Mr. God Goes To Washington

No fewer than five U.S. presidents wanted to fire FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, but none dared. "You don't fire God," explained John F. Kennedy. After all, Hoover, through his wiretaps, knew that Kennedy had slept with a suspected German spy during World War II and continued, as president of the United States, to share a girlfriend with a Mafia don. When Richard Nixon's top aides urged him to get rid of Hoover, Nixon responded, "He's got files on everybody, goddam it." Hoover had earlier informed the president that he was surrounded by a "ring of homosexualists."

The picture of Hoover as a squeaky-clean G-man rooting out crime and communism has long since been shredded. He is more often portrayed these days as a one-man assault on the Bill of Rights, a virulent racist and gay-basher who was himself probably homosexual. Curt Gentry's new biography of the man who ran the FBI for nearly half a century does nothing to alter or refine that image. But Gentry fills it in with squalid detail. J. Edgar Hoover. The Man and The Secrets (846 pages. Norton. $29.95) is a sewer pipe of a book. It is less a character study than an outpouring of the dirt that Hoover collected on the powerful in order to maintain his own power.

Hoover was ruthless with his detractors. When a national magazine, unidentified by the author, prepared an expose of the FBI, Hoover leaked photographs of the publisher's wife performing fellatio on her black chauffeur. (The article was promptly spiked.) A New Jersey congressman, Cornelius Gallagher, had the temerity to criticize Hoover on the floor of the House of Representatives. Hoover promptly put out word that a Mafia don had died of a seizure while making love to the congressman's wife. No one's sex life was safe from Hoover's prying, and if the FBI director couldn't find any "deviance," he just made it up. Thus, Hoover began a whispering campaign that Adlai Stevenson was gay. To further his vendetta against Martin Luther King, Hoover sent King's wife a reel of tape playing a "medley" of suggestive sounds from the bugged hotel bedrooms of the civil-rights leader.

No surprise, then, that Hoover was untouchable. His secret files-"Twelve drawers full of political cancer," a G-man called them-were well known to lawmakers and journalists. The pervasive corruption of Washington made Hoover's job easier. Sen. Edward Long of Missouri began some hearings on the FBI's use of illegal wiretaps in 1965, but the annoying investigation ended quickly: Hoover was able to remind Long that he was on the payroll of a mobbed-up union. Politicians were all too willing to use and be used by Hoover. Franklin Roosevelt asked the FBI director to illegally wiretap his postmaster general as well as his top aide's wife. In exchange for dirt on Harry Truman, Thomas E. Dewey offered to make Hoover attorney general-and ultimately, chief justice of the United States-if the GOP won the 1948 presidential election. (Imagine! The Hoover Court.) Hoover had spies everywhere. Among his willing informants were Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford.

The FBI director himself was a malevolent toady. "Hoover didn't associate with people unless he had something on them," said a top aide. He regarded any friend as a potential Judas. The man who lived to bug others was, predictably, paranoid about germs and bugs. His house, filled with busts of the director, had a special airfiltration system to "electrocute" poisonous particles. Hoover the crime fighter was corrupt. He used the "FBI Recreational Association" as a personal slush fund. And Hoover the moralist liked to sit in the "blue room" of the FBI watching pornographic movies seized by his agents.

Despite his vast resources, Hoover was actually a lousy cop. He infiltrated the feeble American Communist Party until many of its members were FBI informants. Yet for decades, Hoover stubbornly refused to recognize the existence of the Mafia. According to Gentry, Hoover's blind spot to the mob may have been caused by blackmail: the Mafia was rumored to have evidence that the FBI chief was homosexual. Gentry never resolves the question of Hoover's sexuality; trafficking in sleaze like his subject, the author merely passes along the gossip, without any attempt to evaluate its truth.

It's difficult to exaggerate Hoover's monstrousness, but Gentry does. It maybe true that Hoover fed Sen. Joseph McCarthy raw files and coached him on manipulating the press. But Gentry goes overboard when he asserts that "McCarthyism was, from start to finish, the creation of one man ... J. Edgar Hoover." Much of what Gentry reports is not really new. Archivists like Athan Theoharis ("The Boss") have published many of Hoover's secret files before. Gentry's writing is hackneyed ("The news of Hoover's death hit the Bureau with all the intensity of an earthquake measuring eight on the Richter scale") and his book gushes rather than flows. But the cumulative effect is overwhelming. Eleanor Roosevelt was right: Hoover's FBI was an American gestapo.