J. Edgar Hoover: A law unto himself

FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover in a September 25, 1970 file photo.
AP Photo

Hard though it might be for folks of a certain age to believe, former FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover has been dead for all of 39-and-a-half years - which STILL falls more than eight years short of the length of time he ran the Bureau. How he did it, and at what cost, is the story Rita Braver has to tell:

It is fitting to begin in the heart of Washington D.C., where J. Edgar Hoover lies at rest.

He was a local kid who grew up on Capitol Hill, just a few blocks away.

He's buried in his family plot, but Rebecca Roberts, program director at Congressional Cemetery, says former FBI agents built the fence and added a bench - creating a memorial that draws new recruits.

"Every now and then some young men in dark suits with little wires coming out of their ears come in the front gate of the cemetery, coming to pay their respects to the director," Roberts said.

The director for an astonishing 48 years, starting in 1924, J. Edgar Hoover became one of the most powerful men in American history - a man who collected secrets and knew how to use them.

He made the FBI a symbol of professional law enforcement and a source of pride for Americans:

"The Federal Bureau of Investigation is as close to you as your nearest telephone," Lowell Thomas said in a 1930s newsreel. "It seeks to be your protector in all matters in its jurisdiction. It belongs to you."

But Hoover also turned the Bureau into his personal fiefdom:

"Presidents were afraid of firing Hoover," said author Ron Kessler. "Congress didn't want to do any oversight. The FBI was a law unto itself."

Kessler has written three books about the FBI. He says that, ironically, in the beginning Hoover, a young Justice Dept. lawyer, was charged with cleaning up a corrupt division.

"Hoover emphasized the need for professionalism, not hiring people just because they were friends of someone or family members," Kessler said. "He established the fingerprint operation, he established the indexing system with files."

J. Edgar Hoover

He also established the FBI Academy, to train agents in crime-busting techniques - making sure he got the credit.

In fact, the Bureau's reputation (and Hoover's) soared with high-profile arrests of gangsters like John Dillinger.

But out of the spotlight, the director was consolidating his power in another way - collecting dirt.

"Hoover, for one thing, would tell for example the head of the Washington field office, 'I want material on Congressmen,' and that would include affairs that they might be having, or they were picked up for seeing a prostitute the night before," said Kessler. "And then he would make sure that they knew that he knew what they had done."

Hoover kept files on celebrities like Marilyn Monroe, John Lennon, Elvis Presley, and even Albert Einstein - "In part because he wanted to have little gossip items to impart to presidents," said Kessler, "or on the other hand, just to maintain his aura as being this powerful person who knew everything."

"That is complete fabrication," said Cartha "Deke" Deloach, now 91, who was one of Hoover's top lieutenants.

He insists that if the FBI kept files on public figures, it was for legitimate reasons.

Case in point: The information that President John F. Kennedy was sharing a girlfriend, Judith Campbell Exner, with Chicago mob boss Sam Giancana.

"That came to our attention because of a wiretap and microphone that the Attorney General approved, the White House knew about them, that we had on Giancana," said Deloach. "As a result, the White House sometimes would call Exner and it would be overheard by a wiretap."

As for the bugging of Martin Luther King Jr., who feuded with Hoover over the Bureau's enforcement of civil rights, the FBI's alleged justification for tapping King was an investigation into two of his advisers who were said to be Communists. But the taps ended up recording evidence of King's extramarital affairs.

"Hoover was outraged that King was having affairs and projecting himself as a minister, but at the same time Hoover also was jealous of King because he got the Nobel Prize, and that really infuriated Hoover," said Kessler. "Hoover just totally went after him. He would even write letters to people who wanted to give awards to King saying, "You know, we shouldn't do that.'"

Hoover may have amassed information on the sex lives of many prominent figures, but his own personal life has long been the subject of speculation.

"There were for years reports and rumors that Hoover used to cross-dress," said Braver.

"Yeah, the rumor that Hoover cross-dressed and wore a red dress to the Plaza was a concoction of someone who actually had been convicted of perjury and was quoted in a book," said Kessler. "It didn't happen."

But how about Hoover's relationship with his top deputy, Clyde Tolson?

"Tolson and Hoover would go on vacations together, would take adoring pictures of each other, would have lunch and dinner together almost every single day," said Kessler. "There is no actual evidence of a sexual relationship, but I believe he was homosexual, and that he had a spousal relationship with Tolson."