“Who Wants to Be FBI Director?”
On TV’s newest reality show, host Donald Trump has divided the contestants into two teams and has begun parading them in for interviews.
Experienced law enforcement officials who could actually do the job: Interim FBI Director Andrew McCabe, ex-NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly, ex-Justice Department official Alice Fisher and former U.S. Attorney (and current New York Appeals Judge) Michael Garcia.
Partisan Republicans whose chief qualification would be loyalty to Donald Trump: Texas Sen. John Cornyn, ex-congressman Mike Rogers, ex-congressman Trey Gowdy and federal judge Henry Hudson, who most famously struck down the centerpiece of Obamacare.
I have a pretty good idea which team the president is looking more closely at. But when it comes to hiring and firing FBI directors, I have learned that presidents can sometimes fool even the savviest reporter, just like Lyndon Johnson did.
You know this story? Back in 1964, no reporter was better sourced in Washington than Newsweek's Ben Bradlee — and Bradlee was about to shake the town again. He had it on excellent authority, directly from White House press secretary Bill Moyers, that President Johnson was going to replace J. Edgar Hoover as director of the FBI.
This was huge news. Hoover, a towering figure in Washington, was equally admired, loathed and feared.
Just as expected, Johnson called a news conference. Cameramen came from the three TV networks. So did a big mob of print reporters with their notepads and pens. But the news the president delivered shocked everyone. Instead of dumping Hoover, President Johnson named him director "for life."
Johnson then turned to Moyers and said: “You can tell Ben Bradlee to go –– himself.”
This was the president’s decision, and he was going to make it.
It turned out to be a terrible decision. Hoover, bloated with power and feeling invincible, took the FBI into all kinds of places it didn’t belong: spying on political enemies, undermining civil rights, disregarding constitutional rights.
Years later, Johnson explained it this way: “It’s probably better to have him inside the tent pissing out, than outside the tent pissing in.”
That made a certain amount of sense. But when Johnson said it, even he seemed to have some regret in his voice.
Metro columnist Ellis Henican is a veteran journalist, bestselling author and frequent commentator on CNN and other TV networks. Follow him on Twitter @henican.