Directors in a league of their own

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Maybe it’s in the eyes - a certain gaze that is both shrewd and resolute, the look of a lawman who most likely has seen it all. And then some.

Those who have led the FBI are a special breed; that goes without saying.

The bureau has had 17 directors in the past century, some manning the post for a matter of weeks, some for years, one for decades.

Each has been tenacious, balancing the gut instinct of a cop with the exactitude of an investigator, the decisiveness of a trial attorney with the deliberation of a chess player - while employing the patience of Job. The FBI is, after all, is a federal agency.

The job of its director requires a kaleidoscope of virtues and street smarts. It is fueled by brute force, cunning, delicate instincts, discipline, diplomacy. There is the matter of mission: The job is not without a calling to serve public and president, to uphold good, vanquish evil and shore up the American way in all its permutations over the decades.

“We are a fact-gathering organization only. We don’t clear anybody. We don’t condemn anybody,” J. Edgar Hoover once said.

If anyone, Mr. Hoover was entitled to summarize the agency’s role, having served as its director from 1924 to his death in 1972, though his near five decades of service ultimately prompted the FBI to put a 10-year limit on the post’s tenure.

However, he also had a stark fix on criminal nature. Mr. Hoover publicly concluded at one point that every lawbreaker he had ever encountered was a liar. Justice itself was “incidental to law and order,” he said, and the effect of astute fingerprinting, stakeouts and apprehension couldn’t compare to a most basic, very human influence.

“No amount of law enforcement can solve a problem that goes back to the family,” Mr. Hoover said. “The cure for crime is not the electric chair, but the highchair.”

Over the years, the rarified fraternity of FBI directors was drawn from a spectrum of specialties. Legal minds have been paramount: Eleven of the 17 directors had law degrees. Two were former U.S. attorneys; two were federal judges. Three were former military officers and seven former clandestine agents, either with the Secret Service or the FBI. One was a certified public accountant.

The challenges of the day - both criminal and cultural - dictated their duties.

Stanley Finch, the first director, took his post in the summer of 1908, tasked with defeating “white slave traffic,” specifically, foreign women in the nation’s brothels. Finch had suffragettes to thank, in part, for his appointment.

The primary reason “for establishing a separate office and title for the white slave traffic assignment” was the rallying cry of the woman’s suffrage movement, notes an FBI document dating from the 1940s.

Finch’s successor, Alexander Bruce Bielaski, was seven years on the job, 1912 to 1919, building the agency’s resources - and emerged in 1919 to considerable personal drama. He was kidnapped in Mexico, escaped his captors with the ransom money in hand, then went on to work as an undercover Prohibition agent in a decoy speak-easy in Manhattan.

Acting Director William Allen was on the job just four months before William J. Flynn arrived. The burly former Secret Service agent took over from 1919 to 1921, heralded by Justice Department admirers as “the greatest anarchist chaser” in America.

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