Printer Friendly

Secrecy and power: the life of J. Edgar Hoover.


There is perhaps no greater challenge in20th century American political biography than J. Edgar Hoover, whose career atop the FBI stretched from ragtime to rock, from the Wobblies to the Warren Commission and onto the threshhold of Watergate. As the man who transformed Sam Spade into Efrem Zimbalist Jr., created an unlikely "hero-bureaucrat" public persona, and pioneered the art of institutional public relations (inventing for instance, the ten-most-wanted list), Hoover melted himself into the American psyche. Of the nine presidents who retained his services, he worked most harmoniously with Franklin Roosevelt--a fact of enlightening discomfort for liberals and conservatives alike. He enraged Truman, bored Kennedy, and defied Nixon, but no president came close to firing him. For nearly three generations it was impossible to think of the FBI without thinking of Hoover, and some find the task difficult even now, 15 years after his death. The founding G-man played on our need for security. He harvested both the earnest support of millions who idolized him and the sullen acquiescence of critics who feared his ruthless manipulation of secrets.

Attacks on Hoover toward the end of his lifeserved only to enhance his legend, if not his stature. A few rebellious agents wrote books of wild but true stories detailing how Hoover bent the entire culture of the FBI to his Nero-like whims. (My favorite such yarn comes from Robert Kennedy, who said in his official oral history that Florida FBI agents, hearing that Hoover liked to pick fresh grapes each morning of his racetrack vacations, always tied bunches of supermarket grapes to the vines outside Hoover's hotel room. True or not, Kennedy seemed to believe the story while laughing at it.) These comic attacks gave Hoover the aura of a madly despotic father. Posthumous diatribes added the beguiling powers of a devil, portraying "the Director" as a blend of Iago and Himmler. The FBI touched public nerves as a composite of icons: Hoover's Lab, Hoover's Fingerprints, Hoover's Files, the ghost of John Dillinger's penis, forever rumored to be pickled somewhere in the Smithsonian. Above all this was the mystery of Hoover's private life, which was an empty chamber except for the universal rumor that Hoover was a homosexual.

Author Richard Gid Powers wisely approachesHoover as the mythological creature he was. Early in his book, he establishes his originality in Hoover scholarship by fixing his early character within the history of the British and American Sunday schools. They began in the 19th century as a secular movement to take literacy to the poor, and then, with the advent of public schools, were captured by the evangelicals of various churches as laboratories for molding religious character. "To attract and keep the children of the middle class," writes Powers, "the Sunday school had to stress its respectability, which made the poor feel uncomfortable within its genteel confines, and emphasize its exclusion of blacks." At the turn of the century, young J. Edgar Hoover, the son and grandson of Washington bureaucrats, became a convert to the Sunday school movement at the peak of its popularity among youth. Hoover distinguished himself as a Sunday school leader. Simultaneously, he excelled as valedictorian and cadet captain at Washington's elite Central High, back when white families from Maryland and Virginia still fought to get their children into that center-city public school.

Powers portrays Hoover as a man whose energyand identity sprang from a tightly Victorian concept of middle-class pride. The young Hoover idolized an America of family hearths, piety, clean clothes, hard work, and crisp manners. It was a romance with a fierce edge to it, because, as Powers writes, "the snake in this garden was the immigrant." Always the immigrant, the one who did not belong. In Hoover's youth, wave upon wave of immigrants led to the alien hysteria of World War I, which coincided with the Bolshevik Revolution. It was then that young Hoover moved from the Justice Department's Alien Enemy Bureau to the Radical Division. He first made the news by putting anarchist Emma Goldman and several hundred aliens on a deportation ship bound for Russia, and he became instantly famous as a leader of Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer's Red Raids of 1919-1920, in which as many as four thousand immigrants a night were arrested and charged with being subversives.

Powers uses Hoover's lifelong crusade againstvarious forms of aliens as the organizing theme of the biography. The Hoover of the Palmer Raids sought to cauterize the nation against alien threats, and so did the Hoover who hounded Marcus Garvey out of the country in the 1920s, who chased Ma Barker and Pretty Boy Floyd, Alger Hiss, the Rosenbergs, Martin Luther King, the hippies, Black Panthers, and SDS. Always Hoover saw his targets as moral degenerates who did not belong in his Sunday school class.

Fortunately, this theme does not degenerate intoanother snide treatise on the narrowness of old-fashioned, middle-class values, nor does it fall into the stale formula of an ever more rigid Hoover colliding with an ever more tolerant America. Powers argues persuasively that Hoover never again tried anything so blatantly illegal and massive in scope as the Palmer Raids, and he strongly implies that the civil libertarians who throttled the Raids--killing Palmer's presidential hopes and very nearly getting Hoover fired in the process--were stouter liberals than their counterparts in the sixties.

The debacle of the Palmer Raids reinforcedHoover's bureaucratic caution. For nearly 15 years thereafter he toiled in anonymity, polishing his "scientific crime methods," courting the nation's police chiefs by inviting them to his FBI Academy, and above all shaping the bureau into a distillation of old Central High. Hoover made his agents look and act like small-town bankers. Not until the Depression did Hoover assert himself again in public, and then, with the pessimism and despair threatening to drag under the national government's barest claims to authority, Hoover perceived the public hunger for a government hero. In the Lindbergh kidnapping case, and then more spectacularly in the Dillinger, Barker Gang, and the other "hoodlum" cases, he thrust himself forward as living proof that the government was in control after all, that it could act, that anarchy would not prevail.

Powers's main point is that Hoover's spectacularpublic success in the thirties was almost entirely symbolic. Real crime had been declining throughout the decade, and continued to decline, but Hoover became a national savior anyway--lionized in Hollywood as well as Washington--because he starred in dramas that relieved a perception of anarchy. This role, Powers writes, was theatrical and profoundly political. Hoover played it to the hilt, defending the values of his old neighborhood against the alien attack. He was visibly on guard against Nazi saboteurs and subversives of the Cold War. Powers says Hoover knew that Julius and Ethel Rosenberg did not have the real scientific secrets of the atomic bomb, but he went after them anyway, because he wanted to stamp out fears that alien thieves might learn how to blow up America. For Hoover, crime was never so much an objective deed as a defective attitude, an alien state of being.

Hoover's Sunday school values did not blemishhis place in history. Indeed, they remain even now a stable basis of public support. The flaw that stalked his reputation from the Palmer Raids on was his indifference to the rule of law. He had little regard for due process or other limitations upon the primitive tribal authority of the middle class as he saw it; he defined democracy as "the dictatorship of the collective conscience of our people." Hoover gave in to his fascist inclinations when he indulged in the scurrilous COINTELPRO campaigns late in his career, abandoning symbolism for conspiracy. Aimed primarily against civil rights leaders, COINTELPRO consisted of covert programs designed to harass and discredit people Hoover didn't like. What saved him before that--what allowed him to function both as a Puritan and as a cautious bureaucrat--was Hoover's gift for choosing symbolic crusades. With them he acquired for himself and the bureau the public impact of the Palmer Raids without the political risk. Most of the book follows Hoover along the edge between his moral fervor and his bureaucratic instincts.

Powers offers no major revelations or guessesabout Hoover's personal life. He did find one photograph album that escaped the destruction of Hoover's papers by his close aides in which Hoover kept close-up studies of his constant companion and aide Clyde Tolson in the act of sleeping. Powers cannot conclude, however, that the two men were lovers. After correcting many popular misconceptions about the details of their daily routine together, he settles for the conclusion that Hoover and Tolson maintained a "spousal relationship" of some 30 years. It is among the obvious ironies of Hoover's life that so devoted a family conformist was such an iconoclastic bachelor.

The book has faults, of course, such as annoyingerrors of fact. In civil rights, my own field of recent specialty, Powers botched two dates and a troop count in a single paragraph, missing the Ole Miss riots by a year. A little later, he was off by ten days on the date of Martin Luther King's assassination, which seems fundamental to me. More generally, the book probably overstates Hoover's role in the demise of the American Communist Party, and it practically ignores the FBI's record in fighting "ordinary" crimes, which may be an unfair way of supporting the argument that such crimes were unimportant to Hoover. Also, Powers is a summary storyteller. Necessarily, he compresses tales of surpassing drama. A novelist's characters--Emma Goldman, Sacco and Vanzetti, Alger Hiss, Lee Harvey Oswald--troop by reduced to memo size. This is not a work of literature or even a definitive biography, but it is the first satisfying life of Hoover.
COPYRIGHT 1987 Washington Monthly Company
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1987, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Branch, Taylor
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Apr 1, 1987
Previous Article:The reckoning.
Next Article:Challenger: a major malfunction.

Related Articles
American forces press service (Oct. 3, 2005): Pace issues guidance to help military 'shape the future'.
Activists unite at Long-Term Care Caucus.
More states join anticonsumer insurance regulation 'compact'.
And then there was Merce: Carolyn Brown's awaited memoir.
Native American power: Native American tribes are tapping into alternative energy sources with great benefits to themselves and their neighbors.
Darwin and democracy.
Global warming and religious stick fighting.

Terms of use | Copyright © 2017 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters