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Friday, December 9, 2011

J. Edgar Hoover: Devil With the Blue Dress

     If the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation from 1924 to 1972 thought much about his legacy, he probably hoped to be remembered as the man who professionalized criminal investigation, and elevated the image of the FBI agent. As the man responsible for the FBI fingerprint bureau, crime laboratory, National Police Academy, and the "FBI Bulletin," one could argue that Mr. Hoover played a positive role in the history of 20th Century American law enforcement.

    Hoover's critics, and there are many of them, portray him as a power-hungry phony who, over four decades, abused his power. Although a dozen or so books have been published about J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI under his directorship, he probably wouldn't be remembered at all by the general public had there not been a book published in 1993 by the Irish journalist (some would say tabloid journalist) Anthony Summers.

     In "Official and Confidential: The Secret Life of J. Edgar Hoover," Summers, relying on information from the embittered wife of a Hoover crony, paints Hoover as a cross-dressing homosexual. Ronald Kessler, a former FBI agent and author of "The Secrets of the FBI," considers the cross-dressing story a fabrication by a vengeful woman who later served time for perjury. While most FBI historians agree with Mr. Kessler on this, the image of Hoover wearing a dress and high-heels has stuck. This is how he is remembered, or at least referred to, by people influenced by supermarket celebrity rags, and late-night TV.

     Clint Eastwood's new movie, "J. Edgar," had it not focused so much on the Lindbergh kidnapping case and Hoover's strange relationship with his mother and his right-hand man, Clyde Tolson, may have triggered a public debate over Hoover's place in the history of American law enforcement. Instead, the discussion has been about the film itself.

     Agents who worked under Hoover, many of whom belong to the Society of Former Special Agents of the FBI, are outraged by the movie. As an agent who worked in Hoover's FBI and is not a member of the organization, I remember being surprised that agents who complained bitterly about working conditions under the director (see: "J. Edgar Hoover: A Field Agent's Perspective," November 15, 2011) suddenly became Hoover cheer leaders after they retired and joined the group.

     On the other side of the debate, critics of the film accuse Clint Eastwood of glossing over Hoover's abuse of power and the corrupting influence he had on the agency. It seems that in making this film, Eastwood managed to offend everyone, including regular movie goers who think the flick is too long, and worse, boring and off-putting.

     As for J. Edgar Hoover and the memory of him, it looks like he's not getting out of that dress any time soon.   

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