G-Men, Hoover's FBI in American Popular Culture

By Richard Gid Powers; Daniel M. Finnegan | Go to book overview

7
The FBI Formula and John Dillinger:
A Case Study of Bureaucratic Heroism

J. Edgar Hoover used Courtney Ryley Cooper's formula to turn his entire bureau into the collective hero of the great public enemies cases of 1933 and 1934: Machine Gun Kelly, Pretty Boy Floyd, Baby Face Nelson, and, above all, John Dillinger. These cases gave Hoover a unique historical opportunity to turn himself and his men into pop culture legends. While Hoover was not responsible for the country's fascination with celebrity criminals during the depression, and while he had not played the leading role in turning the anticrime movement into a ritual of national unity, he was imaginative enough to realize that Hollywood had given him a once-in-a-lifetime chance to turn his obscure agency into a major cultural force; and with the help of Courtney Ryley Cooper, he developed a strategy for accomplishing this feat. To bring this about Hoover had to overcome American popular culture's habit of looking for individual action heroes in the great gangster cases; then he had to find a way for the entire bureau to share the country's gratitude for the national pride the victories over the public enemies had stimulated.

Hoover used Cooper's FBI formula to reshape public opinion to suit his ends, and he worked hard to persuade (or force) the news media and the entertainment industry to use his formula when they wrote stories based on the public enemies cases. With the entertainment industry Hoover's success was less than complete, but with the mass media his command of the FBI files (and briefing rooms) let him succeed in forcing newsmen to adopt the FBI formula, since that was the treatment most likely to lead to more choice FBI tidbits later on. Hoover worked throughout his life trying to make sure news stories about his bureau reflected the FBI public relations line. His greatest success was in the biggest FBI adventure of them all: the John Dillinger story.

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