The consideration of federal Judge William H. Webster on his fitness to be director of the FBI was an interesting demonstration of the limits of law. Good judgment cannot be legislated. There is a limit to our capacity to define what is right and wrong.
Take, for example, the question asked of Webster by Senate Majority Leader Robert C. Byrd. How, Byrd wanted to know, would Webster react if a demand were made upon him by the President or the attorney general for "sensitive information?"
Now, we know that every president since Franklin Roosevelt made such demands on J. Edgar Hoover, and we also know that even when such demands were not made, Hooever sometimes provided sensitive information anyhow.
Being human, presidents like to know what their enemies or opponents are up to and what dirty linen might be concealed in their closets. Hoover enjoyed the power that accrued to him because he could reveal such information.
But consider how inconclusive is Webster's answer in the sense of bringing us any closer to a definition of what is right and what is wrong about providing sensitive information.
Webster answered that if the request came from the White House, he would ask that it be put in writing and would refer it to the attorney general. If the attorney general supported the request and he, Webster, concluded it was wrong, he would not hesitate to report it to the congressional oversight committee or to resign, if necessary.
I don't mean to suggest that this isn't a good answer. I don't know how an honest man could give a better one. But it's inconclusive, and it shows how much our system must rely on the character of those who are in charge of it.
It is impossible to legislate in advance what might be proper for an FBI director to show to the White House or what might be proper for the White House to request. How would an FBI director know what the motive of a president might be in asking for sensitive information? Would an attorney general appointed by the president be likely to label his boss's curiosity as improper? And how could the members of an oversight committee be certain whether presidential motives were clean or mean?
In the nature of things, it is almost certain that one of these days the president of the United States will ask Webster for sensitive information. None of us will know about this request. It is not possible to write a law that defines the course Webster ought to take. Therefore, we have to rely on character, and a Senate committee has found no flaw in Webster. In every respect he seems an excellent choice and, considering what we now know about J. Edgar Hoover, we understand the importance of having a man of character at the head of the FBI.
Hoover's black-bag jobs, intentional defamations, illegal wiretapping, domestic spying and petty stealing ought not to be forgotten soon. They stand as a monument to Lord Acton's famous maxim that "absolute power corrupts absolutely."
But doubtless even some of Hoover's violations of law began as mere slips in judgment. Given the times and the fears, it is possible to understand how placing a wiretap on Martin Luther King Jr. might have seemed to Hoover a reasonable precaution. But this reasonable precaution led to a nasty and inexcusable attempt to discredit King. Which led in turn to official suggestions that he commit suicide. Which led to a total lack of public confidence in the FBI. And to our present national consensus that J. Edgar Hoover lacked character.
It is true that we are a government of laws, but there are limits to what the law can do. At these limits we have to rely on the character of men.