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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,” Powers argues, governed Hoover’s life. It explained his almost obsessive hostility to communism, his deep animus toward the civil rights movement, his relentless pursuit of radicals, the strident denunciations of “immorality” and “degeneracy” that characterized his public remarks throughout his career.

But this explanation, persuasive as it is, seems incomplete. Seward Square does not, by itself, explain Hoover’s curiously constricted personality or the profound, even obsessive, quest for security in his job. Two other influences (which Powers suggests but does not explore) must certainly have had an equally deep impact on Hoover’s development: his family and his government.

Hoover’s family was not, at first, an unhappy one. But it gradually fell victim to a series of pressures and strains that belied the model of Victorian stability it tried to represent. Edgar, as he was known from birth, was in effect an only child—twelve years younger than his sister and thirteen years younger than his brother. He was born shortly after another, infant sister had died of diphtheria and was all the more cosseted because of his parents’ guilt at having exposed their daughter to infection. “The future director of the FBI,” Powers writes, “was the pet of the Hoover household, protected by its care and love.” How terrifying it must have been for a youth raised in such surroundings to witness a beloved parent descend slowly into mental illness. Hoover’s father, a nervous, troubled man, apparently suffered at least one breakdown during Edgar’s adolescence. Ultimately he lost his job at the Government Printing Office and spent his few remaining years as an invalid in the family home. By then, Edgar’s older brother and sister had families of their own. Before he finished school, therefore, Hoover himself had to take on the burden of supporting his parents and maintaining the household—and the even greater burden of trying to understand how his safe, protected haven had come apart.

This gap between his expectations of a predictable Victorian world and the agonizing reality of his own disrupted family must certainly have contributed to Hoover’s lifelong obsession with achieving order and stability in his personal life. Even as a child, he had been self-consciously organized and responsible: a solemn little boy who kept a meticulous (and remarkably unrevealing) diary, who wheeled his infant niece around Capitol Hill as if he were himself the father, who carefully planned his daily activities to leave no room at all for surprise or spontaneity.

As an adult, he lived in a world even more carefully organized to insulate him from personal anxiety. He remained in his mother’s house in Seward Square until he was thirty-eight, a house elaborately ordered around his own unvarying routine. When his mother died, he moved to a new house in northwest Washington where he lived until his own death nearly forty years later. There, too, he created an environment where nothing ever changed, where no surprise ever intruded. (His elaborate collection of autographed photographs, for example, was carefully numbered so that it could be rehung exactly as it had been whenever the living room walls were painted.) Hoover ate the same lunch in the same restaurant at the same table every day. He vacationed at the same place during the same weeks with the same people every year. Although as a young man he occasionally visited nightclubs and went about with celebrities, in his later years his evenings were governed by the same relentless routine as his days. “His daily, weekly—even yearly—schedule,” Powers writes, “took on rigid patterns, and any deviation, no matter how slight, could rouse him to fury.”

Hoover never married. Instead, he developed a lifelong friendship with Clyde Tolson, the associate director of the FBI, who subordinated himself entirely, both professionally and personally, to Hoover. They dined together practically every night. Hoover kept a large collection of photographs of Tolson. Powers calls their relationship “spousal” (although they never lived together). Whether it was also actively sexual he declines to decide. But it would hardly be incompatible with the rest of Hoover’s carefully insulated life had his relationship with Tolson been devoid of intimacy and passion.

A third influence on Hoover’s life, in some ways perhaps the most important, was the federal bureaucracy. The Hoovers, Powers says, “were part of an almost hereditary order of families who knew their way in and about the federal agencies.” Edgar’s grandfather, his father, his older brother were all lifelong civil servants. His Capitol Hill church attracted a congregation of professional bureaucrats. His all-white Washington high school trained generations of federal employees. The George Washington University Law School, from which Hoover graduated, was largely attended by local boys angling for secure jobs in the government. To Hoover, the federal bureaucracy was never something remote, impersonal, or menacing. It was the only world he knew. The goal of almost everyone around him, family and friends alike, was a secure job in a government agency. The greatest ambition was to achieve a directorship—and, of course, to keep it.

Hoover became director of the Bureau of Investigation (later to be renamed the FBI) in 1924, as part of the housecleaning that followed the Teapot Dome scandal. By then he had already survived a major professional crisis and had, in the process, learned a lesson that shaped his entire subsequent career. In 1919, Hoover supervised Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer’s celebrated campaign against domestic radicalism—indeed, supervised it with such excessive zeal that he was almost destroyed by the popular and political backlash the crusade created. The experience did nothing to weaken Hoover’s loathing of communism, which to him always remained the greatest threat to the stable social values he so fervently embraced. But it taught him always to balance his social goals against his own bureaucratic and political ambitions and, when need be, to sacrifice the former to the latter.

It was bureaucratic not ideological concerns that dominated the formative years of Hoover’s directorship. He spent the 1930s and 1940s “streamlining” and “modernizing” the FBI through administrative innovations. He created the bureau’s crime lab, its fingerprint file, its training schools, its elaborate statistical reports, and a national information retrieval system that remains the cornerstone of American law enforcement. He imposed a relentless uniformity on his agents (lawyers all), demanding adherence to a rigid code of both personal and professional conduct, mandating everything from the color of their suits (dark) to the color of their skin (white). “In the bureau,” Victor Navasky wrote in the 1970s, “everything is by the numbers and everything is on paper.”4 So it had been from Hoover’s first years as its director. Publicly, Hoover courted an image as a daring crime fighter—often racing to the scene of a major arrest to take personal credit for the triumph. He carefully supervised the radio (and later television) programs that publicized the heroism of FBI agents. But within the federal bureaucracy, he called attention above all to the “scientific methods” he brought to criminal investigation, to the organizational (as opposed to personal) sources of FBI successes, and to his skill in managing his agency’s budget.5

Hoover worked as well throughout his career to shore up his political base. His public grandstanding was, in large part, an effort to win for the bureau an independent popularity that would protect it (and him) from partisan interference. But Hoover cultivated support within the government as well. He worked assiduously to ingratiate himself with influential members of Congress. He showered every president he served with unctuous praise and unsolicited assistance. The FBI itself, Hoover insisted, was entirely apolitical. (“No combination of deterrents to crime will work,” he wrote in 1938, “until we can rid ourselves of venal politics in law enforcement.”6 ) But the bureau was always responsive to politicians whose support Hoover needed. It is a measure of the strength of Hoover’s own bureaucratic ambitions that of all the presidents with whom he worked he enjoyed perhaps the warmest relationship with Franklin Roosevelt—a man whose liberal political programs Hoover surely detested, but who gave the FBI (and Hoover himself) unwavering support.

  1. 1

    Quoted in Ovid Demaris, The Director: An Oral Biography of J. Edgar Hoover (Harper’s Magazine Press, 1975), p. vii.

  2. 2

    The most recent, and perhaps the last, major example of Hoover hagiography is Ralph de Toledano, J. Edgar Hoover: The Man in His Time (Arlington House, 1973). De Toledano concludes of his subject: “He loved America, he believed in America, and he fought for America” (p. 377).

  3. 3

    From a paper by Thomas L. Emerson presented at a 1971 conference on the FBI at Princeton University, sponsored by the Committee for Public Justice and the Woodrow Wilson School. Pat Watters and Stephen Gillers, eds., Investigating the FBI (Doubleday, 1973), p. 412.

  4. 4

    Kennedy Justice (Atheneum, 1971), p. 7.

  5. 5

    See, for example, J. Edgar Hoover, “Scientific Methods of Crime Detection in the Judicial Process” (Federal Bureau of Investigation, 1935); and Hoover, “Some Legal Aspects of Interstate Crime” (Federal Bureau of Investigation, 1938).

  6. 6

    Persons in Hiding (Little, Brown, 1938), p. 317.

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