WASHINGTON - When Eugene McCarthy ran for president in 1968, he pledged to fire J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI director who had outlasted presidents from Calvin Coolidge to John F. Kennedy.
Before long, McCarthy's calls for new FBI leadership were cataloged and commented upon by FBI officials in a 500-page file, obtained by the Associated Press through the Freedom of Information Act. The file became available after McCarthy's death in December 2005.
Much of McCarthy's file focuses on law enforcement duties surrounding the 1968 campaign, when McCarthy helped galvanize opposition to the Vietnam War by challenging President Lyndon B. Johnson for the 1968 Democratic nomination. The Minnesota senator's strong showing in the New Hampshire primary led to Johnson's withdrawal from the race.
According to McCarthy's file, FBI agents looked into death threats against the candidate, and kept records of his public travel and demonstrations. In the process, they also paid close attention to McCarthy's calls to replace Hoover, collecting news clippings, letters, and memos on the subject.
For example, the FBI's special agent in charge in Indianapolis wrote to Hoover on April 22, 1968, to inform him of a speech at Indiana University in which McCarthy said the United States should "reexamine the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and even reflect on who its director is."
"I think this man is misguided and irresponsible and in my opinion does not deserve the status of a presidential candidate," wrote the agent, James T. Neagle. "I am certainly setting the record straight as to your ability and tremendous record as director of the FBI over the years," added Neagle, who included a newspaper clipping with the memo.
Although Vietnam was the driving force behind McCarthy's campaign, the calls for Hoover's ouster fit with the campaign's general themes. (Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey, a fellow Minnesotan, wound up winning the Democratic nomination, but lost the presidential election to Richard Nixon.)
Hoover had been running the FBI since 1924, and would hold the position until his death in 1972 - nearly a half-century at the helm.
McCarthy's son, Michael McCarthy, said that his father warned about the "personalization of power," seeing that in both Hoover and Johnson.
"Dad felt very strongly about the danger of having the head of the FBI so unaccountable, so permanent," recalled his daughter, Ellen McCarthy. "In the late '60s and early '70s, we had a wonderful family dog, Eric the Red. He would go crazy at the mention of J. Edgar's name - growling and carrying on. It was one of Eric's tricks most appreciated by Dad."
The file includes several other letters from people defending Hoover from McCarthy's criticism - with copies sent to Hoover. One Hoover admirer wrote to McCarthy, calling the criticism "in very bad taste, to say the very least, and without reason, logic or merit. I am certain that there are millions of Americans who feel as I do!"
Once, Hoover took note of a memo circulated by the mayor of Jackson, Mich., which defended the FBI director from criticism by McCarthy. A newspaper story in the Jackson Citizen Patriot about the initiative is included in the file.
In a letter to the mayor, Maurice B. Townsend Jr., Hoover wrote: "I have learned of your expression of support of my administration of the FBI and want to extend my thanks."