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The Dedicated Despot

The Boss: J. Edgar Hoover and the Great American Inquisition

by Athan G. Theoharis, by John Stuart Cox
Temple University Press, 489 pp., $27.95

Presidential campaigns do us no special mischief except by breeding and spreading the germs of the delusion that vast and salutary changes are once more ours to arrange. That plague is now in season, and Athan G. Theoharis and John Stuart Cox have earned our thanks by providing the sovereign antidote in their The Boss: J. Edgar Hoover and the Great American Inquisition.

The melodrama of their title aside, Theoharis and Cox are admirably sober workmen, and their chronicle is a quiet but all the same telling reminder that there are two Washingtons. One is the Washington of the White House, which is transient, and the other is the Washington of institutions, which is permanent.

Washington bristles with institutional citadels as medieval Florence did with family fortresses, and J. Edgar Hoover’s Federal Bureau of Investigation towered over all the others. Hoover stirred now and then to stimulate paranoia in his countrymen, but he brought true passion to catering to the paranoias that fester beside the Potomac. He may occasionally have had a languid desire to tyrannize a nation, but the true fevers of his heart were spent to sustain command as despot of his native city state. Every president arrives all too soon at some degree of paranoia, and Hoover had all the talent for inflaming it that is the particular property of the messenger who is paranoid already.

To cast our minds back on the Eisenhower administration is for many of us to remember a prudence and tranquility lost in the long ago. But now Theoharis and Cox tell us that in July of 1953, an FBI informant brought Hoover the news that Cardinal Francis Spellman and a group of Catholics that included Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr., had entered into “a ‘conspiracy’ working to undermine the Eisenhower Administration and to eventually bring about the election of [Senator Joseph] McCarthy as President.” Hoover trotted this egregious nonsense over to Attorney General Herbert Brownell to be rewarded, no doubt, with unnecessary alarms and necessary gratitude for his vigilance.

Capturing new presidents was a quadrennial challenge to Hoover and, even when he had the incumbent in his bag, he was never free from worry that somebody else might win the election and refuse to be wrapped in his chains. Hoover identified the peril of Thomas E. Dewey early enough to order an FBI investigation when Dewey was elected governor of New York in 1942. It was a futile dig, and Hoover was weaponless when the Republicans nominated Dewey for president in 1944 amid fearsome rumors that one of his priorities was to fire J. Edgar Hoover.

That menace was averted then and in 1948, and Hoover did not find out how dreadful it had been until after Dewey’s second defeat, when a confidential informant sent word that while campaigning Dewey had privately told a group of Californians of substance that, once he was president, “there wouldn’t be enough jails to hold the people he was going to put in them and that Hoover was going to be one of the first.” The confidential informant was Ronald Reagan, president of the Screen Actors Guild. Hoover need not have been troubled—a President Dewey would no doubt have found Hoover as useful as all his predecessors knew him to be.

Harry Truman used the FBI to check White House holdovers from the Roosevelt administration for their loyalty to himself and ordered a wiretap on the Treasury Department’s Edwin Pritchard, a heretic especially galling because he was so witty. Hoover’s sway reached its crest with President Lyndon Johnson, whose imagination was as swarm-haunted as Hoover’s and who especially cherished the fantasies he retailed about the schemes of Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. We may count among the larger disappointments of Johnson’s presidency and Hoover’s career the entire failure of a protracted effort to find out whether the Kennedy brothers had indulged in libidinous converse with Marilyn Monroe.

But Hoover’s solicitude for the skins of incumbent presidents was as nothing next to his care for his own. He never trusted these captives enough to exempt them from his spy apparatus, and, at a juncture when the enemy within held its razor at the nation’s very jugular, the Washington office consumed a week of staff work trying to find out if Kay Summersby had come to town to tryst with President Dwight Eisenhower.

As it was serviceable for Hoover to provide politicians with material for blackmailing their enemies, it was just as serviceable for him to gather material for blackmailing them. When he died, every official voice expressed the huge relief of that hour of liberation by describing him as the most dedicated servant his country had ever had. And that he was, because no other public man was ever so disciplined in his commitment to keeping his job and expanding its appurtenances. This is why he lives in the memory as the incarnation of the permanent Washington to which the inhabitants of the merely elected Washington are only passing strangers whom the natives squeeze like oranges and throw away like the peels.

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