Dreams of a G-Man

Secrecy and Power: The Life of J. Edgar Hoover

by Richard Gid Powers
The Free Press, 624 pp., $27.95

J. Edgar Hoover, Tom Wicker once wrote, “wielded more power, longer, than any man in American history.1 That assessment would be difficult to dispute. When Hoover died in 1972, he had been director of the FBI for forty-eight years—three fourths of its life and two thirds of his own. He had transformed the bureau from a minor adjunct of the Justice Department into something very close to an independent national police force. He had remained for half a century the unchallenged master of his own bureaucratic world, so far beyond the reach of the eight presidents he served that (until an abortive effort by Richard Nixon only months before Hoover’s death) no one seriously considered replacing him—although several would have liked to do so.

Hoover became as well an icon of American popular culture, and the myths that surrounded him while he lived have endured long after his death. To his dwindling band of admirers, Hoover remains the revered hero he was through much of his life: a titan of law enforcement, the scourge of the underworld, a daring and indomitable “G-man.”2 To his critics, he remains the enemy of civil liberties he came to seem in his last years: a ruthless despot who blackmailed presidents and politicians, persecuted dissidents, harassed and suppressed blacks. Hoover’s FBI, one antagonist wrote in 1971, “jeopardizes the whole system of freedom of expression which is the cornerstone of an open society.”3

Richard Gid Powers, a historian at CUNY’s College of Staten Island, has produced the fullest and, in my view, the best biography of Hoover yet to appear, an intelligent and judicious study that reveals a man whose real life bore little resemblance to the myths surrounding it. Hoover, as Powers describes him, was neither a daring crime buster nor a menacing tyrant. He was a cautious man almost morbidly averse to personal risk; a man shameless in his sycophancy toward those above him; a man essentially timid in all things except fighting to preserve his own authority. Throughout his life, he was a fervent defender of “traditional” social values; but he was even more fervently committed to his own bureaucratic survival.

Hoover’s social conservatism emerged naturally from the circumstances of his childhood—from what Powers describes as “the world of Seward Square,” the neighborhood on Washington’s Capitol Hill where Hoover was born and where he lived until early middle age. Seward Square was a genteel, middle-class community whose residents were, almost without exception, white, old stock, and Protestant. The homogeneity of the neighborhood, Powers suggests, raised expectations among its residents of a comparable homogeneity in the nation at large. The “real” America, residents of Seward Square liked to believe, was a society similar to their own. It consisted of like-minded people wedded to rigid, Victorian values, values passed on unquestioningly from generation to generation. It was tolerant of outsiders, “foreigners,” only to the degree that they accepted the community’s established norms. The commitment to preserving the “world of Seward Square,”…

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