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

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After one bitter Hoover diatribe at a Justice Department meeting, Assistant Attorney General Ruckelshaus called Attorney General John Mitchell aside. "We've got to get rid of that guy," Ruckelshaus pleaded. "He's getting worse all the time." Replied the laconic Mitchell: "You're right. Tell you what. I have to leave town later today, so I'm appointing you Acting Attorney General. You fire him."

No braver, the Kennedys earlier had let the word out that if Jack had been re-elected in 1964, they would have retired Hoover when he reached his 70th birthday (Jan. 1,1965). Ethel Kennedy, spotting an FBI suggestion box at a Justice Department party, had even mischievously slipped in a note that Hoover ought to be replaced by the sheriff of Los Angeles County. The Director was not amused.

Some Washington veterans claim no President could possibly have fired Hoover because he held so much damaging information on all of them. Others scoffed at the blackmail notion, contending that Hoover was so popular (his ratings often were 90% or higher) that dismissing him would have been a grave political risk.

A disturbing question is why Hoover for so long was able to still any effective criticism. Didn't journalists in particular know what kind of dirty tactics Hoover was employing? A few newsmen—Jack Anderson, Fred Cook, Tom Wicker, Jack Nelson—picked up and printed some facets of the dark side of Hoover. A few groups—Black Panthers, the Congress of Racial Equality, Students for a Democratic Society, Socia11st Workers Party, and Minutemen—had long been complaining, rightly as it turned out, about FBI harassment. But mostly, no one was listening. Even as late as 1973, most editors laughed when Norman Mailer threw a 50th birthday party for himself at Manhattan's Four Seasons restaurant and urged the creation of "a democratic secret police to keep tabs on the bureaucratic secret police—the FBI and CIA."

As in all of Hoover's battles with various opponents, he was exceptionally adroit in handling the press. Long before Nixon, the FBI had its own enemies list of reporters and publications that seemed unfriendly and should be shunned on all inquiries, no matter how trivial. Anyone printing positive news about the FBI, on the other hand, might be favored with some of the FBI's rare handouts of information on major stories. For a newsman, that was more readily productive than trying to interest an editor in some undocumented expose of FBI practices based on nervous, anonymous sources. The Los Angeles Times' Jack Nelson tried anyway; soon his office was swirling with rumors that he was a drunk, and his boss got a letter from Hoover gently suggesting that Nelson be fired.

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