It is hard to imagine there was once a time when America was so innocent that it could afford such risks as an FBI director who pretended that bank robberies were a major threat to the security of United States, who was able to dismiss the Mafia by pretending it didn't exist and who notoriously failed to cooperate with local police.
Yet the most astonishing thing in J. Edgar Hoover's charmed 48-year career was that if all the gossip written about him is true, he must have constantly trembled at being exposed as a cross-dresser.
In the manly era Hoover inhabited this might have cooked his goose more effectively than such two-bit crimes as having the FBI paint his personal residence at taxpayer expense.
That he managed to survive in office until his death in 1972 is tribute if that's the word to the paranoia with which he infected the agency and the shrewdness by which he both intimidated and cultivated his friends and his enemies. These included most members of Congress. Half revered him while the rest were scared witless he might investigate them.
His tenure spanned World War II, which we won. This is amazing considering that the threat of spies and saboteurs was very real. It was crucial then, as it is now, that the nation's chief law enforcement officer have a grip on reality and be able to tell the difference between enemies who actually threatened the nation and those pests and critics who merely irritated the FBI director personally.
Among them was Martin Luther King Jr., who went on to have a national holiday designated in his honor even as the name Hoover still disfigures FBI headquarters in Washington. I despair that nobody at the FBI has had enough imagination to suggest that the rehabilitation of the agency might begin by ripping his name off its main building.
We can but guess how much better Hoover's brooding, humorless image would have aged if he'd had a woman in his life; if only he would have had a wife or mistress with a sense of humor and the occasional guts to say "don't be such an ass" or "Edgar, you're being an idiot."
Instead, he lived his life in uncritical male company punctuated by "working vacations" that invariably were convenient to major race tracks to which he would be chauffeured in bulletproof splendor.
I suppose we should be relieved that Hoover's people are now either dead or retired, that women have since entered the bureau in large numbers and that one of them had sense enough to make a fuss when FBI headquarters ignored her warnings about terrorists.
Minneapolis FBI Agent Coleen Rowley managed to cover herself with glory and the FBI with embarrassment by testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee that the FBI is a virtual chicken coop with a "certain pecking order" by which individual agents were intimidated into meek compliance.
In Hoover's FBI it is hard to imagine what hell Rowley would have been sentenced to had she the sheer gall to challenge the director. Fortunately, her complaint got not only a respectful hearing but a reception that did not imply she was either a whiner or a malcontent.