WHEN the man who ran the Federal Bureau of Investigation for 48 years died in May 1973, California Gov. Ronald Reagan remarked that no one in this century had "meant more to this country" than J. Edgar Hoover. But a Justice Department official who went through Hoover's personal files after his death concluded: "J. Edgar Hoover was like a sewer that collected dirt. I now believe he was the worst public servant in history."
Now, with Anthony Summers's gritty, fast-paced, and disturbing new biography, readers will be convinced that J. Edgar Hoover himself was Public Enemy No. 1.
The most lurid details of Hoover's failings have already been reported in newspapers and a recent television special based on Summers's research: the mob connections, cronyism, bribery, and a sybaritic private life.
How did a man this corrupt spend nearly half a century in power? As we learn from "Official and Confidential," Hoover had a genius for organization and bureaucratic infighting. The title of Summer's book is the designation Hoover gave to his private files. He amassed huge amounts of scandalous details with which to blackmail public figures. Among those people whose privacy Hoover violated were several presidents and innumerable members of Congress. Powerful people in Washington, well-aware of Hoover's st ockpile of "dirt," granted him years of power in return for his silence.
As Summers documents, Hoover's scarcely hidden homosexuality did not keep the world's most famous crime fighter from punishing his own employees for the slightest lapse from his puritanical public standards. Even while Hoover was dressing in women's clothing and patronizing teenage hustlers, he was zealously hounding political enemies he knew to be gay or unfaithful to their spouses.
Hoover's Janus-faced private life may have subjected the master blackmailer himself to blackmail. One of the great mysteries of Hoover's career was his attitude toward organized crime. He came to prominence in the 1930s, when the young FBI director led his squads against legendary gangsters like John Dillinger and Machine Gun Kelly. Then, having built the FBI into an effective national police force, he suddenly abandoned his pursuit of organized crime.
By the late '50s, Hoover was calling the Mafia a fiction and suppressing the FBI's own reports on the matter. Meyer Lansky, one of the masterminds of the modern crime syndicate, told associates that Hoover had been "fixed." A number of sources told Summers that incriminating photos of Hoover had fallen into Mafia hands.
For whatever reason, rather than pursue real gangsters, Hoover preferred easier targets like the virtually nonexistent US Communist Party; he later spent years harassing the civil rights and antiwar movements.
Summers thoroughly details the astonishing degree to which Hoover ignored mob activities while pursuing law-abiding citizens. Not all of the author's allegations are so well-documented, however. For example, he speculates - on shaky evidence - that Lyndon Johnson extorted his way to the vice presidency and that the Nixon White House ordered Hoover's death.
Despite occasional lapses of judgment, though, Summers's case against Hoover is overwhelming. This hero to millions was in fact a one-man argument against the concentration of power. Summers's portrait is both fascinating and appalling, and it will leave readers alarmed by the vulnerability of democracy.