BALTIMORE — In my long-ago years as an investigative reporter for a Baltimore newspaper, among my sources was the local bureau chief of the FBI, whose identity will be kept secret here because the man was full of hot air.
I am going back more than 40 years, but the memory remains vivid of a large, imposing painting displayed in his office as a grand gesture of FBI self-image. Here, the bureau chief was saying, is our version of a great leader and a role model for all.
For the record, the painting did not portray J. Edgar Hoover’s graven image. It was Efrem Zimbalist Jr.’s.
Hoover was the man who birthed the FBI and led it for decades. Zimbalist was a man pretending to be an FBI leader. For nine years, 1965 to 1974, he starred as Inspector Lewis Erskine on a top-rated network television show called “The FBI.”
With the FBI, a pristine image has always been a part of their allure. Hoover invented it, and Zimbalist polished it for mass consumption to a nation eager for flawless heroes.
That image has taken its lumps across the years, mostly as we discovered Hoover’s extra-legal maneuvers and his bullying and his blackmailing.
But the bureau itself held onto a kind of general respect, across party lines, across the decades — at least, until the Justice Department issued a 500-page report this week blistering James Comey and a couple of lunkhead FBI officials, Peter Strzok and Lisa Page.
They have done such damage that the rumbling beneath our feet must be Hoover and Zimbalist, spinning in their graves.
The Justice Department report attaches a word to the blunder of Comey, the former FBI director. The word is “insubordinate.” All things considered, it’s a mild word considering what it encompasses: In the closing weeks of the last presidential campaign, Comey gave America Donald Trump, wittingly or otherwise.
We already knew this in our bones, but the new report makes it clear just how egregious Comey’s action was, and how astonishing his timing, when he decided to inform the nation he was reopening an investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails — while somehow failing to mention the FBI was simultaneously investigating ties between the Trump campaign and Russia.
Certain Clinton victory became stunning Trump upset.
Comey has tried for months to defend his action. He even wrote a book about it. The Justice Department report says he should know better. It says he broke with longstanding policy. It says he was wildly out of line.
“It was extraordinary and insubordinate for Comey” to make his remarks so close to the election, the report says.
Then the report goes after Peter Strzok and Lisa Page, who exchanged private messages during the campaign which easily became public.
Trump is “not ever going to become president, right? Right?!” Page wrote.
“No,” Strzok wrote back. “No he won’t. We’ll stop it.”
The Democrats wish to characterize this little colloquy as semi-comic give-and-take intended strictly as private banter. The Republicans wish us to believe it was symptomatic of some dark conspiracy within the FBI to fix the election for Clinton. The barking commenced immediately.
“Fervent anti-Trump bias,” the Republican National Committee called it. “Political bias among some of the members of the FBI,” said White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders.
But the Justice Department report, while critical of Strzok and Page, declares there is “no evidence” of the bureau itself being “affected by bias or other improper considerations.”
The two of them, Strzok and Page, are entitled to their private opinions on politics, just like any other citizens. But, as public officials, they should have known better than to express them where anybody could find them and invent widespread political conspiracies out of them.
Like Comey, Page is now gone from the FBI. Strzok’s been reassigned to human resources.
In a rare press conference, current FBI director Christopher A. Wray said that nothing in the Justice Department report “impugns the integrity” of the FBI. “Our brand is doing just fine.”
Their “brand,” what a word. It’s a synonym for image. It reminds us of Hoover’s time, and Zimbalist’s. There’s a difference between the FBI’s image and its reality. It’s always been there, but now it’s out in the open.
The new Justice Department report confirms that such a difference has injured the whole country.