Gabfest Reads: Rethinking J. Edgar Hoover

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Emily Bazelon: Hello and welcome to Gabfest reads for November 2022. I’m Emily Bazelon, one of the hosts of Slate’s Political Gabfest. I am here with great excitement with Beverly Gage, who is a professor of 20th century American history at Yale. She is previously the author of the book The Day Wall Street Exploded, which is about the history of terrorism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. And she is currently the author of G-man, a major new biography of J. Edgar Hoover that draws from never before seen sources to create a groundbreaking portrait of this man who dominated half a century of American history from the 1920s to the 1970s. And Bev is going to argue, planted the seeds for much of today’s conservative political landscape. Bev, thanks so much for joining us.

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Speaker 2: It’s great to be here.

Emily Bazelon: I should also mention that you are a dear friend of mine and I have been watching the development of this book with enormous excitement and pleasure for lo these many years. So the today’s taping is a special joy for me. So you’re writing the first major biography of J. Edgar Hoover in over a quarter century. Why did you pick him as your subject?

Speaker 2: When I first started to get to know him a little bit, which was when I was writing my first book, looking at radical politics and the history of terrorism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a couple of things struck me. One was that even then, and this was probably 15, 20 years ago, a lot of the literature that had been written about him was getting out of date. And then secondly, that I could see many of the ideas in him as a young man in, say, 1919 and 1920, which is the moment I was studying. That continued for the rest of his life. And so I was really struck by the scope of his career. He was head of the FBI for 48 years. And by some of the consistency in his ideas from that very early moment through all of these dramatic changes in the course of the 20th century.

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Emily Bazelon: Right. I mean, he proves to be this connective tissue, an important actor in everything from kind of the rise of the FBI as like an administrative entity that does crime fighting law and order America, the fight against communism, oppression of racial minorities, surveillance, more generally speaking. He had relationships with fully eight American presidents, four Democrats and four Republicans. There’s a kind of striking symmetry there. And, you know, we usually think of J. Edgar Hoover as a kind of frightening figure. He has come down to us, as you say, as a villain who used and abused the government’s power for his own ends or to maintain conservative control. So that is all in your book, but it’s not your only view of Hoover. What else is there to him that you think is important for us to know? What complicates the picture?

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Speaker 2: Yeah, you’re right that one of the appeals for me was that he had his fingers in everything for so long. So the book has kind of the great cases of the 1930s, the War on Crime, John Dillinger. It has World War Two, it has McCarthyism and anti-communism. It gets into absolutely everything that was happening in the 1960s, right. This incredibly fraught decade. And it is about every president from Calvin Coolidge through Richard Nixon. So quite a few of them over long periods of time. So that was part of the appeal of the book.

Speaker 2: But the puzzle that really came to be about Hoover and that is the kind of structuring force of the book, is that within that, he really represented two important political traditions, and one was the rise of kind of professional career oriented government service, right? The whole administrative state, the executive agencies, the hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people employed by the government. And he was a big believer in that. He was a big believer in nonpartisan government service and facts and objectivity. At the same time, he was this conservative crusader, particularly on anti-communism. He was a deep racist in many ways. He was a big promoter of a kind of conservative Christianity.

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Speaker 2: And so the trick is to kind of put these two things together, because in our own world, they don’t tend to go together very well. Right? You don’t have very many conservatives who are also big believers in the power of the state to do good for the American people. And Hoover put those things together sometimes in good ways, often in pretty terrible ways that I write about as well.

Speaker 2: As far as Hoover, the villain goes, right? This is our dominant image of him for sure, and rightly so. But one of the things that the book tries to remind everyone is that for most of his life, Hoover was not the. This kind of weird figure cowering in a back room, intimidating people and pulling strings. He was one of the most popular figures in American politics, and he had lots and lots of support from both Democrats and Republicans. So he didn’t just stay in office for those 48 years by strong arming everyone and scheming against them, though he definitely did plenty of that. He also had a real political base and therefore, I think tells us some really important things about our political history.

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Emily Bazelon: Right. I mean, you say that looking at him closely over these decades means also looking at what America was and who Americans were and what we were willing to both tolerate and refused to see. And then the marrying of the kind of support for the end building up of the federal administrative, state and conservative power. You know, now we think of conservatives as very suspicious of administrative authority of the deep state. And Hoover kind of was the deep state and created the deep state and got it to work for him. So tell us a little bit about who he was growing up and who he came to be. What secrets of his own or of his families was he hiding?

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Speaker 2: In some ways, he was really fated from birth, for better or worse, to become who he became. So he’s born in Washington in 1895, just a few steps away from the Capitol. And he lived his whole entire life in Washington. So this is a book that’s about Hoover, but it’s also about Washington. It’s about the government. It’s about the enormous transformation of Washington itself that happens over these years as it goes from being this kind of little backwater to being a sort of a global colossus, the center of American, and in many ways global power. But he’s born into this government, civil service family, which is pretty unusual in the 19th century because there weren’t that many people working for the federal government. And he kind of comes of age through, you know, the D.C. public schools. He tended to narrate his own childhood as being this kind of idyllic experience.

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Speaker 2: And so one of the things that was interesting in my own research is that I was able to uncover some really pretty shocking and painful events in his family that we hadn’t known about before few years, really well before his birth. One of his grandfathers committed suicide, drowned himself in the Anacostia River, apparently because he had lost all of his money. Know when Hoover was ten, his mother’s brother’s wife. So his his his aunt was actually murdered in a kind of scandalous murder that made the front page. So she tended to describe this idyllic childhood.

Speaker 2: I found lots of ways in which his childhood was much more difficult. Probably the most important was the mental illness of his father, who really suffered from depression and spent time in a sanitarium. But he came of age in this government tradition, you know, right in the thick of Washington. And I would say the other piece that was really fascinating to me, and I think not really known before this book was the importance of his college fraternity in shaping his outlook.

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Speaker 2: So he went to George Washington University local school, lived at home. That’s what a lot of GW students did then. But he joined this fraternity that was an explicitly Southern fraternity, had been created to honor the legacy of Robert E Lee. And by the time he was in, it was an explicitly segregationist, quite racist, quite romantic about the Southern Lost Cause fraternity at a moment when segregation is really taking firm hold in the United States. And so that was a very powerful moment for me to see those ideological forces shaping him. And then it turned out he took a lot of the first generation of FBI officials, both out of George Washington University and specifically out of this fraternity, Kappa Alpha.

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Emily Bazelon: Right. I mean, it helps make sense of his deep and abiding suspicion of racial minorities, in particular black people, that he kind of came up in that stew. He also is someone whose sexual life involved secret keeping. Right.

Emily Bazelon: Can you tell us a little bit about that?

Speaker 2: Would you say you’re writing a biography of J. Edgar Hoover? The first thing that people ask about is his sexuality. And in particular, did he really wear a dress? So there was a biography that came out in the early 1990s that had a description of Hoover at a kind of group sex event at the Plaza with Roy Cohn, who was another great villain of American history, in which one of the witnesses alleges that that Hoover was dressed as a woman. Calling himself Mary and having sexual encounters with several young men. So the woman who told that story, unfortunately, is a highly impeachable witness. Which is to say that she actually served time in prison for perjury, not related to this story, related to other things.

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Speaker 2: So, you know, it’s really very hard to know what to do with that story. But I think we can say by most standards, there’s not much evidence for that. What we do have a lot of evidence about is about Hoover’s relationship with the person who was clearly the most important figure in his romantic and personal life, which was Clyde Tolson, who was his second man at the FBI for most of the time that he was there. And, you know, his relationship with Tolson is interesting and tricky because on the one hand, both men certainly said that they were not gay. And by the forties and fifties, you could be fired from your government job if you were in fact found to be gay. And the FBI itself was in charge of a lot of that investigating and policing.

Speaker 2: Nonetheless, he and Tolson operated very openly as a kind of social couple. They went to clubs together. They traveled together. They went to each other’s family funerals and weddings. So they were really they never technically lived together, but they spent almost all of the rest of their lives together.

Speaker 2: And all of that is just incredibly well documented and is a way into thinking about this combination of of secrecy and openness that really characterized his sexuality. I think if he had been in another era, he might have been an openly, openly gay man. But it’s not how he behaved in most ways and it’s not how he described himself. And in fact, when he heard rumors that, you know, this person at a party said, oh, I hear this thing about Jim Hoover, he might be a queer, he might be a homosexual, he would actually send FBI agents to figure out who that was. Hunt them down, talk to them, say this is the most scurrilous thing I’ve ever heard and really intimidate them into silence.

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Emily Bazelon: We’re going to take a short break here, but we’ll be back with more from Beverly Gage right after we face the Bells.

Emily Bazelon: You tell a great story about triumph? Mostly, I think, in counter spying against the Soviet Union. This is a story that starts in 1949, goes to the early fifties. It changed my view of how I think of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who are famously executed for spying on behalf of the Soviets against the United States. And it also involves Kim Philby, who was the top British intelligence officer of that era. Tell us about Venona.

Speaker 2: Or image of Hoover as simply strong arming everyone and staying in power That way also elides the fact that often the FBI was doing a pretty good job about certain things. They were often pretty effective at solving high profile crimes. And in the case of the kind of war against communism, they did make some really significant breakthroughs when it came to.

Speaker 2: So the espionage. So the Venona project was something that started within the Army during the war, when they began capturing Soviet cables that were going back and forth from the United States and late in the war. And then immediately after the war, they began to decipher these cables and they thought maybe they were trade or industrial secrets. But it turns out that some significant proportion of them related to espionage.

Speaker 2: And so the Army came to the FBI and said, you’ve been conducting your own espionage investigations. If we put our minds together with what we’re figuring out here, what you already know from your files, maybe we can identify some so it spies that we didn’t know about. And for this period in the late forties and early fifties, Venona becomes this incredibly important project, especially for the FBI.

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Speaker 2: It is the way that they finally find Julius Rosenberg. They had no idea, no inkling that anyone named Julius Rosenberg was remotely involved in espionage. And there are several other cases in which one or two leads them to particular individuals that they would have had no other way of thinking about or identifying. The trick with the note is that because it was such a secret project and because they didn’t want the Soviets especially to know what they were decoding and not decoding, none of this was public at the time.

Speaker 2: So with a figure like Julius Rosenberg, you get a situation where the FBI is 100% certain that Julius Rosenberg is involved in atomic espionage. But in court and in the court of public opinion, they don’t want to present that information. And so they are trying all the time to find other ways to go after some of these figures. In Julius Rosenberg’s case, his brother in law ultimately flipped and testified against them. But then that became a kind of he said versus he said, a courtroom hearing, because we didn’t have this firm evidence. And then in some cases, other spies got off altogether because this was the evidence that they had, but they didn’t want to release it. And so many people that they identified as being involved in espionage just went about their lives and kind of walked three free.

Speaker 2: Kim Philby comes into the picture because he was an important figure in British intelligence. He is sent to the United States in the late 1940s as a liaison with the FBI. So learning all about Venona, all about lots of what the FBI is thinking. But as we all now know, Kim Philby turns out to have been also a very high placed Soviet spy. And so everything that he was learning in in the late forties and early fifties that he is in fact turning over to the Soviets. So it turns out that the Soviets knew at least something about the known all along. And so we have a very tricky scenario in which the FBI is keeping secrets. They’re keeping secrets. Julius Rosenberg is keeping secrets. And and yet everybody kind of knows, but a little bit, but not enough to to produce something totally, totally rational.

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Emily Bazelon: But it and it does seem like a story in which public perception was shaped by secrecy. So I always think of a big question about whether the Rosenbergs were guilty. And it seems like there was a lot of evidence against Julius Rosenberg. It just wasn’t publicly available. And then you make this interesting point that from Philby’s point of view, it was surprising that the Soviets didn’t extract the Rosenbergs because they knew enough to know that the Rosenbergs were in danger. And that also kind of changes how one thinks about them a little bit.

Speaker 2: Right. The Rosenbergs are both a fascinating and a really sad story. So for those who don’t know the full story, I mean, this was the spy case of the. Early 1950s, and it was one of these cases that really divided people. The left rallied around the Rosenbergs as innocent people, as in particular Jews who were being accused of disloyalty and even treason due to their ethnic background due to their left wing affiliations. And so you had a massive movement not only in the United States, but around the world championing the Rosenbergs innocence. And then, of course, there were many, many people, including the FBI, maintained that the Rosenbergs were guilty. But it’s one of these real fissures in American society.

Speaker 2: And I think part of the tragedy is that, you know, what the FBI was saying was, trust us, we have evidence. We just can’t share it with you. But what that produced was not only a lot of this division, but a lot of mistrust, actually precisely the opposite of what they were they were hoping for and asking for, because often that’s what secrecy does.

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Speaker 2: And of course, the real tragedy of the Rosenberg case is that both Julius and his wife, Ethel, were were then executed, put to death. The FBI hoped the whole time that they would talk. They even sent a team up to the prison where the Rosenbergs were about to be executed in the hopes that they would, in fact, talk and and turn on on the Soviet Union, their communist allies. But they did not. They chose to remain silent and go to their death. And I think the conventional wisdom now, which seems right, is that, you know, Julius was a bona fide spy, but Ethel Rosenberg was much more tangentially involved and had things really had the full information been there, she might not have been executed.

Emily Bazelon: Hoover is properly remembered as this conservative titan and often villain. And yet you write about how in the 1950s and sixties he was busy unleashing the FBI surveillance powers against the White Citizens Councils in the South and the Ku Klux Klan. So why was he doing that? What was happening at that time that made him want to take those steps?

Speaker 2: Yeah, they’re really fascinating moments. Like everyone, you know, I kind of came to the study of Hoover, primarily thinking of him for his attacks on the left. Right. And those were those were a big, big theme of his career. But one of the pieces that was most fascinating to me was to see moments where he was either acting as a kind of civil libertarian, a check on the worst excesses of people we might think of as his allies. So, for instance, during the McCarthy years, many people thought that Hoover was the responsible alternative to Joseph McCarthy. Lots of liberals rallied around Hoover because they thought, you know, at least here is someone who is a little more law bound, less inclined to sort of lie or make demagogic statements. And it might actually help us to rein in someone like Joe McCarthy.

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Speaker 2: And you see these moments around around race and civil rights, too. So we famously know and there’s lots of this in the book that the FBI conducted incredibly small, invasive, disruptive and sometimes illegal action against all sorts of civil rights organizations. But during the same period he was doing that, he was also investigating lynchings in the South. He was conducting investigations, as you said, into the White Citizens Councils. He was targeting neo-Nazi groups, the Ku Klux Klan, etc..

Speaker 2: And the way that I came to understand that is that he sort of considered himself to be policing what the legitimate boundaries of American politics, of American political participation was. And he ruled out that swaths of people on the left, but he also ruled out groups on the right that were inclined toward violence and that were also inclined toward a kind of overt defiance of federal law.

Speaker 2: A lot of the civil rights story is about federal laws that can’t be enforced very well in the South. And he had a lot of, you know, contempt for Southern police officers who wouldn’t enforce the law for the kinds of violence that’s being inflicted. And for people who said, like the whole massive resistance campaign of the White South after Brown, that we’re going to defy Supreme Court orders, we’re going to defy federal law. He, as a law man, actually had very little patience for that.

Emily Bazelon: So you see that if Hoover had stepped down in 1959, he would be remembered in some ways as cruel and controversial, but also as a kind of American hero. Instead, he stayed for the 1960s, and this is when he becomes what you say is one of the most universally reviled American figures of the 20th century.

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Emily Bazelon: Tell us about Hoover’s relationship with Martin Luther King, which I think is at the very center of this part of his legacy. How did Hoover see KING And how did that factor into the civil rights movements, development and then the investigation of King’s murder.

Speaker 2: Thinking about King? Sort of evolved gradually. We tend to think of a moment in the mid sixties when he’s really obsessed with Martin Luther King, and that is absolutely true. But early on in the fifties, in the wake of the Montgomery bus boycott, in many ways, his first introduction to King was through accusations that several people who were close to King were members and secret members of the Communist Party. So he kind of comes to King in this roundabout way. There’s a lot of evidence that, in fact, the two people that the FBI was really focused on were in fact pretty seriously involved in communist politics. There’s some overlap between their Communist Party activities and their involvement with King, which at the height of the Cold War, you know, Hoover is not the only person who was alarmed or suspicious about those relationships.

Speaker 2: But very quickly then by the early sixties, those investigations evolve into a much more aggressive and much more disturbing set of investigations of and then attacks on King. Hoover gets mad at King, first of all, because King is critical of the way that the FBI is conducting civil rights investigations. And anyone who criticizes the FBI immediately goes on Hoover’s enemies list of a sort. And then as as they began to investigate King, they began to discover some of his sexual secrets. They were planting bugs in his hotel rooms. They were wiretapping his phones. And in that context, began to learn about his extramarital sexual activities.

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Speaker 2: I think Hoover was both outraged that a minister of the cloth was. Engaged in such activities and also saw this test as a kind of new weapon to go after KING And they engage in lots of attempts to publicize this. They threatened King himself. There was an infamous anonymous letter that they sent to him, along with recordings from his hotel rooms, urging him, at the very least, to get out of political life. King interpreted it as an urging to to actually kill himself.

Speaker 2: And all of this is happening in the context of Hoover’s pre-established worldview, which looks at anyone who’s engaged in civil rights politics, certainly who is engaged in nonviolent civil disobedience, who is engaged to the movements of the left as being suspicious anyway. So it’s a combination of very particular things, very broad kind of racist ideas. And then the intersection between the two of those really just became combustible in King’s case.

Emily Bazelon: And is the investigation into King’s murder part of why we remember Hoover in this controversial way, or is this a moment where the FBI is really grappling with the the limitations of, you know, being responsible for this investigation, but also, you know, having to deal with southern police forces? And these are, you know, not entirely developed techniques of law enforcement.

Speaker 2: Yeah, well, when King was assassinated in 1968, a lot of this enmity between Hoover and King, or at least of Hoover toward King, had become public. It was pretty widely known. We didn’t know about the worst of it, really, for really secret operations, the wiretaps and the bugs that were being deployed against King for threats, etc.. But it was certainly no secret to anyone that Hoover disapproved of, despised and was going after Martin Luther King.

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Speaker 2: So when King was assassinated, this meant that the FBI had really a huge problem on its hands. On some level, he wouldn’t necessarily need it to be a federal investigation. But murder in and of itself is not necessarily a violation of federal law. It could have been handled in some scenario by both local and state authorities. But Lyndon Johnson very quickly, says, Edgar, you’ve got to do this. We’ve got to take charge of this.

Speaker 2: And so what ends up happening is that in part because the FBI so worried about being criticized for not doing enough for its history of enmity toward King, they launched the biggest investigation in their history. And the story of tracking down James Earl Ray is really an incredibly dramatic story and uses practically every part of the FBI’s bureaucracy, knowing that in the end, they do, of course, track down Ray, bring him back to the United States, turn him over to the local authorities. But so was a sort of paradoxical thing.

Speaker 2: And even then, many people said, well, you helped to create the climate that made this assassination possible. And I think that that’s true. It also helped to produce what are still in circulation today, which are, of course, a lot of suspicions about that investigation, a lot of conspiracy theories, a lot of sense that Hoover’s FBI couldn’t actually be trusted to carry out that kind of investigation.

Emily Bazelon: Hoover is such a distinctive figure, given the length of his service and the incredible power he had, that it’s in some ways hard to imagine anything like that happening again. And so I am uncertain how to think about this. But what are the lessons that you would draw from his dominance and the role that he played? Are there kind of warning signs for American politics and American government here? And are there any sort of positive threads that you could pull from his story as well?

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Speaker 2: Yeah, well, I think the big lesson is don’t do that again, As you say, don’t put one guy in charge of your most powerful law enforcement and domestic intelligence service for half a century. That was a bad idea. But you’re right that it wouldn’t happen again. I don’t think it could happen again, certainly not in the same way. And in some sense, Hoover just had the luck of history on his side. He happened to be there in the twenties developing all sorts of administrative skills in this tiny, tiny little organization. And then when the government blew up, I mean, expanded, then he was just there to kind of ride that wave. And there weren’t a lot of controls on either the institution or on a figure like that. So we’re not going to see Hoover. In the same way.

Speaker 2: But I think there are all sorts of lessons about secrecy and its perils in a democracy, Right. How do we want to think about the role of an institution like the FBI in in our own day, going after maybe organizations on the right that are being accused of violence and extremist beliefs? Right. That is something that we actually need to think through very carefully, because a lot of the techniques that are used in one instance can then be deployed for all sorts of other political purposes.

Speaker 2: So I think we have lessons about secrecy and the need to really think seriously about the limits of federal power in many ways. One of the pieces that I took away from Hoover, if we’re going to draw any positive lessons, is that he understood very well from a very early point that the work of government wasn’t actually self-evident to people, that if you wanted to have a successful institution, one that had a lot of popular support, which the FBI did, even at his lowest points, it was incredibly popular institution and at his finest points he had something like a 98% approval. Right. Just incredible. But part of that was because he deliberately set about to kind of show people that the FBI was an institution that was working on their behalf.

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Speaker 2: Now, sometimes that was through propaganda. Sometimes, obviously, he wasn’t telling the whole story, But he did have a really profound sense that being even in the administrative state, you were in a kind of dynamic relationship with the citizenry. And if you wanted people support, you were going to have to show them what you were doing. You were going to have to kind of sell the work of government for people to rally around it.

Emily Bazelon: Congratulations on this important book, this monumental achievement of authorship. Beverly Gage, author of G-man J. Edgar Hoover and the Making of the American Century. Thanks so much for coming on. Gabfest reads.

Speaker 2: Thanks. This was lots of fun.

Emily Bazelon: That’s it for this month’s edition of Gabfest, Greece. Our producer is Diana Ross. Ben Richmond is senior director of operations at podcasts. Alicia montgomery is vice president of Audio at Slate. We’ll be back next month with John’s conversation with Gautam Mukunda on his book, Picking Presidents. Until then, all three of us will be back in your feed on Thursday with a new episode of the Slate Political Gabfest for Beverly Gage. I’m Emily Bazelon. Thanks so much for joining us.