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

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During the 1940s Hoover was reluctant to move against organized crime. Some FBI agents think they know why. They tell stories of Hoover sometimes traveling to Manhattan to meet one of the Mafia's top figures, Frank Costello. The two would meet in Central Park. Costello apparently convinced Hoover that there was no organized Mafia—merely a loose collection of independent racketeers. (Some agents figure that Hoover also picked up some choice incidental tips from Gambler Costello on the Director's passionately pursued avocation—laying $2 bets on the horses.) Hoover did not get cracking on the Mob until Attorney General Robert Kennedy insisted that he do so in 1961.

Mainly by infiltrating the Ku Klux Klan, the FBI was able to act swiftly in the early 1960s to solve several murders of civil rights workers in the South. But, as King charged, the bureau did little about enforcing civil rights laws that did not involve such sensational crimes. One reason: the FBI was concentrating on catching auto thieves and fugitives so as to keep its Southern bureaus' arrest and recovery statistics on Hoover's mandated upward curves.

It was King's criticism that led Hoover to call him "the most notorious liar in the U.S." and to launch an ugly vendetta against him. Hoover ordered one tape from a bugged Miami hotel room where King had been staying sent anonymously to King's wife. The FBI sent word of King's reported sexual activities to the Pope, trying to convince the Pontiff not to receive him.

One of Hoover's men recalls discussing with the Director and another aide the FBI's crusade against King. The aide claimed that the black leader had not only associated with Communists but that there was "a sexual matter." King was homosexual? "No, no," said the aide. "King isn't queer." "Then what's the big problem?" the man asked. "King isn't the only married guy who sleeps with other women." Replied the aide as Hoover nodded agreement: "He sleeps with white women."

Sex seemed often on Hoover's mind. Shortly after the killing or wounding of 15 students by Ohio National Guardsmen at Kent State in 1970, top-ranking officials of the Justice Department held a meeting to discuss a federal probe. At its end, Hoover took over and talked about only one topic: his belief that one of the coed victims had been sexually promiscuous. Recalled one official: "When Hoover finally ran down, no one else said a word. We all just got up and walked silently out of the room. We were all embarrassed."

As Hoover became a public, bother, why didn't Presidents try to retire him? Johnson made one weak effort. In 1967 he told his favorite Secret Service agent, Rufus Youngblood, to go to FBI headquarters and "take over." Youngblood wandered around the bureau for several days. Hoover ignored him. L.BJ. changed his mind.

Nixon once screwed up the courage to edge Hoover out. He summoned the Director to breakfast in 1971 to offer him a special job as a consultant on crime, with an office close to Nixon's own. Hoover, alerted, launched into a rapid-fire monologue all through the 45-minute breakfast, never letting the sensitive subject arise. Nixon, as a former aide put it, simply "chickened out."

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