Political Hay

Hunting Hoover

A strange right-left alliance is gunning to take down J. Edgar in the nation's capital.

9.27.02

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In Washington these days the hunt is on. George W. Bush and Donald Rumsfeld are looking to take out Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda followers, not to mention Iraqi despot Saddam Hussein. Tom Daschle and Al Gore, at the same time, are trying to figure out how to take out George W. Bush and Don Rumsfeld.

And while these serious discussions of war and politics are taking place in the nation's capital, yet another hunt is underway. Thirsting for blood in this instance is Rep. Dan Burton (R-Indiana), the chairman of the House Government Reform Committee and best known as a conservative critic of Bill Clinton. Joining Burton in his crusade is an unusual posse made up of the most extreme liberals in Congress. Their target? None other than the legendary (and three decades late) J. Edgar Hoover.

Burton recently introduced legislation that would remove Hoover's name from the FBI Headquarters in Washington, leaving it as the "Federal Bureau of Investigation Building."

"Symbolism matters," says Burton, explaining why he is spearheading the effort to vacuum Hoover's name from its spot above the Bureau's doors. Apparently Burton thinks that among the nation's most pressing needs at this time is to defrock Hoover of the honor he earned through heading the nation's federal law enforcement agency from 1924 until his death in 1972.

J. Edgar Hoover certainly had his critics, many of whom he earned fairly. And there are undoubtedly a few good reasons one could make for trying to take him down a notch. But the surprising thing is that Burton's not employing any of those. His justification for his assault on Hoover's memory is pretty flimsy stuff.

Burton's argument hinges on a longtime FBI investigation into organized crime in New England that, notoriously, showed many of the Bureau's agents to be as corrupt as the mobsters they were supposed to be keeping tabs on. The FBI agents in charge knowingly allowed an innocent man to spend 30 years in prison, for instance. They were on the take for years. And they often tipped off their targets about ongoing investigations, resulting in the murders of government witnesses.

Chairman Burton claims documentary evidence shows Hoover closely supervised these agents and was routinely informed of their activities. As head of the FBI, Hoover was responsible for these excesses and therefore doesn't deserve his name on FBI headquarters.

Maybe. And then again, maybe not. There can be no question that in many instances over the course of a half century agents under Hoover's command committed gross violations of civil liberties, breached even the lowest standards of professional ethics, and often broke the very laws they were in charge of enforcing. One would have to be extremely naïve to think otherwise. Sadly, that is too often the nature of law enforcement, and is a compelling argument for strict checks on police authority.

At the same time, the Bureau is a large, far-flung entity, and in a 48-year career there surely would have been many thousands of agents who could be said to have worked for Hoover. Should he be held responsible for every indiscretion committed by every overzealous or corrupt FBI agent over five decades?

And is the claim that the Bureau committed a number of injustices under Hoover's tenure enough to scrub his name from the agency's headquarters?

After all, no one is more closely associated with the FBI -- its virtues as well as its faults -- than J. Edgar Hoover. This is not an apologia for Hoover, for whom I have no special affection. But fairness would seem to demand acknowledgment that he was a towering figure of 20th century American history.

The evidence has long suggested that Hoover often showed the same casual regard for civil liberties that a lot of lawmen do. You can quarrel over how casual it was, but there is no evidence Hoover himself was terribly corrupt or avaricious. However serious his sins, let it be noted he genuinely loved his country, which is far more than could be said for many of his critics during his tenure at the FBI. On the whole he probably did more good for his country than bad, and his broad commitment to American liberty likely outweighs his and his agency's sins.

What is interesting is who is joining Burton in his cause. Aside from a handful of liberal and moderate Republicans, he has garnered support from the most left-wing members of the House. Maxine Waters, Bernie Sanders, Pete Stark, Earl Hilliard, John Conyers, Barney Frank, Major Owens, Bennie Thompson, George Miller, and John Lewis are all names one would expect to hear being praised at an Americans for Democratic Action fundraiser, not making common cause with the conservative Burton. Fully half of the 26 registered co-sponsors are members of the Congressional Black Caucus (that number would actually be over 50 percent were it not for the fact that the CBC refused to allow the raving-mad liberal Stark as a member because he is white).

Is it all about symbolism and a concern for civil liberties? Perhaps in Burton's case it is, even if it's a bit misdirected. As for his co-sponsors, it is more likely their support for the measure stems from the traditional loathing of Hoover that has been a staple of leftist dogma since Hoover went after his first Bolshevik in the 1920s. And a bit of it no doubt stems from black hostility to Hoover for the wiretaps and bugging of Martin Luther King, Jr. that Hoover and other high government officials conducted during the 1960s.

A real test of their sincerity -- especially for the 13 members of the Congressional Black Caucus -- is whether they take the next logical step. Just a few blocks away from the FBI building stands the headquarters of the United States Department of Justice, which just last year was named in honor of former Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy.

As much as Hoover, RFK ruthlessly exploited the power of his office to spy on and harass King in the '60s. Will Burton's bunch seek to remove Kennedy's name from DOJ headquarters because of his flagrant abuse of King's civil rights?

Time will tell, but I wouldn't bet on it.

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