerful with every revisionist biography and page-one scoop.

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About the Author
Daniel J. Flynn, the author of The War on Football: Saving America’s Game, edits Breitbart Sports.