The legend is crumbling: the squat, bulldog features, set fiercely in tenacious pursuit of the TEN MOST WANTED CRIMINALS. The gangbuster nemesis of "Baby Face" Nelson, John Dillinger, Ma Barker. The scourge of would-be spies and saboteurs. The alert sentinel and fearless fighter holding back the tide of the Red Menace. The stubbornly independent guardian of evenhanded law enforcement, highmindedly fending off Congressmen and Presidents who sought to use his agency for political purposes.
J. Edgar Hoover deserved some of that billing, although it was overblown from the start. Now, just three years after his death, a sharply different portrait is emerging of the man who built the Federal Bureau of Investigation into the world's most reputable police organization through 48 years as its famed Director. To be sure, there had always been a few blemishessome from scattered revelations through the decades, some from his own reckless conduct as he grew older and fought to retain the power he felt slipping away. But now, under congressional and journalistic scrutiny, as well as in the writings of his once fearful agents, a darker picture is coming into view.
In these new shades Hoover is seen as a shrewd bureaucratic genius who cared less about crime than about perpetuating his crime-busting image. With his acute public relations sense, he managed to obscure his bureau's failings while magnifying its sometime successes. Even his fervent anti-Communism has been cast into doubt; some former aides insist that he knew the party was never a genuine internal threat to the nation but a useful, popular target to ensure financial and public support for the FBI.
Even more serious flaws in the Hoover character and official performance have come to light:
> Instead of insulating his bureau from politically sensitive Presidents, Hoover eagerly complied with improper requests from the men in the White House for information on potential opponents. If a President failed to ask for such information, the Director often volunteered it. He tapped the telephones of Government officials on request, perused files of politicians unasked, volunteered tidbits of gossip.
> He was a petty man of towering personal hates. There was more than a tinge of racism in his vicious vendetta against Martin Luther King Jr. He had to be pushed into hiring black agents for the bureau.
> His informers, infiltrators and wiretappers delved into the activities of even the most innocuous and nonviolent civil rights and antiwar groups, trampling on the rights of citizens to express grievances against their Government. His spies within potentially dangerous extremist groups sometimes provoked more violence than they prevented.
> As an administrator, he was an erratic, unchallengeable czar, banishing agents to Siberian posts on whimsy, terrorizing them with torrents of implausible rules, insisting on conformity of thought as well as dress.
The fact that such a man could acquire and keep that kind of power raises disturbing questions not merely about the role of a national police in a democracy, but also about the political system that tolerated him for so long. The revelations show too that those political dissidents in years past who complained they were being harassed and spied upon were not so paranoid after all.