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telegraph - in defence of jedgar hoover, sort of

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In defence of J Edgar Hoover
After his death in 1972, Hoover's reputation swiftly changed from that of a man of integrity and honour to one of a 'monster'. Is it time to revisit the charge sheet against him?

(image/FBI Director J Edgar Hoover, and as depicted by Leonardo DiCaprio in the Clint Eastwood film 'J Edgar')

By John Preston

11:57AM GMT 21 Jan 2012

In 1936, 11,000 American schoolboys were asked to vote on who they thought was the most popular man in the United States.

J Edgar Hoover, Director of the FBI, came second, while the-then President Franklin D Roosevelt only made it into seventh place – the winner was Robert Ripley, creator of Ripley’s Believe It or Not! compendium of weird facts.

Thirty-five years later in 1971, a Gallup Poll for Newsweek found that 80 per cent of the people questioned rated Hoover’s performance as Director of the FBI as either “excellent” or “good”.

Just a year later, Hoover was dead of a heart attack aged 77. By then, a substantial gap had already opened up between the way he was perceived in private and in public. When President Nixon was told that Hoover had died, he apparently exclaimed, “Jesus Christ. That old c***sucker!”

But at Hoover’s funeral a few days later, Nixon’s tone had changed a good deal. Hoover, he intoned tremblingly, had been, “One of the giants... He personified integrity, he personified honour, he personified principle, he personified courage, he personified discipline, he personified dedication, he personified loyalty, he personified patriotism.”
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Immediately after Hoover’s death, though, something very strange happened. Far from being the personification of integrity, honour and all the rest of it, he came to personify something else entirely.

Hoover, it seemed, had been a monster all along – corrupt, venal, egomaniacal, drunk, paranoid... The charge sheet stretched into infinity.

By 1998, Senator Harry Reid from Nevada was declaring that “J Edgar Hoover stands for what is bad in this country. This small man violated the rights of hundreds, if not thousands of people, famous and not so famous.”

It’s hard to see what Hoover’s size has to do with it, but the message was plain. Even in Washington DC – Hoover’s seat of power for almost half a century – his name was mud. Some people even wanted to see his name expunged from the place altogether. Every year from 2002 to 2008, a Republican congressman for Indiana called Dan Burton introduced a bill calling for J Edgar Hoover’s name to be chiselled off the front of the FBI headquarters.

Every year the bill was thrown out, but Burton plugged on regardless. As far as he was concerned, Hoover “clearly abused his role as Director of the FBI. Symbolism matters in the United States and it is clearly wrong to honor a man who frequently manipulated the law to achieve his personal goals".

It’s doubtful if anyone’s reputation has plummeted quite so far and so drastically as J Edgar Hoover’s. Before long, it had reached the point where anyone saying anything remotely good about him risked being accused of a form of latterday heresy. And then, just when it looked as if his reputation couldn’t fall any further, Hoover was outed as a homosexual.

So what, you might say? Surely his being gay didn’t make him bad at his job? But according to Hoover’s ever-swelling band of detractors, this just showed what a hypocrite he was – someone who’d ruthlessly persecuted other gays for their sexuality at the same time as conducting a long-running affair with his deputy, Clyde Tolson.

However, there was an even bigger story waiting in the wings. In 1991, a woman called Susan Rosenstiel signed a sworn affidavit saying that in 1958, she and her husband had been invited to a party in New York City’s Plaza Hotel. The Rosenstiels were told that the party was a strictly private affair and that if word ever got out about it, there would be drastic repercussions.

Entering the hotel by a side entrance, they took an elevator to the second floor. According to Rosenstiel, she walked in to see J Edgar Hoover “wearing a fluffy black dress, very fluffy, with flounces and lace stockings and high heels, and a black curly wig. He had make-up on and false eyelashes.”

The man was introduced to her as “Mary”, but Mrs Rosenstiel wasn’t fooled for a moment. “It was Hoover,” she recalled. “You could see where he shaved... I couldn’t believe it, that I should see the head of the FBI dressed as a woman.”

This was big all right, very big, but was it true? Almost certainly not. Susan Rosenstiel turned out to be a convicted perjurer whose husband had well-documented Mafia connections. Yet everyone - or almost everyone - was so eager to believe it that they weren’t going to let little things like that get in their way.

Where Rosenstiel led, others soon followed. The novelist William Styron claimed that Hoover had once been spotted painting Clyde Tolson’s toenails on the patio of a beach house in Malibu, California. While Styron hadn’t seen this himself, he admitted, he was confident the story was “absolutely true.”

But now after four decades of well-nigh unbroken denunciation, there are signs the pendulum might be swinging back the other way. An increasing number of people, criminologists in particular, are starting to question whether Hoover’s name has been unfairly blackened. No one in their right mind would deny that Hoover had his defects – a small mountain of them – but he did have virtues too, several of which have had a lastingly beneficial effect on law enforcement in America.

“Hoover was a very complex man,” says David Wilson, Professor of Criminology at Birmingham City University. “The difficulty is that he’s been reduced to almost a caricature of those complexities – and it’s the caricature that people now associate him with. It’s certainly true that Hoover did engage in some absolutely reprehensible behaviour. But if I look at him purely as a criminologist, he managed to do things that we have found hard to do in Britain.

“Above all, he created a supra-national police agency – the FBI. We kind-of think we have that over here, but we don’t: we have 43 separate police forces. I’ve been speaking today about the crimes committed by Robert Black – a convicted serial killer. Black escaped detection for as long as he did because he crossed police force boundary areas. He abducted a child from Edinburgh and dumped the child’s body in Leicestershire. And the police in Leicestershire didn’t necessarily link the discovery of that’s child’s body with the abduction of another child in another part of the UK.”

Hoover was only 29 when he was became Acting Director of the Bureau of Investigation, as it was originally known, in 1924. By then, he’d already proved himself to be an organisational genius – charged with hunting down suspected left-wing aliens in 1919, he collected the names of 150,000 alleged subversives in just three months.

When Hoover took over the Bureau, it was notorious for being the most incompetent corrupt government agency in Washington. Its agents were regarded – with ample justification – as quasi-criminals whose main motivation was to line their own pockets. But then they were so badly trained and their powers were so limited – they were forbidden to carry guns, or even make arrests until 1935 – that it was hardly surprising they were such a hopeless rabble.

Hoover only agreed to take on the job on condition that there would be no political meddling and that he’d be in sole control. He promptly fired around a quarter of all agents and instigated mandatory training for the ones who remained. He enforced strict rules of conduct - agents had to wear white shirts and black wing-tip shoes, and to be as courteous as they were efficient. For reasons no one seems able to explain, he also forbade the drinking of coffee at work after 8.15 in the morning.

As far as Hoover was concerned, the future of crime detection lay in scientific innovation. Deeply conservative in many respects, here at least he was way ahead of the game. Shortly after taking over, he established a national fingerprint collection – something that hadn’t been done anywhere else in the world – enabling law enforcement agencies to match fingerprints at crime scenes with those on file in Washington.

In 1932, Hoover set up the Bureau’s Technical Laboratory. This pioneered a number of techniques including investigation of different blood types, handwriting analysis and wire-tapping. But perhaps his greatest triumph was in PR. At a time of deep financial depression, when crime was being seen as increasingly glamorous, he persuaded his fellow Americans that bankrobbers such as John Dillinger and Machine Gun Kelly – both of whom he was instrumental in catching - were not romantic folk-heroes but ruthless killers.

Above all, by dint of a weekly radio address, comic strips featuring heroic bureau officers, as well as an unflagging appetite for self-publicity, he created an image of America as a place where the rule of law held sway.

“What Hoover was able to articulate is that crime was just crime and should be stamped out,” says Wilson, “In articulating those values, he began to articulate a sense of what America stands for.”

Clint Eastwood’s new film, J Edgar, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, is being seen in some quarters at least as part of Hoover’s rehabilitation. Certainly it goes some way to humanising him, seeing him less as a frothing maniac and more as a victim of his own pathologies. But not everyone is happy – and especially not the J Edgar Hoover Foundation, which is up in arms over the way in which the film portrays Hoover as having a homosexual relationship with Clyde Tolson.

On the foundation’s website there’s an exchange of letters between the foundation’s Chairman, William Branon and Clint Eastwood.

Suggestions that Hoover was gay are “ludicrous,” Branon writes. “There is no much basis in fact for such a portrayal of Mr Hoover. It would be a grave injustice and a monumental distortion to proceed with such a depiction based on a completely unfounded and spurious allegation.”

In reply, Eastwood writes, “Please rest assured that we do not give any credence to cross-dressing allegations... nor do we intend to portray an open homosexual relationship between Mr Hoover and Clyde Tolson.... Though no one can know his private side with certainty, we hope that a thoughtful, intelligent portrayal of the man will put his life story in proper historical context.”

This exchange of letters took place before Branon had seen the film. But now that he has, he’s even more furious than he was before.

“I thought it was terrible,” he says. “An awful thing. I was sick when I saw it, especially in the light of Mr Eastwood’s letter. It’s like he’s turned Dirty Harry into Dirty Harriet. And I’d emphasise that we’re not a bunch of homophobes here; we’re just a few old guys trying to do the best we can for Mr Hoover’s legacy. I worked with both Hoover and Tolson. Trust me, neither of them were gay. If anything, Hoover was like an monk - the FBI was his church.”

The journalist and historian Charles Johnson, author of a forthcoming biography of Calvin Coolidge, also doubts if Hoover was gay. “My gut instinct is that he was probably asexual and wedded to his work. A lot has been made about how he lived with his mother for a long time, but that was pretty common for people who lived in Washington at the time. If you weren’t married and you came from the area, you lived with your family – it was a Southern tradition.”

One of the many strange things about Hoover is that a lot of people who have lambasted him for concealing his supposed homosexuality, have gone on – practically in the next breath - to accuse him of blackening people’s names by spreading unsubstantiated rumours about them.

But does it really matter what Hoover’s sexual tastes were? As far as Jacob Heilbrunn, senior editor at the American magazine The National Interest is concerned, all this speculation risks obscuring what’s interesting about Hoover. “The cross-dressing strikes me as particularly preposterous. It’s what political scientists call a Non-Falsifiable Hypothesis – you can’t disprove it because there’s no proof for it in the first place.

“There’s no question that Hoover’s record is a mixed one, but I don’t think he was a demon. He’s constantly being decried as being virulently anti-communist as if this was just a symptom of his paranoia. But if anything, he wasn’t vigilant enough in ferreting out communist infiltration in the Roosevelt administration – we now know from KGB archives that there were dozens if not hundreds of KGB informants working inside the government. He’s also regularly accused of broaching people’s civil liberties - but in fact, Hoover resisted the wire-tapping activities that President Nixon wanted to perpetuate.”

So why has Hoover been so demonised? In American fiction, particularly the works of James Ellroy, he’s invariably portrayed as the embodiment of vindictiveness and hypocrisy – although Ellroy has admitted that he finds Hoover “more fun to write about” than any other real-life figure.

Certainly Hoover looked the part, having a face once described as being “like a sledgehammer in search of an anvil”, but plainly there was more to it than that. Heilbrunn reckons that to a large extent he was a victim of the times that immediately followed his death. “You have to remember this was the time of the Vietnam War, of hippies and of Watergate. There was a pervasive distrust of American institutions and Hoover was seen as the spider in the centre of the web.”

“One of the great problems with Hoover,” says David Wilson, “is that for every positive, there’s a negative. He always pushed it too far and nobody dared pull him down to size. If there’s a lesson to be learned from his career, it’s that anyone who goes on for that long ultimately believes themselves to be invincible – and by the time they find out that they’re not, it’s too late.”

On May 1 1972, Hoover arrived home at around 10.15 at night and poured himself a glass of his favourite bourbon, Jack Daniels Black Label from a musical decanter which played “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow” whenever it was lifted.

According to Anthony Summers, author of The Secret Life of J Edgar Hoover, which is being republished to coincide with the release of Eastwood’s film, he was phoned by Richard Nixon sometime before midnight. Nixon told him that after 48 years of controlling law enforcement in America, he was finally being kicked out.

When Hoover didn’t come down for breakfast the next morning, his housekeeper went upstairs to his bedroom. There, she found his body lying beside the bed. As rigor mortis had set in, it was estimated that Hoover had been dead since about 2am.

After he had been embalmed at the morticians, Hoover’s niece, Margaret Fennell, went in to see him. “He looked very good,” she recalled later, “But smaller than I remembered. I guess death does that to you.”

Yet death did not diminish Hoover – quite the reverse. It distended him, darkened him and turned him into a colossal bogeyman, a figure from a child’s nightmare. Ever since, his beady eyes have glowered down on successive generations of Americans who shiver dutifully whenever he’s mentioned, draw their coats around them and hurry on.

Perhaps the time has come for everyone to wake up and see him as he really was.

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