The sad legacy of J. Edgar Hoover

You probably had to grow up in the 1950s or earlier to know deep in your bones just how radically the reputation of J. Edgar Hoover has shifted from patriotic, upstanding, nation-protecting, model-for-one-and-all hero to liberty-denying, rights-abusing, sneaky, jealous, morally corrupt villain.

But it has happened — sunshine is midnight, mountaintop is swamp — and the latest revelation serves only to fix in place the lowest estimations. The news is that Hoover once proposed to roundup and stick in jail 12,000 Americans who did not appear to conform to his idea of being loyal to their country. Habeas corpus? Bah, humbug. These people were a threat, and later hearings would not stick to rules of evidence.

When I was a youngster, and even in my 1960s college years and beyond, you mostly heard how this noble director of the FBI had once taken on rampant, bank-robbing gangsters and restored law and order, or how he had confronted the evil intentions of internal Communist conspirators and throttled them.

Such notions were backed up by newspaper and magazine articles, and by movies and TV shows. In high school, I read a book by Hoover, “Masters of Deceit,” which was about the horror of the Communist philosophy, the wickedness of Communists themselves and the various means they were employing to undermine our democracy. It was here, of course, that you located the constant obsession of Hoover, his sense of an internal menace eating ravenously away at our precious heritage.

No doubt, his exaggerated view of this threat within America, along with a planet-sized ego and his lengthy, seemingly secure tenure in power, contributed to his various abuses of his office. One of the worst was to set in motion a war on dissent through such means as illegal search and seizure, and then there were all the documents he kept on both dissenters and others in power, potentially ruinous information that was also potentially the stuff of blackmail of one kind or another. If someone were in his way, he would seldom hesitate to shove the obstacle aside.

Was there no basis, then, for his earlier reputation?

Are there no arguments on his behalf?

There are some.

To say he exaggerated the internal Communist threat is not to say that there was no threat at all; especially during the earliest stages of the Cold War, there were Americans happily betraying their country in service of the Soviet Union’s druthers and a misplaced, idiotic ideology. There was spying. Some of it was hugely hurtful. His view of communism was more nearly on target than that of countless intellectuals.

And to make it seem Hoover made no contribution at all to his country is to overlook how he helped build a first-rate FBI that without any question toted up a number of impressive achievements during the years he guided it. He may have been possessed of a kind of bureaucratic genius.

But there is something that never seemed to penetrate his stern mentality, which was that his excesses could pose as much a threat to our special sort of civilization as the domestic Communists he so much feared. Some are saying something like that now about the Bush administration — how some of its excesses are as worrisome as terrorists — and I would agree there have been decisions that should not be excused. But they pale compared to Hoover and what he did.

This man, we now know, wanted to stick thousands of fellow Americans in prison illegally. From this swamp he will never arise.

(Jay Ambrose, formerly Washington director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard newspapers and the editor of dailies in El Paso, Texas, and Denver, is a columnist living in Colorado. He can be reached at SpeaktoJay(at)