Secrecy and Power
A particular challenge faces a biographer whose subject is well remembered by many of his readers, especially when the subject became, in his final days, a virtual parody of himself. Such is the case with J. Edgar Hoover, the shaper and director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) for nearly half a century, a hero to the Right and a villain to the Left, a man whose personality and career reflect America’s profound ambivalence toward problems of law and order. It is greatly to the credit of Richard Gid Powers that he has re-created the context of American society and politics that allowed “The Director,” as he was commonly called, of a tiny agency in the government to become in some senses the most powerful man in the country, not just for years but for decades.
Though himself a master at creating and manipulating an idealized image of the FBI, Hoover in 1961 found himself at something of a disadvantage when John F. Kennedy became president. Born in 1895, he was then sixty-six years old, while Kennedy was only forty-three; when the young president announced that “the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans, born in this century,” the burly, glowering old man whose bulldog profile was so beloved by political cartoonists saw a new set of image-makers coming into power. Indeed, many of the Kennedy liberals expected Hoover to retire, to make room on the “new frontier,” but Hoover was not about to pass on any torches: As Powers explains, the old still had a mission to fulfill. The “new America” that had elected Kennedy was a nation nowunruly, strange, and contemptuous toward decent standards. As racial protest and cultural turmoil increased . . ., the contrast between the middle-class decency Hoover had preserved within the FBI and the rest of America became dramatically clear. . . . The idea of retiring into such a society seemed fearsome and abhorrent.
Besides,for all Kennedy’s brave words about New Frontiers, without forbearance from the right wing that idolized Hoover, the new president was not going to be able to govern the country. The day after the election, Kennedy decided to ask Hoover to stay.
Hoover was an appointed bureau head, subject at any time to dismissal by any of the eight presidents under whom he served. How did he stay in power so long? The devil theory of politics and personality, which Powers rejects, held that Hoover retained his authority by means of the famous secret files that he kept on countless public personages, including Eleanor Roosevelt and, most notoriously, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. A well-placed leak could destroy a reputation; it could even kill, as it did in the case of the actress Jean Seberg, who committed suicide after her links with a black revolutionary movement were exposed.
Hoover, however, did not have to operate in secret to be effective—far from it. He had a well-deserved and carefully crafted reputation for ruthless pursuit of his enemies, beginning with the anarchist Emma Goldman in the 1920’s, continuing with various “mad dog” criminals such as John Dillinger in the 1930’s, and reaching a triumphant crescendo in the 1940’s and 1950’s with the conviction of Alger Hiss and Julius and Ethel Rosenberg and the final rooting-out, as he saw it, of Communist influence in American society. His own influence began to peak with the hysterical witch-hunt led by Senator Joseph R. McCarthy in the early 1950’s and crested with the hearings of the House Un-American Activities Committee later in the decade.
Hoover could be personally vindictive and malicious, even toward associates and friends such as Melvin Purvis, whose fame threatened to exceed that of Hoover after his capture of Dillinger and who was hounded into obscurity and suicide. Pugnacious, stubborn, and totally dedicated to his work, Hoover was a formidable antagonist for any politician to tackle.
On only one front was Hoover vulnerable, and even that vulnerability may well have...
(The entire section is 1,854 words.)