No federal bureaucrat played a bigger role in 20th-century law enforcement than J. Edgar Hoover (1895–1972), who served as the head of the FBI and its predecessor agency for half a century.
Hoover oversaw crackdowns on everything from real and imagined communists in the first Red Scare of the 1920s and its sequel in the 1950s; staged high-profile shootouts with "public enemies" like John Dillinger and Babyface Nelson in the 1930s; surveilled Nazi and Axis sympathizers during World War II; infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan in the 1960s; and pursued extralegal operations against civil rights leaders and antiwar protesters in the 1960s.
His personal vendetta against Martin Luther King, Jr. led to one of the most shameful incidents in FBI history, when the bureau sent an anonymous letter to King shortly before he was to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, encouraging him to commit suicide or be exposed as a serial philanderer.
Hoover is the subject of Yale historian Beverly Gage's new biography, G-Man: J. Edgar Hoover and the Making of the American Century. Gage seeks to complicate and flesh out the life and legacy of Hoover, who is rightly notorious for often brushing aside constitutional limits on state power like so much police tape at a crime site. Yet she points out that he opposed the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, undermined Sen. Joe McCarthy's overwrought anti-communist witch hunts, and refused to do political surveillance for Richard Nixon, inadvertently leading to the bungled Watergate break-ins and the 37th president's fall from grace.
Gage tells Reason that to understand Hoover in all his complexity—including his much-whispered-about personal relationship with his FBI colleague Clyde Tolson—is to understand the moral ambiguities of the country he served, as well as the promise and limits of constitutional government in an open society.