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Biography traces public support for J. Edgar Hoover in most of his 48 years in power

F.B.I. director J. Edgar Hoover is seen in his Washington office, 1936. (AP Photo)
F.B.I. director J. Edgar Hoover is seen in his Washington office, 1936. (AP Photo)

For nearly half a century, J. Edgar Hoover presided over the FBI with an iron fist.

His career began with a wave of anti-communist raids in 1919. It ended during the presidency of his friend Richard Nixon.

The modern public image of Hoover conjures an old man in a dark room, listening to wiretaps and marking up secret documents. But a new biography explores how presidents, members of Congress and even a significant percentage of the American people understood much of what Hoover was doing, and approved of it, until almost the end of his life.

Beverly Gage, a professor of American history at Yale University, spent 13 years writing and researching G-Man: J. Edgar Hoover and the making of the American Century.

She spoke with NPR. Below are excerpts from that conversation.

Hoover's Racial Ideology

"One of the most fascinating subjects that I was able to get into in the book was Hoover's college fraternity, which was this organization called Kappa Alpha [Order]. It had been known that he liked his college fraternity and that he had become president of the college chapter at George Washington University. But what I found ... is that it was this deeply reactionary Southern fraternity. It was a segregationist Southern fraternity. Thomas Dixon, who wrote the book The Clansman that became the basis for The Birth of a Nation, was one of its most influential figures. Lots of Southern Democrats around D.C. were part of this racist Southern fraternity that Hoover joined. ... And then it was fascinating to watch the ways in which he took a young generation of men who were steeped in this racist, segregationist ideology and made them some of the first generation of FBI officials."

An uneasy relationship with politics

"One of the most egregious moments of any president kind of asking the FBI to do things that were fundamentally political rather than related to criminal investigation or national security was this moment in 1964 where Lyndon Johnson, who was about to get the Democratic nomination for the presidency, was very worried that civil rights activists were going to disrupt the Democratic National Convention. So he went to his old friend Hoover, and they had been neighbors on 30th Place in Washington, so they knew each other very well. And he went to his old friend Hoover and said, 'Surely you can send some fellows over to keep an eye on things.' And so at the Democratic Convention, they were wiretapping and bugging and infiltrating civil rights activists who were really simply trying to find a way for Black people to have a say in what was happening in Democratic politics."

Hoover's wiretapping of Martin Luther King Jr.

"The FBI today uses the King case and the example of what Hoover's bureau did to Martin Luther King as kind of its great cautionary tale. And there's lots that's good about that. But I think it's also important to remember and one of the things that my book really tries to emphasize is that that's kind of easy for us to say ... we think of Hoover as a great villain and King as a great saint. And so we have this great morality tale. But if you look back to 1964, '65, really the peak of the FBI's efforts against King, the moment that Hoover comes out and calls King 'the most notorious liar in the country.' If you look at what public opinion polls said in that moment, 50% of the public sided with Hoover in that controversy. Just 16% said that King was on the right side and that a lot of people said they didn't know what to think. So it's easy to make these judgments now. It was much more complicated and I think tells a much darker tale about American history, if you look back to the history itself."

What followed Hoover's tenure

"One of the things that happened very quickly, toward the end of Hoover's life and then after his death, was that Congress very rightly jumped in to put a whole new set of constraints on the FBI that weren't there during Hoover's lifetime. He had almost no mechanisms of accountability. So the congressional committees that now oversee intelligence operations, none of that existed. And perhaps most importantly, the FBI director is now limited to a 10-year term, and that is in direct response to this colossal career of J. Edgar Hoover's. And I think if we can take one very simple lesson out of that, it's that you probably don't want a single individual in a position with that kind of power for half a century."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.