TV REVIEWS : 'J. Edgar Hoover': Dirt Shown Out of Context

In a case of spectacularly ironic retribution, "Frontline's" investigation "The Secret File on J. Edgar Hoover" (at 9 tonight on KCET-TV Channel 28 and KPBS-TV Channel 15; 8:30 on KVCR-TV Channel 24) shows how the man who embodied the Federal Bureau of Investigation as its director from 1924 until his death in 1972 led a life of bald hypocrisy and mendacity.

If even half of the accounts in William Cran and Stephanie Tepper's report are true--and there is no reason to think this is a rogue's gallery of liars--then the image of a Hoover dedicated to wiping out corruption and evil everywhere is one of the great myths of American history.

Cran and Tepper incorporate the homework of several scholars and biographers into "Secret File," but it is Anthony Summers and his new book on Hoover, "Official and Confidential," who provides the stuff of fresh newspaper headlines.

Yes, it's all here: Hoover pal Luisa Stuart recalling Hoover's right-hand man, Clyde Tolson, asking Hoover to dance with him at the Cotton Club; retired police inspector Joe Shimon's account of Hoover being arrested for sex with young men in New Orleans; Gordon Novel, an apparent confidant of no less than the CIA's top Cold War spy, James Angleton, stating that he saw photos of Hoover and Tolson engaged in oral sex, and, most memorably, Susan Rosenstiel, wife of mob-linked businessman and close Hoover friend Lewis Rosenstiel, telling of when she saw Hoover dressed in drag in a Plaza Hotel suite.

It's a mountain--no, an avalanche--of evidence, even if there are some doubts regarding the testimonials. Novel is identified here as "a controversial figure." How so? Shimon's claims are secondhand. The claim by Mafia kingpin Meyer Lansky that he had compromising dirt on Hoover may have been a macho bluff.

If so, then another large reason would have to exist for Hoover's decades-long denial of even the existence of American organized crime (FBI agents say that the word Mafia wasn't permitted at headquarters or in the field).

Hoover, of course, played the same game of blackmail against politicians and his perceived enemies. John F. Kennedy's personal secretary, for instance, goes public here on how Hoover may have forced Kennedy to pick Lyndon B. Johnson as his vice presidential running mate in 1960.

The report does not, however, place Hoover's long public campaigns against crime, corruption and communism in a context so that younger viewers can understand a career of seemingly epic hypocrisy. It's a case of telling the story, then leaving the moral of the story by the wayside.

(This "Frontline" also will be seen at 9 p.m. Wednesday on KOCE-TV Channel 50.)

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