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Beverly Gage on the Campbell Conversations

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Beverly Gage
Beverly Gage

On this week's episode of the Campbell Conversations, Grant Reeher speaks with Beverly Gage. The Yale University History Professor has recently written a definitive biography of J. Edgar Hoover called, "G-Man: J. Edgar Hoover and the Making of the American Century."

Program transcript:

Grant Reeher: Welcome to the Campbell Conversations, I'm Grant Reeher. My guest today is Yale University history professor Beverly Gage, who has recently written a definitive biography of J. Edgar Hoover titled, “G-Man: J. Edgar Hoover and the Making of the American Century”. The book recently won the prestigious Bancroft Prize. Professor Gage is also the author of, “The Day Wall Street Exploded: The History of Terrorism in the late 19th and Early 20th Centuries ” (book title: The Day Wall Street Exploded: A Story of America in its First Age of Terror). She writes regularly for such outlets as The New Yorker, The Washington Post and The New York Times Magazine. Professor Gage, welcome to the program.

Beverly Gage: Great to be here.

GR: Well, congratulations on the Bancroft Prize, that's incredible. So we're doubly excited to have you on the program. Let me start at the beginning with J. Edgar Hoover and your book. How did Hoover grow up and get into government service?

BG: Hoover was in many ways fated to go into the government because he was born in Washington, D.C., he died in Washington. D.C. and most of this book really is a story about Washington. So he came from a family that already was sort of immersed in government service, which was pretty unusual in the late 19th century. And he grew up just a few blocks from Capitol Hill, went through the Washington public school system, at that point a segregated public school system, made his way to George Washington University, did not leave for college, and then moved straight into the Justice Department when he finished up there so was in the government by 1917.

GR: And so he goes into the Justice Department, how does he rise up in government and grow the Bureau of Investigation in the Justice Department into the professional FBI that we know today? Because it certainly didn't start that way.

BG: Yeah, it was sort of an accident of history that he happened to graduate in 1917 which was the moment that the United States was entering World War One and he could have gone into military service. He had been a cadet in high school so he had some experience there. But instead he went into the Justice Department which was expanding very rapidly, had a whole set of new wartime duties from surveillance to draft enforcement that honestly they didn't really know how to handle. And they were very eager for, you know, energetic young lawyers to come in and help them out, and so that was Hoover. His first job there was doing German internment and registration, which is something that we have mostly forgotten about but was very important at the time. And so he happened to be there just as these programs were getting underway. Questions about surveillance, who's dangerous, who's not dangerous, who's a citizen, who's not a threat, all of that he kind of learns from the ground up. He turns out to be very good at it and gets a big promotion when he's just 24 years old to run something called the Radical Division of the Bureau of Investigation, which was a sort of peacetime experiment in surveillance, mainly of left wing radicals. And he proves to be so good at that that he gets a series of other rapid promotions so that by the age of 29, he becomes the head of this little unit known as the Bureau of Investigation.

GR: And from there on, I guess it's history, as you related in your book. You know, one of the things that that struck me was almost every single person that has commented on your book in the media, at least that I can find focuses on J. Edgar Hoover being a man of contradictions, and the fact that a lot of those contradictions matched the contradictions of the nation. And obviously, that's one of the themes of your book. I just wonder if you could just talk a little bit about that.

BG: One of my goals with the book really was to present a more complicated picture of Hoover than we usually get, certainly in popular culture, where at this point he's almost universally depicted as this kind of back room villain, scheming against everyone, sort of the worst man of the 20th century. And there are certain elements of that that are definitely true. This is not a book that's seeking to redeem him, but, the Hoover that I saw as a historian was both more complicated than that and also more important than that. And one of the things that I wanted to do was really to take him from being this figure who sort of sat at the margins, intimidated, strong-armed everyone into doing what he wanted, really back into the center of the story. Because the fact is, for most of Hoover's life and for most of his career, he was incredibly popular. He was very widely supported by both Democrats and Republicans. And so I think this move to make him a pure villain is also a way kind of letting everyone else off the hook of saying, you know, if only we had known the terrible things that Edgar Hoover was doing, surely we would have stopped that. But the fact is, most of who he was, most of what he was doing was pretty well known in terms of the politics, the great contradiction of the book. And I think in many ways the contradiction of the country during this period is that he was a true believer in a sort of progressive, liberal vision of federal power, of nonpartisan career government service. He's part of this explosion in the size of the federal government, and then on the other hand, he's a pretty deep and consistent conservative his whole life. So there are, certainly on race and religion and law and order and anti-communism, the big cause of his life. He's very consistent and there is a lot of continuity there. And so the trick of Hoover is how did he put together, you know, these ideas, liberal-progressive ideas about federal power and then this deep conservative ideology. And that's sort of the trick of his of his career and it's how he built the FBI.

GR: And I'm certainly old enough to remember when Hoover was still popular. And, you know, lived through the, I guess, Hoover revisionism, if you will, that you alluded to. There's another piece of the contradiction too I think that, and I wonder whether you'd agree with this. First of all, my supposition is that when Hoover has been discussed in recent years, there is just an enormous amount of attention placed on his sexuality. And of course, that's part of the contradiction as well, because he had his own situation, his own life. But then what he did with the FBI in those regards, I wonder if you could speak a little bit to that.

BG: Hoover's own personal life was quite distinctive, even for his era, in the sense that the primary relationship of his life, his social partner, the person that he was closest to, was another man and was the number two man at the FBI, a guy named Clyde Tolson. And so in trying to sort of piece out what that relationship was, what it meant, there are certain elements of it that are very easy to establish, right? The fact that they traveled together, they had friends together, they signed Christmas cards together, they went to dinner parties and Broadway shows together and family funerals. All of that is this kind of deep spousal relationship. Neither one of them dated women. It's a little harder to get at the question of whether this was also a sexual relationship. Of course, they themselves would have insisted that it was not. And as you say, Hoover and Tolson were really instrumental in purging the federal government of other gay people during the forties, fifties and sixties, when it was, in fact, federal policy that you could not be homosexual, you could not hold a federal job. So trying to put all of those pieces together was challenging as a biographer. There were rumors and gossip and talk throughout Hoover's lifetime about this relationship, about his sexuality. And he actually would send FBI agents out to talk to you, to chastise you if he overheard, or it got back to him that at some social event you had raised some question about the director's sexuality. You might really get an FBI agent knocking on your door saying, you never want to say such scurrilous, terrible things about J. Edgar Hoover, the finest, most upstanding American we have ever known, you know, that sort of thing. So there's a lot there. But I think contradiction is a good word. Other people would say hypocrisy as well.

GR: You're listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media. I'm Grant Reeher, and we're speaking with Beverly Gage, a professor of history at Yale University and the author of, “G-Man J. Edgar Hoover and the Making of the American Century”. Both Hoover and Senator Joseph McCarthy were also staunch anti-communists, but they had a complicated relationship. Tell us a little bit about that.

BG: I was really fascinated by the relationship between Hoover and Joe McCarthy, in part because I think in most people's minds and honestly in my mind going into this, they were sort of the same, right? These two towering anti-communist figures who were really passionate, who saw communism everywhere. But when you really look at the history, they're seen very differently in their moment. And they have a kind of conflicted relationship with each other. So they were friends, they did share this outlook and they sometimes shared information as well. On the other hand, Hoover really did see McCarthy as a loose cannon, a demagogue, someone who lied, who also endangered the FBI and the anti-communist cause because he would go out and say things like, you know, I'm making this wild charge about someone and if we can just open up the FBI files, you'll see that it's all true in there! Hoover did not want to open up the FBI files to the public or pretty much to anyone. And so they have a pretty conflicted relationship in the end. Hoover really sides with the Eisenhower administration, which turns against McCarthy, helps to get McCarthy censured and sort of forced him out of political life. And Hoover benefits from that. He becomes seen as the responsible kind of state based, limit based, great anti-communist. And he in the very era that Joe McCarthy is being censured, is one of the most popular public servants in all of the United States.

GR: Well, I wanted to ask you a few questions that get out assessing Hoover's impact in his life. And in order to do that, I was going to draw on some of the reviews and the praise that your book has earned. Before I do that, though, I want to just start right with the title of your book, “J. Edgar Hoover and the Making of the American Century”. When we hear the phrase the American century, I think anyway, we tend to think of the rise of the United States as a world superpower. It's decisive impact on World War Two, the post economic boom in the United States, and obviously the Cold War. And then maybe even also the breakup of the Soviet Union as kind of the crowning piece of that. How was Hoover an integral piece of all those things? How was he connected to the making of the American century?

BG: Well, for better or worse, he had his hands in pretty much everything that you've mentioned. But, you know, on the one hand, the American century is just sort of shorthand for the 20th century. And, you know, the big fact of Hoover's life is that he was head of the FBI from 1924 to 1972, 48 years in that job and just this vast period of time. So that's one thing that I wanted to indicate was just this incredible sweep of his life. And during this period that is really critical for all of the reasons that you described, when the federal government begins to take off, when Washington itself becomes a center not only of national power, but of global power. And Hoover is right in the thick of all of those things. And then I think as well, though, his jurisdiction was mainly domestic policing and domestic intelligence. The struggle over communism and anti-communism, which I really see as the big structuring question of the 20th century, something that touched every part of American politics, you know that was Hoover's cause, that was what he cared about. That was what he put a lot of time and energy toward, both in terms of very narrow investigations of Soviet espionage and then in terms of this kind of grand existential struggle, of these grand statements of what America was, what it was supposed to be, what its role in in global history was, was going to be.

GR: You're listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media. I'm Grant Reeher and I'm talking with Beverly Gage, a Yale history professor, is the author of, “G-Man: J. Edgar Hoover and the Making of the American Century” and we've been discussing her book. The book just won the Bancroft Prize. James Comey, former FBI director, of course, in writing praise for your book called Hoover the 20th century’s most powerful American. That's a pretty bold claim, it seems to me. Would you go along with Comey on that? Is he indeed the most powerful man of the century in America?

BG: Sure, I wrote a biography of him, so I’ll go with that (laughter). He's certainly one of the most powerful men and I think there are a couple of ways to think about what that term means. The first is just his longevity in office. So he was there for eight different presidents. He was there from Calvin Coolidge to Richard Nixon. So that's Coolidge. Herbert Hoover, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and all the way up to Nixon. And so in that sense, he's there longer with more power than lots of people who we think of as being, you know, the most powerful people, right? They came and went and Hoover stayed. So there's that element. And then I think the second piece is that he really got his power from areas that we don't think about as much. We tend to think about the presidency or Congress or elections or political parties. But his power came through the administrative state, through the security state. So he was an appointed official, never elected to anything, who nonetheless was able to influence almost everything in American political life during those years. So that's a pretty amazing story in its own right. And then there are lots of instances where, you know, presidents want him to do things. Often he was pretty accommodating about that and sometimes he just said no. So he was powerful enough to say no to many presidents. When Richard Nixon wants to sort of ease him out of office toward the end of his life, Hoover says, no, I don't think that's a good idea. Nixon says, oh, okay, well, you know, stay on then.

GR: When I was thinking about the notion of Hoover, being the most powerful man in America, I was thinking about different metrics of power. And one of the ones that occurred to me was fear. And I thought, you know, probably more Americans feared J. Edgar Hoover maybe than anybody else. And the longevity would be a piece of that. Someone else who was praising your book, obviously among many, is the historian and New Yorker staff writer Jill Lepore. And she just asked this simple question, what hath Hoover wrought? And says you've answered that question better than anyone else. So what do you think Hoover wrought?

BG: Well, I think there are a couple of ways to answer that question. One is that he wrought the FBI and I think that institution is still very much the institution that Hoover created. Both in the sorts of work that it does, criminal law enforcement, but also domestic intelligence and counter espionage, those all came together under Hoover. And then in its combination of kind of pride in being an elite professional service and also a pretty conservative internal culture. A lot of that comes out of Hoover's years as well. You know, more broadly, I would say that Hoover was one of the chief forces in the 20th century in really containing, surveilling, disrupting a lot of organizations on the American left and a lot of social movements, ranging, you know, from the Communist Party, which was really a big focus of his energies to much more broad and wide ranging movements. The Civil Rights movement, the antiwar movement, student activists. You know, and I think Hoover saw himself as someone who was there to police the limits of legitimacy, to police the limits of American democracy. And I think that he did that. And a lot of our history would be very different if the FBI had made different choices.

GR: Well, perhaps in that vein, I have a more personal question to ask you as a historian and a writer. There were some pretty dark elements of Hoover's impact on America, and I guess his personality in pursuing those things. You know, you talked about the surveillance in the 1960s, and you obviously got very deep into this man's life. And in a sense, I imagine you spent a lot of time kind of living Hoover if it were. Were there times in the writing where this was difficult for you or, maybe where you were too much inside the Hoover way for your own good?

BG: There were some early drafts of some chapters where the main comment that I got back from friends and colleagues was, you know, step a little bit outside, you've gotten too deep into J. Edgar Hoover's mind, and then you're narrating things a little bit too much from his perspective, which I think is the hazard of any biographer. I hope that the, you know, the final versions of those chapters don't do that so much. Yeah, there are some really dark materials in t here, but there is some really cruel material in there, particularly in his treatment of political activists that were under surveillance and had disruptive measures aimed at them, figures like Martin Luther King. I should say overall, I think I came to this knowing the really dark stories about Hoover, or at least the outlines of them. And so often what surprised me most were his more redemptive moments, his more insightful moments. Those I saw a few more of that I had necessarily expected to see.

GR: If you've just joined us, you're listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media and my guest is Yale History professor and author Beverly Gage. That's exactly what I wanted to ask you next. When you mentioned what you were surprised by were the redemptive moments, I was going to ask you what did most surprise you? Because you come in knowing a lot about him and when you got into this work, when did you just, were you ever just gobsmacked? You know, oh, I had no idea.

BG: Sure. There were many times that I was gobsmacked. Some of that was, you know, being excited about being able to look at new records for the first time, records that hadn't been available to previous biographers. So I really love the new material that we have about various espionage and anti-communist measures that the FBI took, some of which were very effective, but all of which are fascinating, whether they were effective or outrageous or not. And I would say the other place that I really found myself drawn in two different directions was on questions of race and civil rights. On the one hand, I was able to do sort of a deep dive into Hoover's early life and find some sources of his racial ideology and his racism, like his college fraternity organization called Kappa Alpha. And then, on the other hand, in later years, there were, of course, moments when he's going very aggressively after the civil rights movement, but also moments when he's doing things like conducting anti-lynching investigations or doing pretty serious work to dismantle the Ku Klux Klan. And so there too, it was a matter of trying to piece these various enterprises and ideas together.

GR: Do you think that if we look at today's FBI, I mean, I know you're a historian, but looking at today's FBI are there Hoover-esque aspects of it or has the FBI completely turned a page?

BG: Well, I think a lot of the basic structure and culture of the FBI still bears Hoover's stamp. Now, obviously, the FBI is a very different institution than it was under Hoover, who ruled it with such an iron hand for so long. There are more mechanisms of accountability in Congress. We have the Freedom of Information Act so we know a little bit more about what's going on. We've limited the term of the FBI director. But, you know, I think a lot of the dilemmas that Hoover faced are actually things that we're still seeing play out. For instance, the FBI is supposed to be a nonpartisan, apolitical fact finding agency, and yet it's constantly being drawn into these highly politicized, very difficult to negotiate investigations in Washington and elsewhere. We certainly saw that during the Trump years, we're seeing that with January 6th and Hoover faced that all the time. Now, sometimes he managed it well, sometimes he didn't manage it so well. But I think those really fundamental dilemmas are quite similar throughout time.

GR: And now the organization is apparently going to be an object of those political investigations. We've got just about 3 minutes left or so. But I want to try to squeeze in a couple more questions if I can. And this one is kind of a writer's question. Long books aren't the fashion anymore. I mean, even in history, they've gotten shorter, I think. How did you get Viking to publish a book that runs to over 800 pages and has small type? It's a real tome.

BG: And 130 photographs.

GR: (laughter) Yes, right.

BG: They were always very supportive. I think everyone understood because Hoover lived for so long, had his fingers in so many things. This was going to be a big, long book. And so Viking was always pretty supportive of that. I think the type is maybe a little small for some people's taste to get it all in there. But it's been really heartening actually to see that the world does still have a place for this book. I worked on it for more than a decade. There were many times in that process where I thought, oh my gosh, we live in a world of, you know, Twitter and short attention spans, and why am I spending all of my time on this? And does the world, you know, care about 800 page books, does anyone want to read them? And the answer turns out to be yes, I am happy to report. So that's been a really heartening part of this process.

GR: One of my favorite books as an undergraduate student was, “The Power Broker” by Robert Caro, which is which might even exceed yours.

BG: It is longer than this book, it is longer.

GR: So what's your bottom line assessment of Hoover then? If you had to make it? I mean, is the United States better off for Hoover or is it worse off for Hoover?

BG: I would come down on the side of worse off, which is, I think, you know, sort of a set of assumptions that I went in with. But my conclusion is that he also is much more complicated than many people would think. You know, I say worse off because I think the damage that he did to many, many law abiding people who were simply engaged in, you know, efforts at social change, that was pretty serious. That really curtailed some pretty important movements and caused I think, quite a lot of suffering. But Hoover was also, you know, a person of a certain kind of integrity, particularly his ability to build the FBI as this kind of professional, elite organization. And, you know, despite his illegal activities, despite his excesses, abuses of power, the long list of things that we could add there, he also was someone who observed certain limits. You can certainly imagine a worse FBI director, someone who really took the power that was given to the mid-century security state. And did even worse things with it.

GR: That was Beverly Gage. Again, her book is titled, “G-Man: J. Edgar Hoover and the Making of the American Century”, I highly recommend it. You don't have to take my word for it, it's won one of the very highest awards that any book and certainly a book in history can win, the Bancroft Prize. Professor Gage, thanks so much for taking the time to talk with me and congratulations on this.

BG: Thanks. I had a lot of fun.

GR: Great. You've been listening to The Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media, conversations in the public interest.

Grant Reeher is Director of the Campbell Public Affairs Institute and a professor of political science at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. He is also creator, host and program director of “The Campbell Conversations” on WRVO, a weekly regional public affairs program featuring extended in-depth interviews with regional and national writers, politicians, activists, public officials, and business professionals.