05/13/2013 08:55 pm ET Updated Jul 13, 2013

The IRS Scandal, and Hoover's Brutalist Legacy

The scandal currently unfolding at the Internal Revenue Service is actually being downplayed by some who feel that tax investigations into groups advocating an anti-tax attitude is more than justified on the face of it. Admittedly, all the facts are not yet in, but the scandal started when the IRS itself actually publicly admitted wrongdoing. So while there's a question of who knew about it (and who should be fired), the fact that scandalous behavior was happening isn't really even in question. Because it was, indeed, scandalous behavior. Any time a federal agency decides to intimidate those in the political arena in any way, large or small, it should be seen as a scandal by everyone -- no matter your political leanings. Because we've seen what happens when this sort of thing is allowed and encouraged, and it isn't a pretty sight.

The power to use the legal and police services of the federal government as leverage against your political opponents is a tempting one indeed, which is why both parties have done so in the past when they thought they could get away with such blatant violations of the Constitution. We've even lived through a very long period when this power got so out of control that one man held blackmailable material on United States presidents, Supreme Court justices, and too many members of Congress to count. This information was gathered systematically, by illegally wiretapping phone lines and bugging hotel rooms, as well as plenty of other underhanded (and, again, unconstitutional) methods. The man behind this effort was none other than J. Edgar Hoover.

Hoover was the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation for an astounding 48 years. Just think about the power that implies, for a second. Hoover led the agency before it was even named the FBI (it was called the Bureau of Investigations when Hoover took the helm in 1924). During his near-five-decade reign as America's "top cop," Hoover wielded an enormous amount of power -- so enormous that while two presidents actually considered replacing him (Truman and Kennedy), neither did so because they feared the consequences of doing so. Making Hoover, in essence, more powerful than the president.

Hoover held this power through knowing dirty secrets. He vacuumed up (ironically, given his last name) dirty secrets on everyone he could, and held onto the information in his files until he had a use for it.

Hoover was first given a truly free hand by a Democratic president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. FDR benefited from Hoover's services, as when he was provided with damaging information about those running against him for the presidency. But Hoover also had an abiding dislike of Eleanor Roosevelt, whom he also kept an extensive file on. After his death, when Congress did belatedly investigate Hoover, it was found that every president from FDR through Richard Nixon had benefited from the FBI bugging their political opponents. That's "every" -- as in "both Democratic and Republican administrations."

It wasn't just the White House, all of Washington lived in fear of Hoover. Hoover's budget requests to Congress were unquestioningly filled, every single year -- in fact, from 1924 through 1971, Congress did not hold a single public hearing on the FBI's budget. Hoover's wiretapping included 12 Supreme Court justices as well, and influenced the selection process of others who might have wound up justices. Hoover kept files on important journalists and publishers, as well, which he would use to halt bad press before it happened. Hoover fed information to Joe McCarthy, whose crusade was not only against communists, but also homosexuals.

This was just within the federal government. In the political realm outside of elected officials, Hoover was just as industrious collecting dirt on anyone in the public eye, including an obsession with Hollywood. But Hoover's real legacy was the program known as COINTELPRO, which was a multi-decade effort to infiltrate, subvert, and destroy any group or leader deemed "subversive." This included people from Martin Luther King Jr. to John Lennon. It also included just about anyone who was anti-war, for any reason.

In short, while Hoover used his power over the government itself he also used his power against people critical of the government. This is, not to put too fine a point on it, un-American. It was a disgusting abuse of federal power, on a scale never seen in the country before and (hopefully) never to be seen again. Hoover's power was never even effectively challenged, because as everyone knew, he "had a file on everybody."

It's easy, in hindsight, to condemn J. Edgar Hoover. I can write this article without the fear that an FBI agent is going to show up at my door tomorrow and start asking pointed questions and issuing veiled threats, or that my phone will be bugged tomorrow. That would not have been true when Hoover was alive and in charge, however.

But taking a stand against such behavior should be automatic, and non-partisan. I am not remotely suggesting that whatever was going on at the Internal Revenue Service was even in the same league as Hoover's FBI, but it should be seen as the first step in a similar direction. Equating the two, however, would at this point be like comparing a petty shoplifter to Bernie Madoff. They're miles apart, in scope and severity, and no matter how high up the scandal reaches it will likely never even be in the same league as Hoover. The only way that could ever happen is if the IRS spent the next half-century abusing power politically, which is (quite obviously, now) not going to happen.

If the federal government decides that the definition of "non-profit" is being abused, then they should have launched an investigation into all non-profits who have entered the political realm. This would include the Tea Party groups, most likely, but it would also include a much wider array of organizations -- including even perhaps churches on both sides of the political divide which have been pushing the limits of what they're allowed to do politically for years, now. To put it another way, "Justice" is supposed to be blind in these situations. The IRS is not the FBI -- but it is indeed an arm of the federal government with a lot of leverage and interaction with everyone in America. It needs to be absolutely and unequivocally above partisan politics. That's the only way Americans will have any shred of trust in the organization.

So, yes, this is a scandal. How far it reaches and who needs to be fired are subjects which have not fully been plumbed yet. There are going to be future revelations, and heads should indeed roll. Just on general principle. If you condemn the federal government for investigating anti-war groups, for instance, then you must be morally and intellectually consistent and condemn them equally for targeting right-wing groups as well.

Because no matter which side it starts on, this sort of thing -- if left unchecked -- will eventually begin to consume everyone on both sides of the political aisle. Remember -- FDR unleashed Hoover, not a Republican.

I started with the thought that this sort of thing is "not a pretty sight." I close on an upbeat note in the same vein. A few months back, the federal government announced it was seriously considering moving the FBI headquarters out to the suburbs, and selling the land the current headquarters -- the "J. Edgar Hoover Building" -- is on to private interests. One assumes that this means the building itself will be torn down (or at the very least, renamed). Harry Reid, in 2001, tried to get Hoover's name removed from the building, saying his name was "a stain on the building." He failed to convince the Senate to do so, though, shameful as the name still is.

The building itself is rather ugly, designed with an exposed concrete exterior. The name of the style of architecture (you just can't make this stuff up) is "Brutalism." The day the FBI pulls this building down and christens a new headquarters somewhere in the Maryland or Virginia suburbs -- named after some other FBI luminary, one hopes -- will be a glad day indeed for all Americans. We've had one era of federal "Brutalism" with Hoover's name on it. We certainly don't need another. The way for it not to ever happen again is to stomp out such temptations whenever and wherever they are found, regardless of how small or unimportant they may seem at the time. Also, to stop naming buildings after the perpetrators of such abuse, of course.


[Program Note: The facts for this article come from many sources, which includes the book One Nation Under Sex by Larry Flynt and David Eisenbach, Ph.D., specifically chapter 5, "America's Sex Czar" (pp. 133-167). Scoff at the source if you'd like, but the book is fully footnoted and researched, and merely provides a handy synopsis of facts asserted by many other sources.]


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