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.

At the same time, Hoover carefully avoided association with policies he feared might expose him to public or political risk. He openly, if unsuccessfully, opposed the government’s internment of Japanese Americans during World War II—not because of any particular sympathy for the victims of the internment, but because he worried about the legal and political consequences. During the second great Red scare, of the late 1940s and 1950s, Hoover worked with ferocious energy to infiltrate and disrupt the American Communist party, to expose and prosecute those he believed to be traitors and spies, and to arouse public concern about what he considered the great issue of his time. In the process, the FBI engaged in almost indiscriminate intimidation and harassment of people with leftist political views—destroying careers, suppressing dissent, and contributing immeasurably to the general assault on civil liberties that characterized those years.

But if Hoover’s hatred of communism had no limits, his willingness to take risks in attacking it did. In the Hiss case, for example, he encouraged Richard Nixon to take principal public credit (despite the FBI’s central role in the investigation) because he feared pursuit of so well-connected a man might be politically dangerous. Later, he made certain to dissociate himself from Joseph McCarthy as soon as it became clear that McCarthy was overreaching himself.7

Hoover claimed to have truly hated few people in his life, but in his later years he freely admitted to a deep hatred of the Kennedys. He disliked their politics, surely; but what he detested above all was their freewheeling style, their impatience with established lines of authority, their contempt for bureaucratic procedures. Nothing could have contrasted more sharply with his own cautious personality; nothing could have seemed more threatening to his carefully ordered world. He grew almost apoplectic at the sight of Robert Kennedy, in shirt sleeves, moving through the FBI offices talking with agents who were never permitted to remove their own jackets on the job. He resented the direct telephone line the attorney general had installed to his office (and defiantly removed it within hours of John Kennedy’s death). He was contemptuous of what he considered the President’s inexperience and incompetence, as displayed at the Bay of Pigs.

But even under the Kennedys, Hoover swallowed his pride to protect himself from attack. For years he had resisted pressures to involve the FBI in the pursuit of organized crime—insisting always that organized crime did not really exist, since to say otherwise would be to admit the limits of the bureau’s effectiveness. But when Robert Kennedy demanded that the Justice Department bring cases against the mob, Hoover grudgingly put the FBI behind the effort. Privately, he attacked both John and Robert. But he was unfailingly warm and flattering in his personal dealings with the President, and he even managed occasionally to write sycophantic letters to the attorney general—which led Bobby Kennedy to conclude (erroneously) that his relationship with Hoover was “pretty good.”

The greatest trial of Hoover’s professional life was the rise of the civil rights movement, which he detested from its first moments and which he was never able to understand. Hoover’s racist assumptions, which derived from his essentially southern upbringing, contributed to his difficulties. But the depth of his aversion reflected something more than racism: the same deep fear of challenging authority that sustained his hatred of communism. It was not surprising, therefore, that he never ceased to claim (and apparently genuinely believed) that the black uprising was planned and controlled by Communists.

For a time, at least, Hoover’s usually acute political instincts seemed to fail him. He was slow to recognize the political costs of opposing the movement and believed, apparently, that active efforts to subvert and discredit it would be as popular with the public as his earlier assaults on the Communist party had been. Martin Luther King, Jr., was, along with Robert Kennedy, one of the few men Hoover admitted genuinely hating. Much has been written already about Hoover’s appalling pursuit of King: the wiretapping, the harassment, the efforts to leak damaging information to the press, the sordid attempt to persuade King to commit suicide by anonymous threats to release tapes of his amorous encounters. Powers adds little here to David Garrow’s very thorough examination of these events,8 but he does confirm the essential accuracy of earlier accounts (including Robert Kennedy’s complicity in wiretapping King’s conversations).

Powers retells as well the somewhat less familiar story of the FBI’s savage pursuit of black radicals and nationalists through the bureau’s counterintelligence program (COINTELPRO). Among other things, FBI agents actively and covertly provoked dissension and perhaps even violence within what the bureau called Black Nationalist Hate Groups (the Black Panthers, the Nation of Islam, and others). A Senate committee concluded in 1976 that COINTELPRO had “engaged in lawless tactics and responded to deepseated social problems by fomenting violence and unrest.”

Hoover’s implacable hostility to the civil rights movement posed again the dilemma that had plagued him throughout his career: the tension between his powerful commitment to preserving conservative social values and his at least equally powerful commitment to his own bureaucratic survival. As much as he despised the movement, he realized finally that the forces behind it were too powerful to resist; and he scrambled desperately to placate his critics before they destroyed him. By the late 1960s, the FBI had made the infiltration and destruction of the Ku Klux Klan one of its major tasks. The FBI had greatly expanded its presence in the South to help enforce the 1964 and 1965 civil rights acts. Hoover himself was trying to dissociate himself from some of COINTELPRO’s excesses (and from his deputy, William Sullivan, on whom he tried to blame the most controversial bureau activities).

But Hoover could not entirely repair the damage. By the time he recognized the magnitude of his blunder it was too late to escape the consequences. He had attempted to destroy Martin Luther King, Jr., confident that the public would come to share his contempt for the man; instead, King became a national hero, and Hoover’s assault on him became a national scandal. He had embarked on covert operations of dubious legality against black radicals and the New Left, confident that the nation would be as tolerant of his tactics now as it had been of his campaign against the Communists a decade earlier; instead, much of the public (and, more to the point, much of the political establishment) was beginning to rebel against abuses of government power, and Hoover became a popular symbol of the perceived threat to civil liberties.

Hoover displayed, in the end, enough flexibility to survive his mistakes. But he was never again to enjoy the popular adulation he had received throughout his previous career; and in his last days he relied increasingly on a much frailer political base: the far right, to whose members he always remained the luminous hero he had once been to the country at large.

Yet even in his final, embittered years, Hoover was still what Victor Navasky once called him, “the ultimate bureaucrat,”9 as his relationship to the last administration he served suggests. No president could have seemed more perfectly suited to Hoover’s purposes than Richard Nixon, whose career he had done so much to assist in the days of the Hiss case and with whom he had maintained a personal friendship ever since. But while Hoover never had the personal animus toward Nixon that he had felt toward the Kennedys, his relationship with the administration was tenser (and more dangerous to him) than any other of his career. The Nixon White House, like the Kennedy White House, was impatient with, contemptuous of, bureaucracy, “procedures,” and, increasingly, legalities. Hoover fought his last battles not over his conservative social values (which the Nixon administration shared) but in defense of his bureaucratic interests (which the White House came to threaten).

During the early 1970s, the administration began pressuring Hoover to bring the bureau into line behind its ambitious proposal to expand the government’s domestic surveillance efforts through extralegal means. This was the so-called Huston Plan, drafted by Tom Huston, a reckless and arrogant young White House aide. It was designed to use the resources of the CIA, the IRS, the FBI, and other agencies in a concerted drive to discredit the President’s political opponents. Hoover would have none of it. As always, he resisted anything that might weaken the FBI’s autonomy (which collaboration with other intelligence and law enforcement agencies threatened to do). But he realized, too, the political and legal dangers of the proposal and was determined to protect himself from it.

Power’s account of Hoover’s brilliant rear-guard campaign against the Huston Plan is one of the most interesting parts of his book. Weakened as Hoover was by 1971, he retained enough power and political skill to dislodge the chief FBI supporter of the plan, William Sullivan, from the bureau, to destroy the influence of Tom Huston in the White House, and ultimately to scuttle the plan itself. It was, indeed, Hoover’s unwillingness to cooperate that drove the administration to create its own covert operations outside the bureaucracy altogether (the “plumbers”). Hoover did not live to see the unfolding of the Watergate scandal. He died, suddenly, of a heart attack in May 1972. 10 But he would surely have taken comfort in his success at largely protecting the FBI, and himself, from the scandal.

John Ehrlichman, who served as Nixon’s liaison with the FBI during the director’s last years, described Hoover in his memoirs as a relic:

Hoover seemed to me like an old boxer who had taken too many punches. He stayed in the fight past his time, feebly counterpunching. But he had lost his judgment and vigor. He had become an embarrassment.11

In one sense, at least, Ehrlichman was right. Hoover remained until the end passionately and even blindly committed to preserving a world that had long since ceased to exist (if, indeed, it ever had): the safe, orderly; Victorian world he liked to remember from his own childhood. American society in the 1970s, with its new ideas about race and sex and personal behavior and with its new mistrust of government and bureaucracy, had left him baffled and bewildered. He spent much of his time in his last years railing impotently against changes he could not hope to prevent.

But in another sense, Hoover was not a relic at all. Because alongside his commitment to obsolete social values existed an even more powerful concern—one much more in keeping with the dominant trends of twentieth-century public life than the immediate goals of particular presidential administrations, even than the changing social values of the American public. For Hoover’s career, from beginning to end, is above all a story of the victory of the bureaucrat: the story of a permanent public official whose principal concern was expanding his own organizational empire and protecting it from the changing tides of partisan fortune. That pattern had less dramatic counterparts throughout the government, and it is perhaps more revealing of the real history of the modern state than the rise and fall of the political dreams of the moment. Hoover’s effort to preserve the vanished world of his youth was, as Powers’s excellent book makes clear, a failure; and in failing Hoover did much damage to the liberties of people whose vision of America was different from his own. But measured by his own most important goals—accumulating and retaining bureaucratic power—J. Edgar Hoover’s life was a brilliant triumph.

This Issue

April 23, 1987