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

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The evasions to skirt the rules were ingenious. To beat the anti-obesity program, one agent put lead weights in his pockets before stepping on the scales. In each successive weigh-in, he put in less metal. His superiors were impressed by such heroic efforts to reduce. No agent, of course, dared point out that Hoover looked a bit fleshy himself.

A glimpse into this bizarre life is offered by Joseph L. Schott, a retired 23-year veteran of FBI service, in his recent book No Left Turns. The title stems from the fact that Hoover's limousine was once struck by another car while making a left turn. Agents thereafter were ordered to plan routes for Hoover so that his car rarely had to make a left turn. Schott claims that everyone around Hoover was too terrified to ask the boss what he meant by some of his impulsive comments. Thus, Schott reports, Hoover concluded one meeting of high FBI officials by saying: "I have been looking over the supervisors at the Seat of Government. A lot of them are clods. Get rid of them." Instead of asking Hoover whom he had in mind, the officials formed a committee (others called it the Clod Squad). They managed to find one or two supervisors fed up enough with Washington to accept a transfer and thus appease Hoover.

Similarly, according to Schott, after a line of new agents just out of the FBI's academy at Quantico, Va., filed past Hoover for the routine welcome, J. Edgar barked: "One of them is a pinhead. Get rid of him!" Hoover underlings secretly opened the recruits' lockers and measured every hat (hats were mandatory) to find the man Hoover meant. When they discovered three tied for smallest size, all three were dismissed.

The sycophants around Hoover puzzled over his cryptic notes, always in blue ink, on orders and personnel files. The notes were known as "blue gems." There was consternation when the Director wrote on one agent's personnel record: "Give this man what he deserves." The solution: the agent was given both a letter of censure and a transfer to a post he was seeking.

No whim of the Director's was too insignificant to be ignored. Hoover once stayed at the home of a wealthy manufacturer of bathroom fixtures and liked the fancy commodes in the guest rooms. The host sent one to Hoover's house. But, according to former Agent Schott, Hoover complained that it was too high. Agents duly measured the one at the manufacturer's home and the new one in Hoover's home. Sure enough, Hoover's was two inches higher. A squad of agents worked through a weekend with a plumber to lower the fixture.

Though few if any agents were fond of Hoover's nitpicking regulations, some found merit in his harsh disciplinary ways. "He imbued us with a spirit of belonging to something above the other agencies," said Peter Kotsos, a former agent. "He built an esprit, and we lived in the knowledge that if you didn't abide by the rules you got out."

Although Hoover's capriciousness took a heavy personal toll, he did indeed, singlehanded, take a corrupt and dismal organization and pound it into an impressive outfit. That part of the Hoover legend remains intact.

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