Hoover Damned; Exposing the Ultimate G-Man - and Finding the Ultimate Bureaucrat

By Branch, Taylor | The Washington Monthly, October 1991 | Go to article overview

Hoover Damned; Exposing the Ultimate G-Man - and Finding the Ultimate Bureaucrat


Branch, Taylor, The Washington Monthly


Curt Gentry, best known as a writer for his coauthored account of the Charles Manson celebrity/cult murders, devoted 15 years' labor to take his place among the biographers of Hoover. His book is generally a pleasure to read. Its contributions to knowledge are many, especially for students of government, which is something of an irony considering Gentry has aimed his work more at popular melodrama. He has already signed with Francis Ford Coppola to turn the book into a cinematic mirror image of The Godfather.

It is no discredit to Gentry that the list of his fellow laborers is destined to grow no matter how this account is received. Hoover will remain arguably the most challenging and significant subject of American political biography of the twentieth century. Not only did the founding G-man span all eras between the Wobblies and Watergate, he also consistently shaped images that go deep into the national identity. Our reactions to the words "fingerprint" and "security" owe much to him, and even those who loathe Hoover cannot fully escape his influence on their perception of characters ranging from A1 Capone and Martin Luther King to Joe McCarthy and Lee Harvey Oswald. Hoover's role was smoothly hidden or glaringly public, somewhat as blood beneath skin can remain invisible or stream vividly to the surface. It seems all the more remarkable that one who tapped so consistently into the emotional substructure of national history was not a president or a media giant but a bureaucrat. Certainly, no other bureaucrat eclipsed presidents in national popularity nor left behind such a passionately contested legend. This makes him the supreme oddity. But perhaps future scholars will find it perfectly natural that Hoover's genius lay in the technobureaucratic world that makes his life, better than that of FDR or Reagan, distinguish our century from Abraham Lincoln's.

Middle-crass morality

In one respect, Gentry's portrait of Hoover is inferior to an earlier comprehensive biography by Richard Gid Powers (Secrecy and Power: The Life of J. Edgar Hoover). Powers fixes Hoover's early character in the values of turn-of-the-century Washington, a small town in which blue-collar families like that of Dickerson Hoover--a government platemaker, son of a government printer--looked to the federal bureaucracy cracy as an oasis of prestige and respectability. To escape into the middle class from the mud of the nineteenth century, the Hoovers needed to absorb the self-conscious morality best exemplified by the highchurch Sunday school and the marching Cadet Corps, where young Edgar excelled. As a minority struggling to gain ascendancy, the middle class considered itself mortally threatened by the drag of riff-raff below--the ex-slaves making their way up from the South, and even more so the millions of immigrants who did not speak English or go to a proper church. Protestant America took refuge in the temperance movement, the YMCA, and organizations celebrating Anglo lineage. In Washington, led by President Woodrow Wilson, it defended its turf by exclusion, vigorously segregating the civil service and social institutions by race, class, and culture. The disciplined virtues of the middle class became infused with a corrupting, compulsive need to define and seal off the alien others below. In his first job as a Justice Department clerk, J. Edgar Hoover threw himself into this crusade. Exuding scorn for the lazy plunder of the patronage bureaucrats around him, he outworked everybody in making lists of Russian-speaking immigrants, anarchists, pacifists, communists, and other deviants to be expunged from a decent America. Hoover's upbringing fit the times: He was born to lead a backlash of the upright.

The Powers biography is grounded in personal descriptions of young Hoover the Sunday school teacher, vaulting his way into the starchiest Presbyterian preserves, whereas Gentry introduces a more generic Victorian bureaucrat. …

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