Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) is the ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee and he’s got something to say about plans for the new FBI Headquarters. He wrote a letter to the General Services Administration Wednesday asking that the new building not bear the name of J. Edgar Hoover, the long-time FBI Director whose name appears on the current FBI edifice.

The Washington Post lays out details of the letter which lists Leahy’s objections:

Leahy writes that the former director “routinely violated the law and infringed on the constitutional rights of American citizens by ordering investigations of individuals and groups who were not suspected of any criminal wrongdoing.” Roth is overseeing a proposed real estate swap that would relocate the FBI to Greenbelt, Landover or Springfield.

Among his criticisms, Leahy writes that Hoover’s FBI “illegally compiled thousands of dossiers on nonviolent civil rights groups” and “waged a concerted campaign against gay and lesbian Americans working for the Federal government and against gay and lesbian organizations,” eventually compiling more than 360,000 files.

“Given the “systemic abuses carried out under Director Hoover’s leadership, it would be a mistake to associate his name with the new FBI headquarters,” Leahy writes. “If the new building will be named for anyone, the Federal government must consider individuals who represent our values and who have dedicated their public service careers to upholding the rule of law.”

When Hoover died he enjoyed an 80% approval rating. President Nixon, one of his political enemies, eulogized him at the time:

He was one of those unique individuals who, by all odds, was the best man for a vitally important job. His powerful leadership by example helped to keep steel in America’s backbone, and the flame of freedom in America’s soul.

He personified integrity; he personified honor; he personified principle; he personified courage; he personified discipline; he personified dedication; he personified loyalty; he personified patriotism.

These are his legacies to the Bureau he built and the Nation he served. We can pay him no higher tribute than to live these virtues ourselves, as he lived them all of his years, to love the law as he loved it, and to give fullest respect, support, and cooperation to the law enforcement profession which he did so much to advance.

So how does Hoover go from an 80% approval rating and “personifying integrity, honor courage and patriotism” to someone who doesn’t represent American values?

According to John Preston in his dissertation “In Defense of J. Edgar Hoover” in the Telegraph, it’s time to revisit the recent myths that have been raised about the iconic American lawman.  After Preston shines the light of truth on the vicious lie that Hoover was a cross-dresser, he then moves on to explain that one of Hoover’s biggest targets, pop-culture, is responsible for turning Hoover into an evil caricature:

So why has Hoover been so demonised? In American fiction, particularly the works of James Ellroy, he’s invariably portrayed as the embodiment of vindictiveness and hypocrisy – although Ellroy has admitted that he finds Hoover “more fun to write about” than any other real-life figure.

Certainly Hoover looked the part, having a face once described as being “like a sledgehammer in search of an anvil”, but plainly there was more to it than that. Heilbrunn reckons that to a large extent he was a victim of the times that immediately followed his death. “You have to remember this was the time of the Vietnam War, of hippies and of Watergate. There was a pervasive distrust of American institutions and Hoover was seen as the spider in the centre of the web.”

Certainly Hoover was a complex man and his record is a mixed bag, but there’s no denying his incredible achievement in forming the Bureau of Investigation in 1924 into what we now call the FBI. He was only 29 when he got the job and he served as the agency’s director until his death in 1972. Preston points out what he achieved during that remarkable tenure:

When Hoover took over the Bureau, it was notorious for being the most incompetent corrupt government agency in Washington. Its agents were regarded – with ample justification – as quasi-criminals whose main motivation was to line their own pockets. But then they were so badly trained and their powers were so limited – they were forbidden to carry guns, or even make arrests until 1935 – that it was hardly surprising they were such a hopeless rabble.

Hoover only agreed to take on the job on condition that there would be no political meddling and that he’d be in sole control. He promptly fired around a quarter of all agents and instigated mandatory training for the ones who remained. He enforced strict rules of conduct – agents had to wear white shirts and black wing-tip shoes, and to be as courteous as they were efficient. For reasons no one seems able to explain, he also forbade the drinking of coffee at work after 8.15 in the morning.

As far as Hoover was concerned, the future of crime detection lay in scientific innovation. Deeply conservative in many respects, here at least he was way ahead of the game. Shortly after taking over, he established a national fingerprint collection – something that hadn’t been done anywhere else in the world – enabling law enforcement agencies to match fingerprints at crime scenes with those on file in Washington.

Read the entire analysis because it really does put Hoover’s legacy into some much-needed perspective. But, in this day and age of re-naming buildings and bridges and the removal of statues from the public square, perspective and analysis seems to be severely lacking.

 

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