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Unfit to Preach


One of my early missions as administrative assistant to Attorney General Robert Kennedy was to pay a courtesy call on the Director of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover—not at Bob’s request to be sure (the two were never close) but at the insistence of my father who considered it a prudent initiative. I first checked with Hoover’s designated envoy to Bob’s office, the natty, soft-spoken and discreet Courtney Evans, who thoughtfully briefed me on protocol in the FBI’s precincts within the Justice Department. (This was before the Bureau got its own headquarters on Pennsylvania Avenue, the J. Edgar Hoover Building in the “Brutish” modernist style, which took twelve years to build and cost twice its initial budget.) Dark suits were the rule, with somber ties; no sport coats or flashy neckwear. According to Evans, should an agent be reported “out of uniform,” Hoover would attribute the lapse to a temporary absence of understanding, deriving perhaps from a form of mental illness.


Fortified with this useful information, I secured an appointment, and in my Sunday best, called on the Director. Receiving me warmly, he proceeded to relate how he had captured a certain “Louis Lepke” (Buchalter) who had fallen afoul of the law as kingpin of the organization known as Murder, Inc. This charming introductory reminiscence—of an event thirty-four years earlier—was followed by a sudden and totally unexpected tirade against the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., an “immoral man” in Mr. Hoover’s lights, “unfit to preach to others” and a distinct danger to the Republic. How had Hoover arrived at his novel thesis? Apparently under his orders, a bugging of Reverend King’s Washington hotel room had produced information about a liaison with a woman other than his wife. In Mr. Hoover’s view this impropriety deprived the Reverend of credibility in matters moral and most certainly disqualified him as a national leader worthy of respect.

Upon these debatable conclusions prudence dictates a seemly silence. Judge not that ye be not judged, as one might quote the only sinless man who has walked the earth—or is ever likely to. Nevertheless, four decades after Dr. King was murdered while on a mission to support municipal workers striking for fair wages, he was honored with the dedication of a monument to his memory on the National Mall. Four decades after Mr. Hoover died, at home, a lifelong bachelor, the headquarters building that bore his name was declared obsolete, unfit for rehabilitation and subject for demolition.

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