In the mid-1950s, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover was one of the most admired Americans, right up there with Ike, Walt Disney, and Billy Graham. The top G-man was at the peak of his popularity. But by the mid-1960s, in the midst of antiwar and civil rights protests, he had become one of our most divisive public figures, reviled by civil liberties liberals while still esteemed by law-and-order conservatives.
From the outset, Yale historian Beverly Gage’s new biography bats down any caricatures a reader might bring to it. She observes that Hoover joined the Justice Department in 1917, amid the Progressive Era, filled with a vision of apolitical, “scientific” law enforcement. Yet he also lugged the baggage of his racism (his college fraternity at George Washington University was a bastion of the South’s “Lost Cause”) and a narrow perspective that all leftists, no matter how law-abiding, were subversives.
“G-Man,” the product of Gage’s immersion in FBI archives and other sources, is a tome, more than 700 pages of text in small print, but one that is, thankfully, very readable. Rather than piling on unnecessary detail, Gage, a New Yorker contributor, supplies just enough context for understanding the enormous changes in American society and politics during Hoover’s long tenure. (He died, in 1972, still on the job.)
Washington, D.C., was Hoover’s home from birth onward. His father was a low-level civil servant whose chronic depression eventually left him institutionalized. The boy seemed determined to achieve where his father had failed. A high school valedictorian, he attended law school at GW, an institution that later became a primary recruiting ground for FBI agents, including Clyde Tolson, his lifelong companion and deputy bureau chief.
Gage’s analysis is stuffed with many surprises. Among them:
Hoover initially tried to avoid using the FBI to enforce Prohibition.
In the early years, FBI agents, who were mostly lawyers and accountants, did not carry guns; they were dragged into their role as feared “G-Men” only after bank robbery and kidnapping became federal crimes in the ‘30s.
FDR and LBJ, two liberal icons of the 20th century, were central to Hoover’s consolidation of power; Eisenhower and Nixon only took up where they left off.
Hoover opposed the World War II detention of Japanese-Americans as illegal.
In the ‘50s, he quietly undermined Senator Joseph McCarthy’s rants about Communists in government because he considered them reckless, over-the-top threats to FBI preeminence in the anti-Communism crusade.
Hoover, relying on the secret Venona transcripts of intercepted KGB messages, knew that the Rosenbergs were in fact Soviet spies, and that Stanley Levinson, a key aide of Martin Luther King Jr., was an undercover member of the Communist Party. (Unlike earlier biographers, Gage bases the latter assertion on new revelations in FBI archives.) Wanting to conceal this American counterespionage coup, however, he declined to make it public.
Hoover’s relations with the NAACP and other civil rights groups were schizophrenic, since he wiretapped and harassed both them and the Klan — a conundrum created by his two-fold belief in law and order on the one hand and racist hierarchy on the other.
Ironically, President Nixon set up his infamous “Plumbers” unit (a covert White House special investigations unit whose bungled burglary led to Watergate) after Hoover refused to spy on Democrats for him. On the other hand, Hoover obliged LBJ by spying on the upstart Mississippi Freedom Democratic party at the 1964 Democratic National Convention.
Hoover was named FBI director in 1924. Within the bureau, he demanded unswerving loyalty. By the mid-’30s, he had become a force without parallel in the federal government. He knew so many secrets that no one could intimidate him. Even if your closeted skeletons were minor, you never knew what Hoover might have against you.
All this while living a secret life. Or was it?
Rumors about Hoover’s sexuality were constant. He never dated women or pretended interest in marriage. Although he lived in his boyhood home with his mother until her death in 1938, Tolson was constantly at his side. They showed up together at nightclubs and theaters and racetracks. Hostesses knew to invite not only the director but his “close friend.”
Apparently, there was another such friend before Tolson. Melvin Purvis, a handsome southerner 10 years Hoover’s junior, rose faster in the FBI ranks than was warranted, according to his managers. Hoover made him a protégé nonetheless. The letters between the two from Purvis’s estate indicate a fond relationship that went well beyond the professional.
It is here that we are allowed to see Hoover’s softer side. In these teasing messages, Gage writes, he was “by turns funny, tender, solicitous and flirtatious.” Years later, a married Purvis took his own life. Afterward, his widow confided to Hoover, “Until the end, I think he loved you.”
Hoover was a Machiavellian, to be sure, but Gage reminds us that he needed enablers. He could not have amassed so much power without a wink and nod from presidents to do their dirty work. In such a feedback system, though, Hoover was ever ready to wield any presidential misstep against them. Hence, for example, JFK’s reluctance to push back against an FBI aware of his infidelities.
“G-Man” is more about Hoover the institution-builder than the private man — not surprising, given his workaholic habits and closeted homosexuality. Gage’s triumph is her deft navigation through Hoover’s “deep state,” while reminding us of the abuse of power that remains his enduring legacy.
G-MAN: J. Edgar Hoover and the Making of the American Century
By Beverly Gage
Viking, 864 pp., $45
Dan Cryer is author of the biography “Being Alive and Having to Die: The Spiritual Odyssey of Forrest Church” and the memoir “Forgetting My Mother: A Blues from the Heartland.”