This year is the FBI’s 100th anniversary, and any reflection about the nation’s national police agency is impossible without referencing its chief for nearly half its history, J. Edgar Hoover.
In the popular caricature, Hoover was an inhuman Cyclops and cross-dressing hypocrite who witch-hunted and blackmailed his sordid way across six decades in Washington. In reality, Hoover was a brilliant bureaucratic survivor and an egotist who retained too much power for too long, while shrewdly building the world’s greatest law enforcement agency. The absurd claims about his transvestitism are exclusively based on the self-serving claims of a discredited perjurer. And no one who actually knew him well believed he was homosexual. Richard Nixon described Hoover as asexual. A recent biographer claims that Hoover had an affair with actress and 1940s pinup girl Dorothy Lamour. Supposedly the couple were caught in the Mayflower Hotel’s elevator one morning by gossip columnist Walter Winchell, whom Hoover naturally coerced into silence.
Such frolics, if true, were rare. Hoover’s nearly sole pleasure was the administration of the FBI. He had few close friends and, beyond the racetrack and golf, few hobbies. He had two close associates. Clyde Tolson was his associate director and his alleged companion. But in fact, Tolson was a dutiful subordinate who always called him “boss,” and who served the bureau and Hoover for 45 years. Less frequently mentioned but perhaps just as important was Helen Gandy, Hoover’s zealous secretary of 54 years. By comparison, the equally loyal and far more famous Rosemary Woods served Richard Nixon a mere 24 years. Gandy, like Hoover, never married and devoted nearly all her energy to the FBI. She faithfully liquidated nearly all of Hoover’s personal papers immediately after his death, as he had instructed, protecting them from a probing Nixon White House. Allegedly she also destroyed some of Hoover’s infamous secret files, a charge she crisply denied to a Congressional hearing. Like Tolson, she left no recorded memories that would reflect negatively on the man she served for over a half century.
Gandy went to work for Hoover in 1918 at the U.S. Justice Department under the Woodrow Wilson administration. She was with Hoover until he died, in 1972, near the end of Nixon’s first term. He was then 77, and she was 75. Hoover was first appointed to head what was then called the Bureau of Investigation by President Calvin Coolidge in 1924, at not quite age 30. The sheer longevity of Hoover’s tenure, although surely not advisable, helped to protect the rising bureau from even greater political meddling by the eight presidents whom Hoover served as director. Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon all wanted to replace Hoover with a more pliant successor. But by the 1960s, Hoover was a politically unassailable icon. When LBJ reluctantly signed the waiver to allow Hoover to serve beyond the mandatory retirement age, he correctly predicted that Hoover would die in office. Johnson earthily shared his preference that Hoover remain inside the administration’s tent, “p-ssing out,” than outside, aiming in.
NO STRANGER to moral compromises, Hoover’s still had higher regard for the Constitution than did some presidents he served. Famously, he opposed FDR’s incarceration of tens of thousands of ethnically Japanese U.S. citizens during World War II. Less recalled, Hoover helped kill Nixon’s proposed “Huston Plan,” a massive campaign of illegal wiretaps and break-ins against perceived subversives in the anti-war movement. Hoover’s jealous protection of the FBI persuaded the Nixon White House to form its own infamous “plumbers unit” for dirty tricks. Revealingly, the Watergate scandal did not unfold until after Hoover’s death. Nixon biographer Conrad Black speculates that Hoover, had he lived, could have been the one authority to steer Nixon away from a disastrous cover-up.
When meeting with Martin Luther King, Jr, Hoover told him with sincerity that he supported civil rights. Hoover’s private views on race were arguably more enlightened than some more prominent civil rights proponents. Under Hoover, the FBI aggressively prosecuted the Klan and violent racists. Hoover mistrusted King not because of civil rights but because of King’s associations with white leftists and because of King’s criticisms of Hoover’s beloved FBI. Unknown to Hoover, one of his deputies was preoccupied by King’s marital infidelities and mailed an audio tape of a hotel tryst to King’s wife. After King turned against LBJ over the Vietnam War, an indignant LBJ reportedly played the tape for visitors in the Oval Office to discredit King. It was an unsavory episode.
Critics who portray Hoover’s FBI as lawless by 21st century standards usually fail to compare it to other nations’ domestic security services in the mid-20th century. Almost always those services, even in democracies, were far more politicized and less observant of legal niceties, not to mention the police services of infamous authoritarian states. After Nixon’s 1968 election, Hoover informed him that LBJ had required the FBI to bug Nixon’s campaign plane. Nixon seemed genuinely surprised. And the experience almost certainly informed Nixon’s own decisions about illegal surveillance against political opponents.
Excepting Kennedy and Truman, Hoover had cordial relations with all the presidents he served. And even with Kennedy, it was Attorney General Robert Kennedy and not so much the President with whom there was such animosity. Upon learning of the President’s romantic ties to mafia moll Judith Exner, Hoover quietly and wisely advised Kennedy to discontinue the association, which Kennedy did. Hoover could easily have disrupted the Kennedy presidency but instead acted discretely.
SEEMINGLY INTIMATE with nobody, and having left few personal papers, Hoover’s motives and personal beliefs can only be conjectured, based on the public record. A native of late 19th century Washington, Hoover was forever shaped by the nationalism and moralism of his youth. He was an archetype of Protestant Americanism in the early 20th century. Hoover’s animosities were aimed against the foes of the America he once knew, including anarchists, Nazis, fascists, communists, gangsters, and New Left violent militants of the 1960s and 1970s.
Hoover was Presbyterian and, like Eisenhower, belonged to the National Presbyterian Center in Washington, D.C. Billy Graham, a Hoover friend, tapped theologian Carl Henry to found Christianity Today magazine as an evangelical voice in the 1950s, and Henry soon after asked Hoover to write occasional columns. Predictably, most of Hoover’s articles across more than a decade rehashed his usual warnings against communist propaganda, criminality, atheism and spiritual decay, messages as appropriate for a Rotary Club as for a Christian journal.
But the most revealing column is Hoover’s last, dated April 28, 1972. He would die on May 2. The column is about “New Left extremism,” and he targeted his usual litany of “SDSers, black Panthers, Weathermen, anarchists, and other extremists.” But going beyond his typical generalities about God, he asked, “What can we, as citizens and Christians, do to meet this challenge?”
“Most important, we must appreciate what Christ can do to change lives — what he has already done in changing the lives of some involved in violent extremes,” Hoover wrote. “Both clergymen and lay people have been doing tremendous work in bringing the Word of God to these misguided and spiritually hungry young men and women. I have read the testimonies of some whose lives have been turned completely around, who have put aside bombs and taken up Bibles.”
Hoover credited the “decline in militancy” on campuses not to the FBI but to “dedicated Christians working among extremists.” He wrote, “The excitement of knowing Christ has given many former militants a new adventure of the spirit. They have been transformed from extremist revolutionaries to Christian revolutionaries.” He proscribed for “revolutionary violence” a strong dose of “personal evangelism, carried out with understanding, compassion and love.” And he concluded: “Lives changed for Christ lead to a changed society and a changed world.”
It was an uplifting spiritual epitaph for Hoover’s flawed but still very accomplished and momentous journey across eight decades.