Hoover Revisited

Ray Jenkins

November 17, 1990|By Ray Jenkins | Ray Jenkins,from the evening sun

LIKE EVERY other red-blooded American boy who came of age in the 1950s, I regarded J. Edgar Hoover as an American icon, the great "G-man" who protected me from communism, organized crime and other insidious evils. In that age of innocence -- which was about the mid-point of Hoover's long career in government -- the image was no doubt a little overblown but not entirely undeserved. After all, as a young manBy Ray Jenkins in the 1920s Hoover had taken over an incompetent and even corrupt organization and turned it into a Federal Bureau of Investigation that earned respect.

If Hoover had retired in the 1950s -- as certainly he could have -- he might have maintained that respect. But he didn't, and the disservice he rendered to his country for the second half of his career in my mind more than erased what good he had done in the first half. In fact, based on what we now know about Hoover's post-war years, I believe the time has come to remove Hoover's name from the FBI building in Washington. After all, if the KGB building in Moscow were named for some director who held office during, say, the Brezhnev period, I suspect the Russian people would be clamoring to have it removed. No doubt some will be gravely offended at the analogy, but in my view Hoover's contempt for the Constitution, his inveterate racism which still infects the FBI, his use of official position to torment American citizens, all bespeak the qualities of someone who would have made an ideal KGB director if, by fate, he had been born 8,000 miles east of where he was in 1895.

The newest disgrace Hoover has brought, posthumously, upon the FBI is the revelation, in last Sunday's New York Times, that the bureau maintained a voluminous secret file on Pablo Picasso, of all people, even though the artist never set foot in the United States. The Picasso file began after Hoover read an essay by the artist entitled "Why I Became A Communist." Even today the file is maintained in the Hoover FBI headquarters, 17 years after the artist's death at the age of 91. After a long and arduous effort to get the Picasso file under the Freedom of Information Act, New York Times cultural affairs reporter Herbert Mitgang finally obtained a document which was still heavily censored on the grounds that releasing the information would be detrimental to the "national security" -- a preposterous claim, of course.

But the Picasso file is only the latest of revelations which show range and scope of Hoover's pettiness, paranoia, power-hunger and capacity for rancor. Reporter Mitgang earlier had revealed that Hoover kept files on virtually every American writer who won the Nobel Prize, including such apolitical figures as Pearl Buck and William Faulkner. He kept dossiers on artists like Ben Shahn and Alexander Calder.

But even this is only the tip of the iceberg. There are thousands of Americans living to this day who still may be unaware that they did not receive high-level federal appointments because of an FBI file that they didn't even know existed. This is authentic Kafka stuff. We can never calculate the cost of Hoover's wholesale, arbitrary exclusion of talent from American government.

Several authoritative new books on Hoover pretty much confirm that Hoover was a homosexual who for years maintained a male companion as his top assistant in the FBI. Now, let me hasten to add that being homosexual alone should not disqualify anyone from any position, including director of the FBI. But what makes Hoover's reputed homosexuality relevant are the facts that (1) he dismissed such rumors about him as "communist lies" planted to discredit him and (2) he himself ruined lives by keeping secret dossiers, often based on pure gossip, which held forth homosexuality as a condition which ipso facto made a person a (( security risk, thus unemployable. So let me once more emphasize that I bring up the question of Hoover's sexual orientation not to prove that he was unfit to hold office but as evidence that the man's life was a living lie.

The time has come to remove J. Edgar Hoover's name from the FBI building, and let the man rest in the ignominy which he earned.

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