J. Edgar Hoover: Hero or Villain?

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I'm currently reading a book about the history of the FBI, and one cannot possibly exclude the contributions of its director for 48 years. Despite being among the top law enforcement officers in the nation, J. Edgar Hoover seems to have had no problem whatsoever with breaking and/or severely bending many of the very laws he was supposed to uphold. He was very much a dictator and a despot in his own ways, and usually prevailed in the various bureaucratic and political battles he engaged in, the formation of the CIA probably being his biggest defeat.


I remember watching the 1959 Jimmy Stewart movie The FBI Story when I was a kid, and remember being quite thrilled with it. I watched it again recently, about 40 years after the first time, and laughed my ass off. It was very, very obvious that no part of that movie was made without Hoover's complete scrutiny and approval. To be fair, most entities like organizations, countries, and people are unwilling to approve of anything that portrays them in an unfavorable light, but this movie went way beyond that; supposedly, Hoover had a "dirt file" created on the director/producer of the movie, just in case he was "uncooperative". A massive and comprehensive accumulation of such files was at the heart of Hoover's power, and why he managed to stay in office for almost half a century.


Although Hoover made a big splash pursuing (and usually killing) the Midwest bandits in the early 1930's, Hoover was first and foremost a fanatical, rabid, and vicious anti-Communist. Indeed, any organization, group, or individual that went against the U.S. Government was fair game for his FBI. As organized crime was interested only in making money and not revolution, he simply didn't view them as much of a threat, and in any case, was a local matter. Much has been made (legitimately) of Hoover's war against the Civil Rights movement and others under the COINTELPRO, but to Hoover, they were nothing but a front for the Communists. Indeed, a senior advisor to MLK was a long-time Communist agent, which in and of itself would have given Hoover reason to go berserk.


Much, if not most of Hoover's intelligence was gained through technical means like bugs and wiretaps, most of which were warrantless and therefore illegal. Hoover also distrusted sources of information from people whom he considered to be "immoral", such as the spy code-named "Tricycle" because of his penchant for having sex with two women simultaneously. While Hoover made his agents constantly move around the country, and even the world, he stayed firmly planted in Washington, D.C., never far from the corridors of power.


Overall, I'd say that Hoover did his job as he saw how it needed to be done, but that fact that he routinely broke the law makes him a career criminal of sorts. When Hoover died on May 2, 1972, the vast majority of his private papers and files were destroyed, so we'll probably never know the full extent of his activities. One of the first things the government did after Hoover's death in 1972 was to impose a ten-year limit on the term a director of the FBI can serve, lifted only once in the case of Robert Mueller. Only Mueller and Judge William Webster seem to be the only FBI directors not mired in scandal and controversy. It's a tough job for sure, but people like Mueller and Webster have demonstrated that with good leadership, any organization can shine. The headquarters of the FBI, The J. Edgar Hoover Building, is widely regarded as one of the ugliest buildings in Washington D.C., described by somebody as being a creation of the Soviet politburo trying their hands at Narcotecture.


Morgoth Added Dec 3, 2017 - 11:43am
What’s the name of the book?
Mr. Congeniality Added Dec 3, 2017 - 11:49am
Jeffrey, it's called Enemies: A History of the FBI  by Tim Weiner. I read another book from him about the CIA called Legacy of Ashes, which I thought was very good.
John Minehan Added Dec 3, 2017 - 12:23pm
Given that he was not a field agent, "hero" or "villain" might be less accurate than "law enforcement paragon" or "white collar criminal?"
My tendency to be both a knee-jerk Libertarian and a knee-jerk Liberal makes me less than a fan of the late Mr. Hoover; too much centralized power often used to step on the precisely wrong people (Dr. King and his Organization).
I have heard rumors that Hoover's discounting of the existence of The Commission and La Cosa Nostra in general until after the 1957 Apalachin Motel Bust has always made me wonder if money was changing hands.   
John Minehan Added Dec 3, 2017 - 12:24pm
Sorry, "if money were changing hands . . . ." (Speculation)
Morgoth Added Dec 3, 2017 - 12:28pm
Thanks, Michael.
Bill Kamps Added Dec 3, 2017 - 12:31pm
Hoover, shows how complex humans can be.  Good and bad are black and white terms, and people are rarely that.  Powerful people are capable of large doses of both good and bad.  Hoover was a paranoid person, doing almost anything to hold onto power and improve his reputation.  At the same time he was homosexual, which Im sure contributed to his paranoia. 
Mr. Congeniality Added Dec 3, 2017 - 12:45pm
@ John M. - Agreed, Hoover was a thug for sure. Hoover's alleged homosexuality certainly set him up nicely to be co-opted by the Mob, but nothing about that has been proven as yet. He will always be a murky character.
Mr. Congeniality Added Dec 3, 2017 - 12:46pm
@ Jeffrey - You're welcome!
Mr. Congeniality Added Dec 3, 2017 - 12:47pm
@ Bill K. - Very true - J. Edgar was worse than most...or better, depending on how one's head is screwed on.
George N Romey Added Dec 3, 2017 - 12:57pm
Decades back people like Hoover could operate unimpreded and brash without accountability. He was a very complex character. Those types now tend to be out of the spotlight letting others do their dirty work. The 
Jeffry Gilbert Added Dec 3, 2017 - 2:48pm
Hoover was an abject monster and the Feral Baby Incinerators (FBI) little more than a tool of oppression for an out of control government. 
Mueller is right in the middle of a huge controversy and sham. In fact he's at the center of the deep state's effort to overthrow the results of an election by any means necessary. 
I'll neither forget nor forgive assholes like Horiuchi, or the five other Feral Baby Incinerators who conspired to cover up the shooting of LaVoy Finicum in the back.
Its a rogue organization that needs to be done away with for freedom to survive.
Mr. Congeniality Added Dec 3, 2017 - 2:51pm
Oh, I almost forgot about the TV series "The FBI", which Hoover also more-or-less co-produced, and more-or-less followed the standard Quinn Martin format, regardless of the show:
"The [insert name of show]! A Quinn Martin Production. Starring [insert name of C-list actor], [insert name of C-list actor], and [insert name of D-list actress]. Guest stars [insert name of C-list actor], [insert name of C-list actress], and [insert name of D-list actress]. And Special Guest Star [insert name of fading, has-been actor or actress]. Tonight's episode..."[insert name of episode]".
Mr. Congeniality Added Dec 3, 2017 - 2:53pm
Agreed Captain Gilbert...Ruby Ridge was a tragedy by any standard.
wsucram15 Added Dec 3, 2017 - 4:33pm
While he built the FBI..he abused his power enormously, beyond that of the normal abuses.
Of all the Presidents he served I think he got along with Johnson..maybe FDR. He had files on everyone and was the one who found out about JFK and Judith Exner (sam giancana) among multitudes of other things.   He didn't care for black people so it wasnt a reach for him to dislike MLKjr.
His files can be read at the National Archives...some good stuff in there on some powerful people of that time. 
Also there is the question of his never marrying and lifelong partner Clyde Tolson, Assistant Director to Mr Hoover.  Interesting stuff...even if you dont believe it.   Two guys that know anything they want about anyone..and often used it.
Good guy/ Bad guy ...how about a guy with good intentions that went Dr Jekyll on everyone?
Even A Broken Clock Added Dec 3, 2017 - 6:03pm
The Deep State began with people like Hoover, who loved power more than justice.
Jeff Jackson Added Dec 3, 2017 - 6:10pm
No doubt Hoover was pretty much a maniac. He stayed in power way too long, did very little to stop organized crime, and did everything in his power to stay in power himself. -But.. Hoover took a bureau that didn't do very much and did make it into a bureau to be feared.
G.Gordon Liddy, who was an FBI agent, had some interesting stories of when he was in the FBI, which can be found in his autobiography Will. Everyone was scared to death of Hoover, except his "associate" Clyde Tolson, who, I am told, is buried next to Hoover. Hmmmm, does that tell you anything?
Mr. Congeniality Added Dec 3, 2017 - 6:20pm
Maybe in their case, FBI stands for Fuck Buddies Indefinitely.
Mr. Congeniality Added Dec 3, 2017 - 6:23pm
@ Jeanne - From what I understand, LBJ and JEH were pretty tight, but as they were remarkably similar creatures, it's not surprising!
Mr. Congeniality Added Dec 3, 2017 - 6:24pm
@ EABC - Nothing is new under the Sun, he was just better at it than most...I wonder how he would have fared in today's climate?
George N Romey Added Dec 3, 2017 - 7:58pm
Michael a Hoover would never make it today. Renegade outlandish rebel types just aren’t accepted in DC. Not to mention he couldn’t get away with being in the closet.
Dino Manalis Added Dec 4, 2017 - 8:32am
The FBI and CIA must be respected and obeyed!
wsucram15 Added Dec 4, 2017 - 8:48am
I have always wondered about Hoover and Johnson when it came to all Kennedy brothers, MLK jr and Malcolm X. They were really good allies and all that stuff happened within like 5 years? LBJ left office in 68 (announcing retirement in March)...odd isnt it?
I cant believe no one ever wondered about that...my mother who was a HUGE JFK conspiracy person, completely dismissed the idea.
Hoover is the ONLY person who could have pulled it off OR it could not have been done without his knowledge. Just my opinion...
John Minehan Added Dec 4, 2017 - 8:51am
Did the Commission blackmail Hoover because he was apparently Gay . . . of did they bribe him at the Race Track?
Hoover was a big (and successful) horse player . . . and unlike most of them, didn't wind up in hock . . . .  
wsucram15 Added Dec 4, 2017 - 9:02am
Oh George..you are so wrong. They cover their game..but DC is like Peyton Place. 
Its no different than Hollywood... they are all rich and acting for more $.   We pay to see the ones in Hollywood and we elect the ones in DC.  If you think about it, its almost comical.
George N Romey Added Dec 4, 2017 - 9:17am
Jeanne the under the radar types are the scrounge. Remember Trump never got accepted into the circle because he was too brash and crude. I think he’s always wanted to be there.
Jeffry Gilbert Added Dec 4, 2017 - 9:26am
The FBI and CIA must be respected and obeyed!
Fuck that and any low life scum sucking rat fuck rat bastard POS copsucker who thinks that. And the fuckin' duck they rode in on. 
wsucram15 Added Dec 4, 2017 - 3:22pm
Your right George..about him..and his existing media persona.  Think about this for a minute..everyone was positive about the people he appointed to straiten him out in Washington "in the cabinet".  Has that happened yet?  Its because they are all of a certain mindset to begin with.  BTW..I think he has wanted to run since the 90s...he had to clear up his rep, it took until 2014. Yeah.
But most dont have that exposure beforehand.  There are some loons in DC, that actually run it.   Occasionally you hear stories and they are crazy.
In the past 10 years..they have done some ridiculous things in Congress, when they have done anything. #worthless
Mircea Negres Added Dec 4, 2017 - 3:49pm
Interesting post, Michael! To my mind, Hoover was both bad and good guy, a servant of America's interests and his own. In the final tally, I'd fall more on the side of "ambitious, well-intentioned guy who exceeded his power and was party to some nasty shit. Though he did some good things, his excesses were excessive, so I'm glad he's gone." I say this because while he was right about some of the influence communists (and through them the USSR) had on certain things, they were not as powerful or far-reaching as McCarthy and Hoover made them out to be and did not justify the price many Americans paid during the 1950s' Red hysteria. In that regard, I think general John Singlaub is a good example. The guy fought communism in SE Asia quite well, but his (rabid and out of proportion) anti-communist mindset went so far as to make the actual communists seem bigger than they were. This hurt America in the long run and partly led to the East-West problems we've been having after the end of the Cold War.
Mr. Congeniality Added Dec 4, 2017 - 9:11pm
@ George R. - Trump seems to have validated the concept of "Renegade outlandish rebel types just aren’t accepted in DC", lol.
Mr. Congeniality Added Dec 4, 2017 - 9:12pm
@ Dino - WTF? I have to echo Captain Gilbert's sentiments. I'm reminded of one of my favorite lines from M*A*S*H:
Frank Burns: "Unless we conform, unless we obey orders, unless we follow our leaders BLINDLY, we'll never be free."
Mr. Congeniality Added Dec 4, 2017 - 9:15pm
@ Jeanne - I've read repeatedly from several disparate sources that RFK was pretty much a total fucking asshole, so I think he was one of those people that inspired the saying, "The enemy of my enemy is my friend."
Mr. Congeniality Added Dec 4, 2017 - 9:16pm
@ John M. - For some reason, Hoover's fondness of the ponies reminds me of a couple of quotes from Casablanca :
Renault: Rick, there are many exit visas sold in this café, but we know that you've never sold one. That is the reason we permit you to remain open.
Rick: Oh? I thought it was because I let you win at roulette.
Renault: That is another reason.
and later....
Renault: Everybody is to leave here immediately! This cafe is closed until further notice. Clear the room, at once!
Rick: How can you close me up? On what grounds?
Renault: I am shocked- shocked- to find that gambling is going on in here!
Croupier: [hands Renault money] Your winnings, sir.
Renault: Oh, thank you very much. Everybody out at once!
John Minehan Added Dec 4, 2017 - 9:29pm
 A great movie:
Major Strasser: You give him credit for too much cleverness. My impression was that he's just another blundering American.
Captain Renault: We musn't underestimate "American blundering". I was with them when they "blundered" into Berlin in 1918.
Major Strasser: Are you one of those people who cannot imagine the Germans in their beloved Paris?
Rick: It's not particularly my beloved Paris.
Heinz: Can you imagine us in London?
Rick: When you get there, ask me!
Captain Renault: Hmmh! Diplomatist!
Major Strasser: How about New York?
Rick: Well there are certain sections of New York, Major, that I wouldn't advise you to try to invade.
Mr. Congeniality Added Dec 4, 2017 - 9:33pm
@ Mircea - Mircea, thank you! And thank you for your usual astute and intelligent comments, which I cannot really improve upon! Growing up on the other side of you during the Cold War, even from a tender age I thought it was laughable that Communism would take hold in the U.S., however, it was certainly on the march for the longest time. You're right about MG Singlaub, but as the late COL David Hackworth said, although he was a little too rabid Right, he was by no means alone in his attitudes.
Mr. Congeniality Added Dec 4, 2017 - 9:45pm
@ John M. - Yes it is! One of the very, very few movies where almost every bit of dialog is quotable and/or applicable to something, somewhere, at some time!
wsucram15 Added Dec 5, 2017 - 10:18am
MichaelB....JFK and RFK  were both like that, as was I believe their father, Joseph.   But people choose to believe otherwise. My Grandfather liked them both so they must have been very aggressive and forthright in some manner, he was a pretty intelligent man.  I would hate to think he bought into Jackies camelot story. 
My entire life in their house hung a silhouette of the two of them side by side, done in watercolor I believe. 
George N Romey Added Dec 5, 2017 - 11:53am
Most great men FDR, JFK, RFK, MLK had a dark side to them.  God knows what they would dig up against me if I ever ran for office yet I think down deep I in a non corrupt system would do well.  I've studied FDR very carefully.  He was a leader like no other and someone we desperately need now.  However, he did things that would make your skin crawl.