From TIME's Archives: The Truth About J. Edgar Hoover

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As the pendulum of public esteem swings away from the old Hoover reputation, the correction seems necessary, though it could also go too far. The Director's defenders, at least, are outraged. "When the lion dies, the rats come out," sneers Efrem Zimbalist Jr., longtime star of the once top-rated television series The FBI. Insists William Ruckelshaus, one of the victims of Richard Nixon's Saturday Night Massacre: "Really, the man had only one motive. That was to make the FBI the finest investigative agency in the world."

Certainly the post-Watergate morality casts a harsher light on official conduct that once was not questioned. In the cold war period, the Communist threat from abroad, if not at home, did look—and was—dangerous. Such FBI-infiltrated groups as the Ku Klux Klan and the Weatherman did proclaim violence.

Throughout much of his career, Hoover used information compiled by his agents to build political support for the bureau. TIME has learned, for example, that Hoover went to one Senator with the revelation that his daughter was using hard drugs. Hoover agreed to keep the matter quiet—and thereby earned the Senator's lasting gratitude. Similarly, when Hoover discovered that one Congressman was a homosexual, he visited the legislator to assure him that this news would never leak from the FBI—and thus made a new friend for the bureau.

The Director's dealings with Presidents, as detailed two weeks ago by a Senate committee report (TIME, Dec. 15), were just as self-serving. Clearly the worst offender in demanding political information from Hoover was President Lyndon Johnson. Both men loved gossip and this type of intrigue. Hoover ingratiated himself with L.B.J. during the Justice Department's investigation of Johnson's congressional protégé and crony, Bobby Baker. Asked by Attorney General Robert Kennedy to "wire" someone to talk to a Baker friend, Hoover not only refused but reported the request to Johnson. The Justice Department lawyers went to Treasury agents instead and got the help they sought. That infuriated Johnson, who asked Hoover to check out Treasury for the men who helped Kennedy.

Always worried about Kennedy supporters in his midst, Johnson kept asking Hoover to investigate White House personnel. TIME has learned that Presidential Speechwriter Richard Goodwin resigned as the result of one such probe. Johnson also ordered FBI name checks on high officials in the Democratic National Committee for the same purpose. L.B.J. was so phobic about the Kennedys that when the Washington Star attacked him editorially, he asked Hoover to find out if there was any Kennedy money behind the paper. Since the FBI also had its own "enemies list" of newspapers critical of Hoover, the Director was sympathetic to such appeals.

Moreover, when Johnson's aide, Walter Jenkins, was involved in a homosexual episode in 1964, L.B.J. suspected that a Barry Goldwater supporter may have set up the arrest. He angrily ordered Hoover to seek derogatory material on Goldwater's Senate staff to be held for use if the Senator made an issue of the Jenkins matter in the presidential campaign. Goldwater never did so.

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