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Friday, April 22, 2016

J. Edgar Hoover's Legacy: A Street Agent's Perspective

     When Clint Eastwood's film, "J. Edgar," came out in 2011 my wife and I went to see it. Starring Leonardo Di Caprio as J. Edgar Hoover, the film interested me because of its emphasis on the Lindbergh kidnapping case, and the fact I was a street agent during Hoover's last six years in office (1966-1972). The film's version of the Lindbergh case overplayed the FBI's role in the crime scene investigation near Hopewell, New Jersey and the trial of Bruno Richard Hauptmann two and a half years later in Flemington, New Jersey. Although dotted with other factual errors that are minor, the treatment of the 1932 abduction and murder of the Lindbergh baby, was, on the whole, complete. As for J. Edgar Hoover himself, except for scenes with his dominating mother (Judi Dench) and Clyde Tolson, his right-hand man who loved him (Arnie Hammer), the film also caught the flavor and essence of Hoover's 48-year career as director of the FBI and America's most famous and powerful lawman.  

     Looking back on my six years as an FBI agent, I will say this without equivocation: Hoover's agents did not imagine him as presented in the film by Eastwood and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black. We did not see the director as a repressed homosexual who was scared to death of his mother. Agents saw him as a powerful figure who terrorized presidents and was so devoted to the bureau and his own image as an incorruptible crime fighter and warrior against the internal communist threat, he would destroy anyone who tarnished him or the FBI. As a result, in the minds of Hoover's street agents, crime fighting became secondary to avoiding the director's wrath.

     Pursuant to Hoover's impossible standards of performance and agent comportment, every field agent, every day, couldn't help violate one or two of the director's thousands of rules and regulations. Agents who got caught breaking these rules, rules continuously promulgated by Hoover and his palace guards. paid the price in the form of disciplinary transfers to undesirable field offices. For example, no one wanted to work at the field division headquarters in Billings, Montana. More than a few bureau rules violators were fired "with prejudice." Nobody knew exactly what "with prejudice" meant except that it was not good. When agents of the Hoover era tell war stories, their tales are usually not about their cases. Most likely they feature administrative horror stories.

     J. Edgar Hoover's career can be viewed from the perspective of twentieth century history or from the field agent's point of view. What follows is my take on J. Edgar Hoover as an employer and law enforcement administrator during his last six years in office.

     I had been a new agent just a few days when I began to wonder what I had gotten myself into. In those days, before the magnificant FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia, new agents attended seven weeks of classwork in the Old Post Office Building in Washington, D.C. and seven weeks of firearms training on the Marine base at Quantico, Virginia.  Every day in D.C., our FBI instructors came into the classroom armed with horror stories designed to instill fear of the director. To a man, these instructors had that "I'm-dead-but-still-walking persona". One of them, a SOG (Seat of Government) agent from the D.C. administrative headquarters, a man who conjured up the image of a demented butcher, kept reminding the class that to survive in Mr. Hoover's FBI one had to have balls made of brass. I took this to mean we were in for a lot of low blows.

     New agents were reminded over and over again that the worse thing they could do was embarrass the bureau. Blowing an investigation was one thing, but embarrassing the bureau was serious. By bureau, the instructors meant J. Edgar Hoover. The director did not forget, did not forgive, and took everything personally. Every infraction--a missed bureaucratic deadline, putting a scratch on a bureau car, not calling the office every two hours when not at work or at home--constituted a personal assault on Hoover's good name. It was simply un-American to embarrass the director of the FBI.

     Hoover's ideal FBI agent consisted of a thin white male with high morals, a clean-cut appearance, and a law degree. Over the years the director had managed, through careful media manipulation, to make the G-man the cultural hero, and the outlaw, the villian. Physically, if a job candidate didn't fit Hoover's model of the all-American agent, it didn't matter how smart, brave, or moral he was. Hoover didn't tolerate mustaches, beards, pot bellies, long hair, or missing teeth. If you had a tattoo, forget it. The director didn't accept anyone who was color-blind or had less that 20-20 vision. Short, slightly overweight, and bulldog-faced, Hoover, based on looks alone, would not have hired himself. There were a handful of black men in the bureau, but no Hispanics, Asians, or women.

     Once in the FBI, agents had to maintain a height/weight ratio that conformed to ideal life insurance policy standards. Most agents, as they approached middle age, had trouble keeping their weight under control, and dreaded the monthly weigh-ins held either in the chief clerk's desk or in the SAC's (special agent in charge) office under the supervision of the boss's secretary. Notwithstanding the weight restrictions, there were a lot of older agents obviously over the pound limit.

     Within the weight control program, as in all of Hoover's bureaucratic obsessions, cheating and false reporting with the knowledge and approval of the office brass were rampant. But according to the regulations, an agent who was more than ten pounds over the weight limit two months in a row could be transferred to another field office. The bureau's weight program gave the SAC a lot of power. If he wanted to unload an agent he didn't like, the boss could enforce the rule. So could a SOG inspector on a field office witch hunt. The office transfer, as a means of punishment, gave Hoover a powerful and arbitrary tool that disrupted families and broke up marriages. This from a never married man who disapproved of divorce.

     Director Hoover also enforced a severe and detailed dress code. Agents had to wear blue, brown, gray or black suits. He forbade pin stripe suits and colorful buttoned-down or patterned dress shirts. Approved bureau footwear did not include suede shoes, loafers, or cowboy boots. (When I worked in west Texas, most agents wore fancy cowboy boots to fit in with the Texas Rangers.) Agents playing it safe shoe-wise went the wing-tip route. As for head wear, all agents were supposed to wear those felt, narrow-brimmed business hats even though a bareheaded President Kennedy had rendered the fedora out of style.

     In a dress code more detailed and complicated than the U.S. Constitution, an agent caught wearing a sports coat or a loud tie could get written-up. Unlike modern agents who wear jackets and ballcaps emblazoned with the letters FBI, or walk around in combat gear, Hoover's men looked like 1950s IBM executives and insurance men.

     To distinguish his agents from uniformed cops and city detectives who supposedly killed a lot of time by hanging around donut shops and diners drinking coffee, Hoover forbade his agents to drink coffee on the job. Taking clandestine coffee breaks with other agents therefore required a lot of trust (agents had to be aware of office snitches) and made a common workplace ritual an act of subversion. Agents were constantly on the lookout for safe coffee drinking hideaways. Bureau coffee drinkers couldn't get attached to a single restaurant or diner because to avoid detection, they had to keep moving.

     One of Hoover's most unreasonable and counterproductive rules, a decree that reflected his lack of experience as a criminal investigator, concerned when agents could tackle the heavy paperwork burden the director had himself mandated. Between 9 AM and 5 PM, agents were only allowed to be in the field office ninety minutes. They were supposed to use this limited time to review their case files, make phone calls, and dictate reports and FD 302s (witness statements) to office stenographers. Agents were to spend the rest of the day out on the street investigating crime, tracking down fugitives, and uncovering subversion. As opposed to the image of the lazy detective hanging around the office all day drinking coffee and shooting the bull, Hoover wanted his investigators to be men of action.

     The director's office-time restriction ignored the fact that in detective work, every hour of investigation can create two hours of paperwork. To meet Hoover's strict reporting deadlines, agents had to do much of their pencil-pushing in parked cars, public libraries, restaurants, and for those brave enough to risk it, at home. Otherwise, if an agent saved all of his paperwork for the office after 5 PM, he'd end up preparing 302s and written reports well into the evening.

     In the morning, agents were expected to sign-in for work before seven. For those who worked in big city offices, that meant getting up at five. Agents were also required to log in plenty of overtime which meant the sign-in and sign-out registers never came close to reflecting reality. For example, when an agent arrived at the office at seven, the guy just ahead of him would be logging in at five-thirty. If the agent who signed in just after this person wrote down his actual time of arrival, he had committed an act  called "jumping the register," a serious violation of the agent's unwritten code of conduct. In Hoover's FBI, honesty was not  always the best policy.

     When I left the bureau it felt like I had escaped from prison. The only aspect of the job I really missed involved working with first-rate people. One of Hoover's greatest sins was the way he abused his personnel. He recruited the best then treated them like dirt. From a street agent's perspective, that is Mr. Hoover's legacy.        

2 comments:

  1. I found your blog looking for Lindbergh's history & not surprised "J. Edgar" showed the FBI was involved more than it actually was. Eastwood chose to tell Hoover's 'story' as flawed autobiography glorifying the FBI (& Hoover) using flashbacks, which were too numerous & very confusing. The movie was also over the top on mom & gay issues and most won't bother seeking the truth given so many books were published based on those salacious rumors. How about a post about which books you think are best at most accurately portraying Hoover's FBI?

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  2. Thank you for setting the record straight. The way you describe Hoover is the way most of Americans felt about him. Over powering and nasty. I myself wont watch the movie. I'm very disappointed in Eastwood and I like Clint. Its nice to hear he got the Lindbergh kidnapping case right. Lonnie

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