Man Most Feared


The Boss: J. Edgar Hoover and the Great American Inquisition, by Athan G. Theoharis and John Stuart Cox, Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 489 pages, $27.95

"In framing a government that is administered by men over men," wrote James Madison, "the great difficulty lies in this: You must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place, oblige it to control itself." The difficulty was greater than he imagined. For all the care the framers of the Constitution took to constrain the federal government, it has shown great energy and ingenuity in scaling those walls—as in the case of J. Edgar Hoover.

Hoover is best remembered today for his secret investigations of dissident groups during the Vietnam War era, but Athan Theoharis and John Stuart Cox show that his abuses of individual rights began four decades earlier. Trampling on constitutional freedoms is the consistent theme of his service in government, starting with a $1,200-a-year intelligence clerkship in 1917. He soon was working in the alien registration section, which had the job of deporting alien political radicals. When World War I ended, he became a special assistant to Atty. Gen. A. Mitchell Palmer—playing a key role in the mass arrests of left-wing immigrants that would live in infamy as the "Palmer raids."

In 1924, Atty. Gen. Harlan Fiske Stone named Hoover head of the department's Bureau of Investigation, later to be known as the FBI. The wonder is that the appointment was made by an attorney general who declared that "a secret police may become a menace to free government…because it carries with it the possibility of abuses of power which are not always easily apprehended or understood." Then as later, Hoover proved highly adept at ingratiating himself with those he needed.

Despite his Republican ties, he survived the ascent of a Democratic president in 1933. In the following years he engineered a dramatic enlargement of the bureau and established his reputation as a master crime fighter—dubbed "the most feared man the underworld has ever known." The reputation was not entirely baseless: Hoover is generally given credit for professionalizing the bureau, consolidating and expanding its fingerprint files, and compiling huge mounds of crime data. But it was about three parts hype to one part substance.

World War II provided a matchless opportunity for Hoover to expand the reach and size of the bureau, which increased its number of agents more than fivefold in five years. In 1940, Franklin Roosevelt signed a secret order allowing wiretapping of anyone suspected of "subversive" activities—despite a 1934 ban on wiretapping of any kind. Hoover also got approval to compile a list of people who might warrant "custodial detention" at some point. When a new attorney general ordered an end to such investigations, Hoover continued them secretly, as subsequent revelations showed.

This constant monitoring of the politically suspect became one of his obsessions. "Beginning in 1941," write Theoharis and Cox, "virtually every American radical group active in the 1940s and thereafter was the target of an FBI tap, bug, or both. More specifically, virtually every left-of-center civil rights organization and labor union was tapped and bugged." The agency also frequently burglarized the offices of such organizations.

In the years following World War II, Hoover performed diligent service to the Red Scare, providing information to the House Un-American Activities Committee and Sen. Joseph McCarthy. In the 1960s, he tried to discredit Martin Luther King, Jr., by leaking information gathered from illegal wiretaps and bugs. When opposition to the Vietnam War escalated, the agency turned to monitoring and harassing the New Left.

The recurring question is how Hoover managed to get away with so much. One answer is that his policies often had wide public support. The anticommunist fevers of the 1940s and '50s were not limited to the upper reaches of government. Martin Luther King may be revered today, but he evoked anger and anxiety in most Americans during the civil rights era.

Hoover also knew how to serve the political needs of his superiors, who found his information too useful to question its source. On the matter of bugging rooms to gather information, say Theoharis and Cox, Hoover had a free hand because no one wanted to shackle him. Several attorneys general, including Robert Kennedy, refused "to exercise their authority and to insist on being fully informed about the FBI's practices. Aware of the legal questions posed by resort to this technique, these attorneys general preferred being uninformed.…The Director, in turn, welcomed this indefinite waiver of accountability and, in time, came to regard it as his right." Among the tasks Hoover handled at Richard Nixon's request was reporting on the alleged homosexual tendencies of some Washington reporters.

Hoover managed to deter scrutiny from Capitol Hill by amassing reams of embarrassing information about members of Congress. One Agent recalled that when one senator was picked up drunk with a woman who was not his wife, the FBI let him know the next day that it had all the incriminating information. Hoover's reputation for snooping was enough to intimidate most members.

Finally, on the occasions when his superiors tried to control him, Hoover found ways to foil them. One was simply to keep doing what he had been ordered not to do—and keep it secret. Many records were kept in the Orwellian "Do Not File" files, which were omitted from the FBI's records and maintained confidentially in an assistant director's office. Since they were not categorized as "files" by Hoover, he could deny keeping any such files. And it was almost impossible for anyone to expose the lie. By the time Hoover died in 1972, the agency had dossiers—official and unofficial—on 25 million people.

The Boss is not the definitive biography of Hoover. Though exhaustively researched, it is written in a heavy-handed, polemical fashion that offers no real insight into the director's character. The authors' amateurish psychoanalysis almost implies that Hoover was homosexual, while piously denying any such suggestion. The connections they draw between his personality and his policies rarely rise above the absurdly speculative. For example: "To a young man of no sexual experience and fanatical loyalty to a late Victorian code of honor, [Emma] Goldman must have appeared a witch and a whore all wrapped up in one."

Opinions like that, unlike the evaluations of Hoover's professional life, are severely lacking in evidence. Trying to explain the psychological origins of Hoover's beliefs and behavior is obviously beyond the authors' competence. It is also unnecessary. When they stick to the facts, their indictment of Hoover is powerful enough. By sifting through the mass of material about his record in office, Theoharis and Cox have been able to document a lifelong effort, largely successful, to advance personal and institutional power at the expense of individual rights. In his determination to protect the American way of life, Hoover did his best to eradicate the features that make it worth preserving.

Stephen Chapman is a syndicated columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.