March 20, 2014

“I find it ironic that the first African American president has without compunction allowed this vast exercise of raw power by the NSA.”

Sen. Rand Paul (Charles Dharapak/Associated Press) Sen. Rand Paul (Charles Dharapak/Associated Press)

So said Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) in a speech yesterday at the University of California Berkeley, the school whose very name is synonymous with liberalism. The reliably provocative presidential candidate — he does not hide his ambition — and the darling of libertarians was making the somewhat circuitous point that President Obama, as a black man, ought to be especially sensitive to the threat of domestic surveillance given what the FBI did to Martin Luther King Jr.

So now I half-expect the senator and libertarians everywhere to join me in my decades old — and still futile — effort to have the name of J. Edgar Hoover removed from the FBI Building.

If Paul has a point about Obama, then what can he — or anyone else, for that matter — say about national and local politicians who hardly utter a peep about a building that celebrates the name of a racist. Hoover’s persecution of King was so extraordinary that King himself thought Hoover was trying to drive him to suicide.

Hoover was so determined to prove that King was in the thrall of domestic communists — the chief suspect was King’s close friend and aide, Stanley Levison — that the FBI bugged King’s home, his office and even his hotel rooms. It found no evidence of communist allegiance — not even sympathy — but it did discover King’s extramarital affairs. In certain Washington circles, these soon became common knowledge. Hoover gleefully attempted to sully the reputation of one of America’s great men.

While Hoover’s name rests serene and unthreatened on the FBI Building, Washington goes into a periodic frenzy about the name of the Redskins. The name is, of course, both offensive and juvenile — it is meant to evoke warrior qualities — and commentators make fools of themselves defending the indefensible. But the silly name does not, at least, honor a cad. It’s just about a sport, a trivial matter posing as something of consequence.

In Richmond, by contrast, the memorializing of Harry F. Byrd Jr. — “an unrepentant segregationist,” in the oh-so-true words of state Sen A. Donald McEachin — produced some outrage. But nothing like that happens in the nation’s capital. Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) once tried — and failed — to have Hoover’s name plucked, but I can recall no similar effort on the part of the city’s community leaders. What used to be called Chocolate City is really mere fudge.

J. Edgar Hoover’s assault on King — Hoover knew that the King was no communist and that Levison’s commie days were long behind him — is testament to the FBI director’s persistent racism and anti-communism fanaticism, a fetid combination in Hoover’s case. Hoover was a twisted, mean man — a repository of all sorts of prejudices. He didn’t like blacks and he didn’t like gays (never mind all that unsubstantiated talk about his own sexual proclivities), and he didn’t like slovenly men who did not look like an FBI agent should. Some of this is just colorful stuff, but the man’s racism had both personal and historic consequences.

As the historian David J. Garrow wrote in the Atlantic, Hoover’s smearing of King caused the Kennedy brothers — John in the White House and Robert at the Justice Department — and later Lyndon Johnson to keep a certain distance from King and, in so doing, retard the progress that the civil rights movement was making.

So Rand Paul is right — maybe not right about Obama’s alleged special obligation when it comes to civil liberties, but right about the outrages of Hoover and the FBI under his directorship. The good senator might have mentioned other names, the less famous who lost reputations and livelihoods because of the FBI. King, though, will do just fine. He is justly revered and inexcusably sullied by the man whose name for over 40 years has disgraced the FBI and its building.

Take it down.

Richard Cohen writes a weekly political column for The Washington Post.