J. Edgar Hoover, Public Enemy No. 1

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One morning in the fall of 1971, President Richard Nixon set out to fire J. Edgar Hoover, the director of the F.B.I., who had ruled over the agency like a potentate since 1924. The two men were longtime friends, united by their political affinities, including a bone-deep antipathy to the American left, Old and New, and a tendency to demonize their critics. Over the years, Nixon and his wife, Pat, had socialized often with Hoover and his companion, Clyde Tolson. They had even vacationed together in the fifties, at a seaside resort in La Jolla, California, owned by a pair of Texas oil tycoons who went out of their way to put their powerful guests at ease. After Nixon lost the 1960 Presidential election, to John F. Kennedy, Hoover was frankly disappointed, and wrote to urge his friend not to give up on politics: “The United States and the Free World need a man of your stature desperately.” When Nixon made his comeback, in 1968, Hoover was a distinct asset, an old-school embodiment of law and order for a Presidential campaign that presented itself as the antidote to urban uprisings, campus protests, and street crime.

But by that fall, more than two years into Nixon’s Presidency, Hoover had become a liability, the historian Beverly Gage explains in her crisply written, prodigiously researched, and frequently astonishing new biography, “G-Man: J. Edgar Hoover and the Making of the American Century” (Viking). He was seventy-six, and showing his age, napping for hours in his office in the afternoons. He was also showing, in Gage’s words, “increasing levels of vitriol and instability,” informing the White House, for instance, that the four student demonstrators shot to death by National Guardsmen at Kent State had “invited and got what they deserved.” In 1970, for the first time in a career in which he had enjoyed remarkable levels of public approval, half of Americans polled by Gallup said that they thought he should retire. And there was worse to come.

On the night of March 8, 1971, burglars broke into an F.B.I. field office in Media, Pennsylvania, and made off with a cache of top-secret files. The culprits, whose identities would not be revealed for years, were a small band of Quaker-inspired pacifists who suspected that the F.B.I. had infiltrated the antiwar movement and other New Left activities. They were proved right by the documents, which they pored over and then began releasing in tranches to two members of Congress, Senator George McGovern, of South Dakota, and Representative Parren Mitchell, of Maryland, and to three newspapers, the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, and the New York Times. (McGovern, Mitchell, and the L.A. Times turned the files over to the F.B.I.; the Post and, later, the Times chose to report on their contents.) Hoover’s F.B.I., as the files established, had engineered a clandestine campaign aimed at “disrupting” and “neutralizing” left-wing and civil-rights organizations through the use of informants, smear campaigns, and callous, cunning plots to break up marriages, get people fired, and exacerbate political divisions. One of the files made reference to the name of the project: COINTELPRO, which stood for “counterintelligence program.” It would take years of digging by journalists, reams of Freedom of Information Act requests, and the dogged work of the Church committee—a congressional body, chaired by the Idaho senator Frank Church, that was formed in 1975 to look into the nation’s intelligence activities—to reveal substantially more about the program. Under its auspices, the F.B.I. had wiretapped Martin Luther King, Jr.,’s hotel rooms and recorded his sexual assignations. In 1964, soon after King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, a package containing the tapes arrived at his home. His wife, Coretta Scott King, opened it. Inside was a letter, concocted by the F.B.I. and purporting to be from a disappointed Black supporter of King’s, that called him “a filthy, abnormal animal” while seemingly urging him to kill himself. COINTELPRO operatives went on to spread a false rumor that the actress Jean Seberg was pregnant by a member of the Black Panthers. (In fact, she was married and pregnant with her husband’s child, but, after the rumor circulated, she gave birth prematurely and lost the baby.) In 1969, COINTELPRO operatives collaborated with Chicago police in the raid that killed the twenty-one-year-old Black Panther leader Fred Hampton in his bed. Hoover, Gage notes, approved a bonus for the F.B.I. informant who had drawn a map of Hampton’s apartment, including where he slept.

In the outcry that followed the early revelations about COINTELPRO, some members of Congress called for Hoover’s resignation. Life ran an ominous image of him as a marble bust, with the cover line “Emperor of the F.B.I.” Even Nixon’s adviser Patrick Buchanan told the President that Hoover should go, before his reputation was picked over “by the jackals of the Left.” Amid public criticism, Hoover had—to Nixon’s annoyance—become uncharacteristically cautious on certain fronts. He was less aggressive than Nixon wanted him to be, for instance, in pursuing whoever had leaked the Pentagon Papers. In frustration, Nixon secretly authorized the creation of a team of intelligence operatives who would do whatever, in his view, had to be done. The team came to include a former F.B.I. agent, G. Gordon Liddy, and was code-named the Plumbers.

All that remained was to cut Hoover loose. The trouble was that he had no intention of leaving. He had already finagled an extension of the mandatory federal-government retirement age of seventy. By temperament and by ideology, he was inclined to hold on to his power in perpetuity. The President and his staff spent months scheming about how, exactly, to maneuver him out. They considered various deal sweeteners—including the idea of appointing Hoover to the Supreme Court. Nixon’s advisers composed a script for the President to use at a breakfast meeting with Hoover that morning in 1971, in which he would be assured that, if he stepped down, he would leave with “full honors (medal, dinner etc.).” The two men spoke for almost an hour at the White House, Gage tells us. But, in the end, Nixon could not bring himself to recite the script.

In fact, the only commitment that came out of the meeting was a concession from Nixon to increase the F.B.I.’s personnel budget. Nixon, in his memoirs, said that he retreated out of loyalty to a great man and an old friend. But to those in his circle, Gage writes, the President “revealed something more acute: a fear of Hoover’s skill at wielding power, and a sense that even the President was no match for the F.B.I. director.” Nixon told his aides, “We may have on our hands here a man who will pull down the temple with him, including me.” Several more months passed, during which the President was always just about to lower the boom. But when Hoover died—at home, of heart failure, on May 2, 1972—he was still the director of the F.B.I. “That old cocksucker!” Nixon exclaimed when he got the news from his chief of staff. Gage puts that reaction down to equal parts surprise and admiration for the man Nixon used to call his best personal friend in government.

Previous accounts of how Hoover clung to his position for so long have tended to stress his capacity to intimidate, and even blackmail, Presidents. Gage certainly does not deny Hoover’s talent and taste for these dark arts, but she wants to emphasize a simpler explanation, one less flattering to America’s self-regard. For a very long time, most Americans admired Hoover. In the nineteen-thirties, the Bureau’s white-collar officers acquired a new mystique when, at Franklin Roosevelt’s behest, they took on gangsters such as John Dillinger and Pretty Boy Floyd. For the first time since the Bureau’s founding, in 1908, agents were allowed to make arrests and carry guns—they shot Dillinger down as he left a movie theatre in Chicago, where he’d been watching a gangster picture. Though initially wary of the press and publicity, Hoover proved adept at turning them to his advantage. The Bureau opened its doors to the public for tours, and coöperated with Hollywood studios on a spate of films and, later, a TV series that glamorized F.B.I. agents and offered tantalizing glimpses of the agency’s state-of-the-art forensics. (My father acted in one of these F.B.I. lovefests, a B movie called “Parole Fixer,” from 1940. He was treated to a trip to headquarters, including a turn in the basement shooting range, and a highly flattering, personally autographed charcoal portrait of Hoover.) Outside the director’s office was a display case that contained an array of confiscated weapons, along with John Dillinger’s death mask and bloodstained straw boater.

But Hoover’s purview took in far more than crime. By the late nineteen-forties, he had become the country’s most reliable anti-Communist warrior, more sober (in all senses of the word) and less erratic than Joseph McCarthy, and in it for the long haul. While husbanding his hoard of secrets, he managed to fashion himself into a sort of avuncular avatar of conservative Americanism. Until the COINTELPRO revelations, that persona insured his wide appeal. In interviews with reporters and in speeches before women’s clubs and the American Legion, Hoover extolled Christian faith and the importance of Sunday school; inveighed against “sob sisters,” defense lawyers, “convict lovers,” criminal-justice reformers, and civil-rights “agitators”; and harped on the unrelenting threat of Communism to the American way of life. “The truth is that Hoover stayed in office for so long because many people, from the highest reaches of government, down to the grassroots, wanted him there and supported what he was doing,” Gage writes. In 1964, after he gave a press conference in which he denounced King as America’s “most notorious liar,” fifty per cent of Americans sided with Hoover and just sixteen per cent sided with King. (The rest were undecided.) And, as the Nixon story shows, Hoover’s crepuscular hold over Presidents was tenacious. He served under eight of them, four Republicans and four Democrats, and, Gage makes clear, most were either beholden to him or scared of him, or both.

There have been other big, ambitious biographies of Hoover, but “G-Man” is the first in nearly three decades. One advantage to writing about him now is that, in the realm of national security, revelations burble up over time, files get declassified, FOIA requests haul out unexpected specimens in their nets. But some of Gage’s freshest takes concern Hoover’s upbringing in a respectably middle-class but emotionally beleaguered family, and the formation of his racial attitudes in a college fraternity with a sentimental attachment to the Jim Crow South. Many of the book’s other sharp assessments come not from secret documents but from generally available historical sources that the author has read with close attention or particular nuance.

Hoover was born on January 1, 1895, in Washington, D.C., the city in which he would always live. His father, Dickerson Hoover, worked for the federal government, printing maps for the Coast Survey. He and his wife, Annie, had three children before Edgar, the youngest, arrived. One daughter had died of diphtheria at the age of three, during a vacation to Atlantic City, a blow from which the family seems never to have entirely recovered. Edgar was, Gage says, “an ambitious, hard-working child, eager to please his teachers and parents alike.” The family was loving, his father gentle and affectionate. He was also, for much of Edgar’s life, gripped by severe depression. When Hoover was a teen-ager, Dickerson was institutionalized for a time at a sanitarium in Laurel, Maryland. He died in 1921, at the age of sixty-four; the death certificate listed the causes as “melancholia” and “inanition”—vague diagnoses that hinted at how little effective treatment existed for the mentally ill. It’s difficult to know exactly how his father’s shadowy condition affected Hoover; there are no extant letters or journals that reveal how he felt about it. But Gage suggests that he was probably ashamed of his father, viewing his depression as weakness. A niece of Hoover’s recalled that he seemed angry about it: “He never could tolerate anything that was imperfect.”

The Washington that Hoover grew up in had the largest Black population of any city in the U.S., and was becoming more rigidly segregated. He attended an all-white public high school and went on to study law at George Washington University, an institution that did not admit Black students until 1954. At G.W., in what Gage argues was a portentous step, Hoover joined the Kappa Alpha fraternity. Founded in 1865 in honor of Robert E. Lee, Kappa Alpha was, according to Gage, a bastion of the Lost Cause mythology that glorified the defeated plantation culture of the slaveholding South. As late as the nineteen-fifties, the fraternity’s chapters were still holding Confederate dress balls, blackface minstrel shows, and “secession ceremonies.” Hoover remained a loyal alum all his life. Kappa Alpha became, Gage reports, his “chief source of sustenance and friendship”—a model for the overwhelmingly male, virtually all-white, sociable but hierarchical and ritual-bound F.B.I. that he built up as its director. Through the fraternity’s network, he “gained entree to Washington’s political elite,” especially circles dominated by Southern members of Congress. Perhaps even more important, Kappa Alpha “solidified the conservative racial outlook he would preserve, with minor variations, for the rest of his life.”

“Today’s special is puréed sweet potato on cracker.”

Cartoon by Lynn Hsu

Hired at the Department of Justice in 1917, Hoover hunkered down and never left. He had held a previous job as a clerk at the Library of Congress, a two-year stint that sparked his zeal for collecting and classifying information. At Justice, he was assigned to the Bureau of Investigation, then a relatively poky subdepartment known to the public, if it was known at all, for sniffing out violations of the 1910 Mann Act. That changed when Woodrow Wilson’s Attorney General, A. Mitchell Palmer, began watching political subversives—anarchists, socialists, strike organizers, the occasional mail bomber, and not a few pacifists who grumbled into their liberty cabbage about Wilson or his war. In 1919 and early 1920, Palmer ordered a notorious series of raids, banging on doors to arrest and, when possible, deport suspected radicals to Russia, Eastern Europe, or Italy. Palmer picked the young Hoover to head the new Radical Division, which organized these raids. He took to the work with enthusiasm, meticulously filling the cabinets at headquarters with thousands of index cards on troublemakers across the country.

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