J. Edgar Hoover-The Compleat Bureaucrat - Joseph Kraft, Commentary Magazine (2022)

Roosevelt's first Attorney General, Homer Cummings, once showed up for work on a Sunday without a pass. He was stopped at the gate of the Justice Department by a guard, and there ensued the usual conversation with the usual result: the guard had the last word. “I don't care if you are the Attorney General,” he said. “Nobody gets in without a pass. You couldn't get in without a pass even if you were J. Edgar Hoover.”

This little episode tells a lot about the importance of Mr. Hoover and the FBI. It has been—in season and out, by friend and foe, from the agency's beginnings down to the latest squabbles with Martin Luther King and the Warren Commission—consistently exaggerated. To critics, Mr. Hoover is the advance guard of the police state. To boosters, he is the modern knight errant. For better or worse, he is made to cast a shadow larger than life.

Scratch a stereotype, however, and you find a model. The stereotype of Hoover as good guy is based on the model of how Russia became the Soviet Union. The stereotype of Hoover as bad guy depends on a model of how Germany passed under the rule of the truncheon. But if anything can be said to be alien to anything else, those experiences are alien to America. Set in his native habitat, Mr. Hoover emerges as a figure of far more ordinary dimensions—less a mover and shaker than a medium; less a source of action than a means. And what is his native habitat? It is the vast, sprawling apparatus of the federal bureaucracy with its untidy lines to the seats of political power in the White House and the Congress. Hoover is in the most literal sense the “G-Man”—the Government Man par excellence. He is the supreme example of the successful civil servant—the compleat bureaucrat.

Hoover's whole life has been spent in the atmosphere of the civil service. His father was a minor government employee. His mother came from a family of Swiss fonctionnaires. His elder brother worked in the Steamboat Inspection Service of the Department of Commerce. He grew up, and for many years lived, in the Seward Park section of Washington—a kind of civil-service colony. He was educated at the alma mater of the federal bureaucracy—George Washington Law School. His first job was in that mammoth filing cabinet, the Library of Congress. And the only other place in which he has ever been employed is the Justice Department. One of the very few persons who has worked closely with him, and who was both naïve and candid enough to write an unvarnished account, was struck most of all by the civil-service imprint. Former Attorney General Francis Biddle, in the second volume of his autobiography, speaks of Hoover as “A career man in the truest sense . . . he cares for power and more power; but unlike many men, it is power bent to the purpose of his life's work—the success of the FBI.”

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Before it became the FBI, and before Hoover's advent as chief in 1924, the Government Investigating Division was a private hole-in-the-corner goon squad for the Attorney General. Its arts were the arts of snooping, bribery, and blackmail. It acted independently of the rest of the government and without reference to other law enforcement agencies. Its agents were political hacks and con men. One of these, for example, was the notorious Gaston B. Means, an accused (though not convicted) murderer and forger who played some kind of role in most of the sordid scandals of the Harding Administration, including the cover-up of the President's illegitimate daughter by Nan Britton.

Hoover, by professionalizing it, drove this shameful organization out of existence—an accomplishment that virtually everyone acknowledges and honors. At the heart of almost everything the Bureau now does is that monument to bureaucratic endeavor—a central fingerprint file. Through the central files, and the courses of the Police Academy, the FBI maintains the closest relations with other law-enforcement agencies across the country. The agents are well-trained, upstanding men with unmistakable pride in their work, and a record of never having been stained by corruption. Though it has inspired snobbish smiles, their uniform (dark suit, handkerchief in pocket, snap brim fedora) is a badge of respectability. “When a man becomes part of this bureau,” Hoover once said, “he must conduct himself, both officially and unofficially, as to eliminate the slightest possibility of criticism as to his conduct or actions.” Perhaps alone among the law-enforcement agencies of the nation, the FBI never wantonly or ignorantly tramples on the traditional safeguards against search and seizure, unwarranted arrest, and forced confession. Its one transgression—wiretapping—is at least docketed in the best bureaucratic fashion. Mr. Hoover can cite authority for the wiretapping he does (in a memorandum from President Roosevelt), describe the procedure (approval of the Attorney General), and indicate the number of taps (about 75) in progress at any one moment. Finally, given the general, and sometimes idolatrous, popularity of the FBI, it is especially illuminating to compare the agents with the astronauts in the matter of vulgar commercialization. Hoover has simply not allowed it to happen. Indeed, manufacturers who sell products to the FBI are specifically forbidden by contract from advertising the fact. .

Not that the Director of the FBI is averse to publicity. As his critics have pointed out ad nauseam, Hoover plays vigorously and with great flair the widely misunderstood (and often wrongly impugned) Washington game of coloring, slanting, leaking, and managing the news. It is typical that the day after the Warren Commission report was released with its criticisms of the FBI's relations to the Secret Service, a section of Hoover's testimony to the Commission (in which he criticized the State Department) was leaked to the press. There seems to be little doubt that Hoover regularly exaggerates both the exploits of the Bureau, and the dangers posed by those it opposes. Whatever the individual malignity of Dillinger, “Baby Face” Nelson, or Ma Baker, it is hard to believe that, in the days of fifteen million unemployed at home and Adolf Hitler abroad, any of these hillbilly criminals was really Public Enemy Number One. Hyperbole, to put it mildly, also marked the Bureau's attitude toward the menace of left-wing subversion after the two world wars. Can anyone seriously agree with Hoover that the protest demonstrations that took place against the House Un-American Activities Committee in San Francisco in May 1960 constituted a “successful Communist coup”?

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But the real point is not that Hoover sometimes exaggerates; it is that every other bureau in Washington does the same thing. For years, for example, the military services contributed to a very large over-estimation of the Soviet forces in Eastern Europe. Secretary McNamara has an annual field-day in disposing of Air Force claims as to what manned bombers can do, and Secretary Rusk could probably perform a similar job on the Peace Corps' valuation of its impact abroad. Has anyone recently found the Reclamation Bureau balancing its accomplishments against the point that the food surplus perhaps discourages the opening up of new land? How reasonable, in retrospect, were the claims of the FCC as to what ultra-high-frequency stations could do to improve the quality of television? In other words, far from acting in a singular manner in puffing his bureau and building up its services, Hoover simply follows the bureaucratic norm.

In this connection it is worth recalling the evacuation of more than 100,000 Nisei from the West Coast by the U.S. army in the days following Pearl Harbor. That project has been called, by the American Civil Liberties Union, “the worst single wholesale violation of civil rights of American citizens in our history.” But at the time it was endorsed by many men notable for their sensitivity to the cause of civil liberties, Earl Warren and Walter Lippmann among them. And who was against it? Perhaps most vigorously of all, J. Edgar Hoover. He denied the existence of subversive activities among the Japanese and, according to Biddle, who was Attorney General then, submitted a memorandum arguing that the demand for evacuation was “based primarily upon public and political pressure rather than upon factual data.” No doubt, Hoover's position was influenced by the fact that the evacuation was conducted by another agency—the army—with the implication that the FBI was not capable of keeping tabs on subversive tendencies among the Nisei. But the point is that with a bureaucratic interest at stake, Hoover behaved in a way completely at odds with the image of scare-monger so dear to his liberal critics. On the contrary, in defense of his bureaucratic position, he was a model of zeal for civil liberties.

Similarly with two lacunae in the FBI record that have recently been much remarked upon. There is abundant evidence that the Bureau has not thrown itself heart and soul either into the fight against organized crime or into the fight for civil rights. In dealing with the former problem, the last two administrations have felt the need to set up, outside the Bureau, special investigatory units. “The FBI,” one member of these special units has asserted, “is not set up to do battle with the criminal syndicate . . .” Fred Cook, in his recent book on the Bureau,1 points out that the FBI has played no part either in bringing to book, or directing attention to the “names of Costello, Adonis, Luciano, Anastasia, Accarde and Genovese.”

The reason for this reluctance to cope with organized crime is obscure. But one good possibility lies in the requirements for such work. It would demand the infiltration of agents into million-dollar criminal rings skilled in the ways of buying influence, and with temptations to burn. It would expose the agents, in other words, to the nearly certain danger of corruption. This is not a prospect attractive to a man whose life work has been the building of an incorruptible force. And it is again worth noting that in defending his bureaucratic interests, Mr. Hoover has fallen back on the purest democratic ethos. “Nothing,” he told a meeting of police chiefs in 1960, “could be more dangerous to our democratic ideals than the establishment of an all-powerful police agency on the federal scene.”

Equally abundant evidence suggests that until recently the Bureau has been less than keen to become involved in civil rights matters. Martin Luther King and others have been complaining about FBI inactivity for years. The Justice Department, when trouble loomed in Mississippi last spring, dispatched a special investigating unit—from outside the FBI. Even after the trouble came to a head in the Philadelphia murders, Hoover was counseling the President to send to Mississippi U.S. marshalls, or marines, or troops, or sailors-anyone, in short, but the FBI.

The reason for Hoover's reluctance to enter the civil rights field is not so obscure as the reason for his reluctance to enter the fight against organized crime. For one thing, civil rights action has tended to bring the FBI into conflict with local forces of law and order throughout the South. More important still, zeal in matters of civil rights has not, at least until recently, been a way to win favor either in the White House or in the power fastnesses of the Congress.

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And there lies the true crux of the whole issue. For Hoover, like any good bureaucrat, is extremely sensitive to the wishes of the political powers. Dozens of chairmen of important congressional committees can probably endorse the view once expressed by Parnell Thomas of the House Un-American Activities Committee that “the closest relationship exists between Mr. Hoover and this committee.” For like all the great bureaucratic corps within departments—like the armed services in the Defense Department, like the Public Health Service in HEW, like the Reclamation Bureau in Interior, and the Forest Service in Agriculture—the FBI in Justice has formed independent alliances with major congressional figures who preside over its appropriations.

At the same time, Hoover has always tried to cultivate the closest relations with the White House. That explains the flowers sent to Walter Jenkins when he first entered the hospital; and it explains why Hoover immediately began going around Attorney General Kennedy and directly to President Johnson after the assassination in Dallas. The true use to which Hoover puts the great gossipy knowledge that he has of the doings of public officials is described by Francis Bid-die:

I sought to invite his confidence; and before long, lunching alone with me in a room adjoining my office, he began to reciprocate by sharing some of his extraordinary broad knowledge of the intimate details of what my associates in the Cabinet did and said, of their likes and dislikes, their weaknesses and their associations. It was as if he were saying to me that he trusted me enough to know that I would not repeat information which, except to his Chief, it would have been highly indiscreet of him to communicate, and would have been embarrassing had his revelation been communicated to the V.I.P. whom it concerned. Edgar was not above relishing a story derogatory to an occupant of one of the seats of the mighty, particularly if the little great man was pompous or stuffy. And I confess that, within limits, I enjoyed hearing it. His reading of human nature was shrewd, if perhaps colored with the eye of an observer to whom the less admirable aspects of behavior were being constantly revealed.

He knew how to flatter his superior, and had the means of making him comfortable. The Attorney General, when he was traveling, could count on an agent to meet him at the station, to settle him on his plane with an armful of newspapers, to take him in an FBI car wherever he wished to go. But he also showed a friendly thoughtfulness on more than one occasion when it was not called for, and made me feel that our relationship was not without cordiality on both sides.

Occasionally, very occasionally, there are high public officials suspicious and ornery enough by nature to resist such blandishments. The prime case in point is President Johnson. If he has not been looking for a new FBI chief, as Newsweek claimed, he has certainly shown a disposition to keep a tight rein on the FBI's activities. He denied Hoover authority over the investigation of the Kennedy assassination. He has kept protection of the President in the hands of the Secret Service. He personally intervened with Hoover to push the FBI into the civil rights field, and to have the Bureau open an office in Mississippi.

Undoubtedly other Presidents, and even Attorney Generals, could have done what President Johnson is doing. But for most of them, resisting the assiduous services of the FBI has seemed not worth the trouble. In fact, almost all of what look like independent acts by the Bureau have been things done for the pleasure of the political leadership. Attorney General Mitchell Palmer wanted the anti-anarchist raids of 1919-20. Homer Cummings deliberately boosted Hoover as a “gangbuster.” Can anyone say that Herbert Brownell or Dwight Eisenhower was unhappy when Hoover testified to the effect that the Democrats had ignored his advice in promoting Harry Dexter White to a position of great influence? It was none other than Franklin Roosevelt who gave Hoover the mandate under which he continues to tap wires. And here is Biddle's account of what happened on another occasion when the FBI had been found to be wiretapping, and Hoover went to explain the incident to Roosevelt:

FDR was delighted; and with one of his great grins, intent on every word, slapped Hoover on the back when he had finished. “By God, Edgar, that's the first time you've been caught with your pants down!” The two men liked and understood each other.

That is the usual attitude of men in power. It is fatuous, in these circumstances, to heap praise and blame on Hoover. One does not become either angry or exultant with the queen because it takes the jack. It is the players who count, not the cards.

* Fred J. Cook, The FBI Nobody Knows, Macmillan, 423 pp., $5.95.

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