Head of the State

How the FBI’s founding director ruled from the shadows

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

G-Man: J. Edgar Hoover and the Making of the American Century by Beverly Gage; Viking, 864 pp., $45

Many a biography has made its subject carry the weight of the “American Century,” Time publisher Henry Luce’s phrase for the nation’s ascendancy in the middle decades of the 20th century. Among recent examples, William McKinley was said to have been its architect and Richard Holbrooke to have ended it, while George C. Marshall and Dorothy Day and countless others embodied it. But none can truly be said to have lived it, reflected it, and shaped it as thoroughly as did J. Edgar Hoover.

Hoover’s longevity as America’s policeman-in-chief is the most remarkable fact of his life. In the aftermath of World War I, he was present at the creation of what later would be known—and thanks to his imprint, celebrated and feared—as the Federal Bureau of Investigation. He was the unquestioned chief of the FBI from its inception for almost 50 years, a durability unmatched in any democratic system. Hoover scarcely looked the part and had no experience in criminal detection or law enforcement, but before he turned 40, he had come to represent the mythologized “G-Man” of this biography’s title: the clean-cut, no-nonsense government agent who busted the notorious kidnappers and gangsters of the Prohibition and Depression eras.

G-Men at first were not gun-toting lawmen so much as data crunchers. As originally conceived, the bureau had no powers of investigation or arrest, and no leeway to encroach on local and state police prerogatives, so Hoover turned it into an essential national repository of information about bad guys, real and supposed. He also established an academy to train local police in the latest techniques and technologies, thus seeding law enforcement across the country with his own precepts. In contrast to the slapdash and often shady habits of America’s provincial law enforcement, Hoover insisted on professional conduct, forensic science, strict cataloging, obsessive orderliness. After all, his only prior work experience was at the Library of Congress.

In this subtle and discerning biography, Beverly Gage, a Yale historian, paints a compelling picture of the way Hoover replicated his collegiate life at the bureau. He recruited white, college-educated, mainly Protestant men to surround him, favoring fellow graduates of George Washington University and especially members of its Kappa Alpha fraternity, an openly segregationist clique that counted influential members of Congress among its alumni. But the robustly heterosexual ambiance that Hoover fostered at the FBI stood in startling apposition to Hoover’s supposed homosexuality. He enjoyed a quasi-uncloseted lifelong relationship with one of his top deputies, Clyde Tolson; the pair was fully accepted, if euphemized, in social and official circles alike.

Gage portrays a man rigid in his notions of rectitude, a nativist and a racist to the core, yet supremely adaptable to political upheavals and various occupants of the White House, from Woodrow Wilson to Richard Nixon. Hoover was a wily opportunist, forever finding ways to accrue power and to carve out a role for the FBI to meet the panoply of America’s enemies. In contrast to the reputation he later rightly earned as Darth Vader to the political left, in the Roosevelt years, Hoover was “a darling of the New Deal establishment, known as a protector of civil liberties and a vanquisher of Nazis, saboteurs, and race-baiters.”

In the prelude to World War II, Hoover’s FBI was put in charge of the totality of foreign subversion in the United States, growing into a counterespionage behemoth charged, among other things, with the task of rounding up and interning Japanese, German, and Italian Americans. By the end of the war, the FBI’s jurisdiction stretched beyond America’s borders to the rest of the Western Hemisphere. When, in 1947, President Harry Truman created the Central Intelligence Agency to oversee all foreign intelligence work, he did so over Hoover’s strenuous objections; Hoover forever resented the bureaucratic defeat and mistrusted the spy agency.

Under the circumstances, it was natural that the FBI would turn its preoccupations to the enemy within. The FBI became the handmaiden to the anti-Communist fever that gripped Washington in the late 1940s and ’50s. As always, Hoover’s posture was as an apolitical civil servant whom Americans could trust, a buttoned-down contrast to reckless loudmouths like Senator Joseph McCarthy. He steered from the shadows by placing FBI men on the staffs of congressional committees leading the effort to expose and purge Communists from the federal bureaucracy and elsewhere. Over the years, Hoover also amassed scandalous dossiers on influential Americans, especially presidents, secret knowledge that was weaponized by seldom being used. It was in specific reference to Hoover that President Lyndon Johnson is said to have coined the now-stock Washington phrase about preferring adversaries inside the tent pissing out, rather than the other way around.

Hoover was a private man. Though he had plenty to hide and had a horror of negative publicity, he felt the lure and understood the utility of celebrity.

Hoover was a private man who played a public one without any trouble. Though he had plenty to hide and had a horror of negative publicity, he felt the lure and understood the utility of celebrity. He generated newspaper coverage, put his name to books and magazine articles, starred in radio and TV shows and movies that burnished the FBI. He posed with Tommy guns he didn’t know how to use. Hoover and Tolson, inseparable even after hours, were habitués of “21” and the Stork Club in Manhattan; they undertook long sojourns in Southern California in the company of rich Texas Republicans, taking in the sun, the links, and the ponies.

Hoover turned 65 on New Year’s Day 1960 and thus began his long and unlamented goodbye. America’s latest domestic enemies were Black activists and their white sympathizers, such as those who clustered around the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. Hoover collected evidence of King’s close connections to American Communists and his chronic sexual transgressions, hoping to persuade King to refuse the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize by sending him (anonymously) wiretap recordings of sizzling encounters with women not his wife. Hoover also shared the contents with the White House and with friendly news organizations, but they wouldn’t touch it.

As evidence that Hoover was an equal-opportunity menace to those who challenged the government, Gage also recounts Hoover’s aggressive efforts to discredit the Ku Klux Klan and white citizens councils and to eradicate the culture of lynching and violent resistance to desegregation in the Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson years. She then traces Hoover’s embrace of increasingly dark methods—COINTELPRO was the blanket name—to track and expose American citizens who opposed the war in Vietnam. No longer the dispassionate bureaucrat, the FBI director ordered blatantly political operations and condoned violations of basic civil liberties that would have horrified the young J. Edgar Hoover.

By the time he died at the age of 77, still on the job, Hoover had lost his edge and his stamina. Now he was surrounded by a much younger, and a bit more diverse, legion of FBI men and women. The excesses of the McCarthy era and the repression of the civil rights and antiwar movements had stripped the varnish from the once-vaunted FBI. With Hoover’s death began the deluge of congressional investigations that exposed all that had gone terribly wrong at the FBI (and the CIA). Hoover, Gage writes, “died just in time to avoid witnessing the public repudiation of his life’s work and the destruction of his reputation.”

Gage has done a service to history with this clear-eyed portrait of a man who was, for better and for worse, very much an American of his century. She plucks from one obituary a piquant assessment: “There probably will never be anybody like Mr. Hoover again. Nor should there be.”

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Charles Trueheart is a Scholar contributing editor and former director of the American Library in Paris. His book about Vietnam in the Kennedy years, Diplomats at War, is forthcoming.


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