What might most astound J. Edgar Hoover were he alive today is that until Clint Eastwood brought out his new film, J. Edgar, many people, especially those born during the last 40 or 50 years, would have no idea who he is or was. This, of course, was a man who was arguably as powerful as any during much of his 48 1/2 year reign as Director of the FBI. The picture, by the way, is excellent, with Leonardo di Caprio giving a good rendition of the short, bulldog-type that Hoover was and Armie Hammer probably a good deal more attractive than was Hoover's longtime chief aide and likely lover, Clyde Tolson.
Roger Ebert rightly commends Eastwood for avoiding the temptation to make the movie salacious. After all, we really don't know the truth here anyway. But we do know that Hoover was monomaniacal and managed to hold on during seven presidents because he had dirt on all of them. Leaving aside his total wild-eyed attitude toward Communism (and all leftists, for that matter), Hoover had some good attributes in his early days. He was honest and the Bureau of Investigation he found was a sewer of corruption which he cleaned up. He was an early advocate of forensic scientific crime-solving and established the FBI's fingerprint system.
After that, it was mostly downhill. He was a publicity nut and staged arrests to get the coverage. He provided support for movies and radio and TV programs that built his image. And perhaps most interestingly for Washington types, he was the consummate bureaucrat. After all, every year he argued and usually got a bigger budget allocation by pointing to rising crime. But he balanced what might sound like an indicator of failure by then showing that the FBI had caught more criminals every year.
Most fascinating of all was his relationship with other men with big jobs and big egos. He seemed to manage every presidential transition by showing the slightest bit of whatever dirt he had in his secret files. He correctly sensed that Richard Nixon was never to be trusted even if they shared many political positions. One question I've always thought about and which neither this film nor any other source has ever answered is how the great man of integrity who happened to be Attorney General in 1924 (because he was Calvin Coolidge's college classmate) felt about his protege, Hoover, twenty years later, after Harlan Fiske Stone had gone on to become Chief Justice (he died in 1946). Did Stone, one of the great liberal (Republican) justices, ever pick up on Hoover's increasingly evil character?
It's hard to realize today how many famous people Hoover either conned or scared into shilling for him. Quentin Reynolds and Don Whitehead were only two of the great reporters who put out glorious puff pieces in their books about the FBI. And while he was in power, few questions were ever asked about his priorities in law enforcement. He avoided going after organized crime, because he feared his agents would be corrupted. As the Department of Justice's successful war against the Cosa Nostra after his death has shown, he was wrong about that. He instead always went after the Communists. It took us years to learn (Sam Roberts's book, The Brother, is on point here) that while Julius Rosenberg was indeed guilty, the crime was hardly the "crime of the century" as Hoover labelled it. After all, the Russians already had what they needed from Klaus Fuchs to make the atomic bomb.
Fortunately the laws were amended after Hoover's death to ensure we'd never have such a long-tenured FBI chief. And there is a lesson in his life, only it's far more complex than these stories normally are.