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A biography that may change your mind about J. Edgar Hoover – WP Review

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On Oct. 7, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson’s longtime aide Walter Jenkins walked into the YMCA near the White House after a party at the Newsweek magazine office and had sex in the bathroom with a homeless Army veteran. The vice squad arrested Jenkins, booked him and released him. A week later, the story made headlines on the eve of the presidential election that pitted Johnson against Republican Barry Goldwater. By then, a near-suicidal Jenkins had checked into George Washington University Hospital and the Republicans were “punching hard,” writes Beverly Gage in “G-Man,” her masterful account of the life and controversial career of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. The Goldwater campaign demanded to know if Jenkins’s conduct had compromised national security. Forced to act, Johnson ordered Hoover, his old friend and onetime neighbor, to investigate the scandal. Hoover was annoyed. This was politics, and for decades he had tried to insulate the FBI from partisan politics. But he did what he was told to do by his president.

It turned out that Jenkins, the father of six children, had been arrested in the same bathroom five years earlier. Johnson was astonished that Jenkins could have hidden his proclivities. Hoover was not. He thought such temptations were commonplace. Four days into the investigation he told Johnson that Jenkins had been under enormous stress and required medical attention. The FBI chief had already sent a bouquet of flowers to Jenkins’s hospital room. Attached was a sympathy card wishing him a speedy recovery. “With less than two weeks to go before the election,” Gage writes, “Hoover issued a report absolving Jenkins of any national security violations,” and on Election Day, Johnson rolled to victory in one of the nation’s biggest presidential landslides.

In Gage’s biography, Hoover emerges as a strangely tortured man who wielded power within the Justice Department for an astonishing 48 years. His response to Jenkins revealed a softer side and, Gage explains, raised an “innuendo that Hoover might have more in common with Jenkins than he wished to acknowledge.” In a memo, Hoover wrote that he liked Jenkins and felt sorry for him. “It is a pitiful case,” he observed, “and I think it is time for people to follow the admonition of the Bible about persons throwing the first stone and that none are without sin.”

Hoover’s story illustrates the unique power of biography to enter the life of another human being. The genre can provoke a rare response: It can persuade one to change one’s mind. This magical leap can happen when a good biographer is able to seduce the reader into understanding another soul. “G-Man” is Gage’s first biography, and she turns out to be a marvelous biographer.

After reading Gage, I have changed my mind about Hoover. He is not the caricature villain I thought I knew when I came of age in the turbulent 1960s. Hoover was a man of profound contradictions. While he had enough empathy to send flowers to Jenkins, he also orchestrated the FBI’s notorious COINTELPRO intelligence operations against civil rights leaders and antiwar activists, wiretapped Martin Luther King Jr. and many other private citizens, and enabled the rise of a deeply racist conservative movement that is still poisoning the American body politic. Gage provides proof that Hoover was no rogue elephant, acting entirely on his own. Instead, we learn that Hoover invariably did what he did with the full knowledge of the men he served in the White House and Congress. It was President Franklin Roosevelt who first authorized Hoover to use wiretaps to collect domestic political intelligence. And Hoover regularly briefed the White House and Congress on COINTELPRO.

No loose cannon, Hoover was actually the consummate cautious bureaucrat, the keeper of the files — really more of an uptight, puritanical librarian. Indeed, his first job out of college and law school was at the Library of Congress, where his mentor Herbert Putnam taught him the power and magic of the library’s catalogue of 50,000 index cards. According to Gage, Hoover used his skills as a librarian to become a master politician, managing to ingratiate himself through eight presidential administrations.

Gage is a professor of 20th-century American history and the Brady-Johnson professor of grand strategy at Yale University. Last year, she resigned as director of Yale’s Grand Strategy program when a donor tried to influence its curriculum. Her first book was “The Day Wall Street Exploded: A Story of America in Its First Age of Terror,” about the 1920 dynamite attack on Wall Street that killed 38 people. It was published in 2009, and ever since then Gage has been working on Hoover.

Scholars have long anticipated this volume, the first new biography of Hoover in nearly 30 years. Back in the 1950s, Fred Cook wrote a series of investigative pieces attacking the FBI, and in 1964 he published “The FBI Nobody Knows.” But the first real biography did not come out until 1987, when Richard Gid Powers published “Secrecy and Power.” This was followed a year later by Athan Theoharis’s “The Boss.” Both were very good pieces of scholarship but were less than full biographies. In 1991, Curt Gentry came out with “J. Edgar Hoover,” another muckraking account of Hoover’s career. And then in 1993, the British author Anthony Summers published “Official and Confidential,” a colorful biography that made headlines with its thinly sourced accounts of Hoover’s alleged cross-dressing at a private party in New York.

Gage’s biography now becomes the definitive work, not only because it is deeply biographical about the man but also because the author was able to tap into such previously classified sources as the records of Operation Solo, the Venona intercepts of Soviet cable traffic, Hoover’s office logs and appointment books, and most important, the reprocessed version of Hoover’s “Official and Confidential File.” This new material is simply stunning, and Gage uses it to write a highly nuanced — sometimes even sympathetic — account of the man. Hoover was a racist who spent much of his career trying to break the Ku Klux Klan. He believed that bringing Southern lynch mobs to justice would shore up faith in federal power. By the 1940s, he had become the “darling of the New Deal establishment,” Gage writes. While Hoover hounded American communists, the leftist journalist I.F. Stone conceded that he used his power to face down Joe McCarthy. Hoover thought of Richard Nixon as a personal friend and political soul mate, but he hated John Birchers and Second Amendment absolutists.

Hoover was complicated — and never more so than in his personal life. Gage is brilliant in showing us who the man was without using any labels. He was a dedicated “bachelor” who had no use for women. Drawing on “an extraordinary cache of letters,” Gage shows Hoover “by turns funny, tender, solicitous, and flirtatious” in his correspondence with a young FBI agent, Melvin Purvis. By the mid-1930s, he had transferred his affections to Clyde Tolson, who became Hoover’s associate director. “Where Hoover went, Tolson went too,” writes Gage. “Not only to the office, but to the nightclub and the racetrack, on vacations and out for weeknight dinners, to family events and White House receptions. They were in essence a couple.” Gage does not pretend to be in their bedroom, but by the end of his life, when Hoover became the nursemaid to an ailing Tolson, there was no doubt of the enduring love between these two men. The biographer has succeeded in humanizing the public image of the coldhearted secret police chief.

And yet, the biographer is also relentless in her judgments. She has to be. After all, Hoover did many deplorable things. On Jan. 6, 1964, FBI agents installed a wiretap in a room occupied by Martin Luther King Jr. at Washington’s Willard Hotel. They were searching for evidence against the “clerical fraud and Marxist,” as the FBI’s domestic intelligence chief, William Sullivan, put it in a memo. And they apparently got it. Gage does not have the tapes; those are under court-ordered seal until 2027. But she quotes from a written summary of the recordings, first obtained by the historian David Garrow. A sex orgy is described, involving King and a dozen other people. A Baptist minister is reportedly heard raping a woman. Gage reports that Hoover predicted that the Willard tapes would “destroy” King and used a racial epithet that, she observes, says “far more about Hoover’s own moral failings than about King’s.”

Hoover undertook the wiretapping with the full knowledge of the White House; both Johnson and Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy had authorized the electronic surveillance. On Jan. 14, 1964, Hoover sent a veteran agent, Cartha “Deke” DeLoach, to brief the White House. Johnson’s aide, Jenkins, read the FBI memo on the Willard tapes “word for word” and described King’s behavior as “repulsive.” Jenkins suggested that the news should be leaked to the press — but not before LBJ passed his landmark civil rights bill. Hoover, of course, obliged, and later that year he told a roomful of reporters, “I consider King to be the most notorious liar in the country.”

“G-Man” is a very sad story. Hoover’s highest ideal was the nonpartisan public servant, dedicated to burnishing the notion that the federal government was a force for good. And yet by the ’60s, Gage shows, Hoover’s reactionary instincts prevailed, and his actions helped to sow distrust of the federal government from both the right and the left. In the end, he was a “confused, sometimes lonely man.” Gage concludes, “We cannot know our own story without understanding his, in all its high aspiration and terrible cruelty, and in its many human contradictions.”

This book is an enduring, formidable accomplishment, a monument to the power of biography.

Kai Bird is a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and director of the Leon Levy Center for Biography. He is working on a biography of Roy Cohn.

J. Edgar Hoover and the Making of the American Century

Viking. 837 pp. $40

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