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The Character Question of J. Edgar Hoover

Leo as J. Edgar

Leo as J. Edgar

Since I was a little girl I’ve always been fascinated by J. Edgar Hoover. Credit the “old soul” factor in me that contributes to my general feeling of anachronism and me being totally enthralled with events that happened decades, even centuries before I was even born. Sure I devour any historical accounts about slavery, oppression of the weak by the strong, capitalism, religion and science but my true past love has to do with powerful men. And for a time in this country there was no more powerful man than J. Edgar Hoover.

Many people depict the FBI director whose mind-bogglingly long 48-year tenure is unheard of, as some sort of bureaucratic superpower with him imperviously outlasting eight presidents. But I see J. Edgar Hoover’s vice grip on the nation’s police as the triumph of an underling who lorded over his overlords. A masterful misanthrope who wielded a simple single weapon in his arsenal – the dirt –  to maintain and grow his power. Yet even though he embodied the term “leading with an iron fist,” he still managed to produced a world class law enforcement agency that even the Israelis consult when necessary. (The FBI’s recent mishaps in the war on global terror notwithstanding).

J. Edgar Hoover didn’t create an agency he created a CULTure, a group of men (and finally women and blacks) who live by a code so frighteningly rigid that most people would find it stifling to live within the FBI petri dish. I’ve met several FBI agents and they are a special breed. Many authors have suggested individuality is discouraged, in favor of dedication to the organization being paramount requiring a keen adherence to FBI culture and very little deviation from the rules. Back when Hoover became a director of the Bureau of Investigations and then the head of the FBI he was really an odd bird. An 20-something law enforcement officer, who lived at home with his mother and whose profile was so serious that it made the young man look cunning even with a slight smile.

Hoover was a tour de force that set out to eliminate any bird that wasn’t his type of odd. His leadership created an agency that was mostly white, ethnic as in  Catholic Italians and non WASPy Europeans, who had a righteous streak and a penchant for being dandy dressers. Have you seen some of the old FBI photos of Hoover and his inner circle? There were some really good looking  well-dressed men.

To this day the demographics of the FBI remain largely the same as it was during Hoover’s tenure from the 1920s to 1972 when he died.

  • 83.5 percent White
  • 81.9 percent male
  • 18.1 percent female
  • 7.4 percent Hispanic
  • 5.6 percent Black
  • 3.5 percent American Indian

How a bureau with that make up could be expected to lead the fight on global terror is beyond me. But I digress.

Anyway, with the biopic “J. Edgar,’ coming out this week my interest in J. has been revived. But, of course, many former FBI agents are concerned about Hollywood’s interpretation of what could be simultaneously the most feared, hated and loved man in the country.

They of course are worried about how director Clint Eastwood and more importantly gay screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, who won an Oscar for his screenplay on gay activist Harvey Milk, would treat the rumors that J. Edgar, America’s cop who reached inside the bedrooms of his adversaries to investigate them, was hiding a bedroom secret of his own – that he was gay.

Being FBI agents their refrain is as expected, “There’s no evidence that J. Edgar Hoover was gay.” Meaning no one has the pictures, telephone recordings or eyewitness accounts Hoover was infamous for gathering on others on the man himself. (A fact I find almost impossible to believe…)

But Dustin posits an interesting theory about J. Edgar Hoover’s sexuality:

People from pre-sexual revolution and even from the 60s and the birth of the gay movement still define gay as two men or two women having sex. The burden of proof is that we need some sort of evidence, photographic or otherwise, that this happened. Our generation defines it from a more emotional standpoint. To be gay means you are drawn to the same sex. You can be gay and abstinent. But it’s a part of who you are, an identity, not an act. When you start to have this conversation you start to have common ground. They would say, “Show me the proof he was gay.” And I would say, “Show me the proof he was straight.” – Black on Speakeasy Blog of the Wall Street Journal.

What Dustin illustrates here is a subtle but seismic shift in the American philosophy on homosexuality. This idea that gay isn’t who you do but who you are. It’s part of your make up and you don’t have to do anything to be gay. And when you describe homosexuality that way it makes it a lot tougher to inject hatred into that summation.

But what I’m fascinated about is the idea that FBI agents are still concerned about J. Edgar’s sexual orientation and that being gay will somehow tarnish his name. As if him being a bigoted, racist, overbearing, overreaching, civil rights abuser doesn’t taint his reputation more?

People at the FBI are smart. So let’s examine the facts:

  • A man who lived with his mother until she died.
  • A man who never married.
  • A single man who ate lunch everyday, went on vacations with and basically spent all his time with another single man.
  • A man with some obvious pent up anger brandishing power like a logger whirls an ax.

Yeah, OK he wasn’t gay!

But J. Edgar’s sexuality isn’t the part of his character that I’m concerned with. It’s the part where the men who enforce the law decide to conveniently break it when they think such abuse of the law is warranted. And J. Edgar literally wrote the book on law enforcement abuse of power. I find it ironic that no one has the the incriminating private intel on the FBI director that he was so fond of gathering on others.

Beginning in the 1950s J. Edgar and his cult created COINTELPRO – a law enforcement investigation philosophy run amok its genesis from the loins of a righteous madman. Through COINTELPRO the FBI engaged in covert operations that lied, falsely imprisoned, engaged in psychological warfare, harassed, violently hounded and even attempted assassination on many civil rights, left-leaning political groups and other declared enemies of the state. Hoover’s and his ilk’s abuse of The Constitution and the rights of American citizens were, as a U.S. Senate committee put it beyond tolerable for a democratic society:

Many of the techniques used would be intolerable in a democratic society even if all of the targets had been involved in violent activity, but COINTELPRO went far beyond that…the Bureau conducted a sophisticated vigilante operation aimed squarely at preventing the exercise of First Amendment rights of speech and association, on the theory that preventing the growth of dangerous groups and the propagation of dangerous ideas would protect the national security and deter violence.

Hoover’s by any means necessary approach is a legacy we are still suffering from and has had a much bigger effect on our lives than his sexuality. From cops in New York planting evidence, suppressing crimes and arresting innocent people to boost numbers to Chicago police torturing innocent victims into confessing Hoover’s abuse of power legacy is more disturbing than anything he did in his bedroom.

So in light of that the character question of the nation’s first top cop has more to do with what he did behind the closed doors of his FBI office instead of the closed door of his bedroom.



One thought on “The Character Question of J. Edgar Hoover

  1. Insightful assessment!

    Posted by Jax | November 16, 2011, 12:51 pm

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