Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar brings humanity to its subject, depicting a tortured love relationship between J. Edgar Hoover and Clyde Tolson, his second-in-command at the FBI. When it comes to politics, though, the film reverts to stereotype. According to J. Edgar, Hoover remained in power for forty-eight years primarily because he “had the files” on his political enemies. In this well-worn view, Hoover was a lone operator, manipulating American politics from a shady perch in his artfully darkened back room.
There is some truth to this, as generations of communists, New Leftists and Congress members can attest. Hoover collected political intelligence and knew how to use it. But the key to his longevity is far more complicated, and more disturbing for American democracy. Hoover held office for forty-eight years not simply because he gathered secrets but because large swaths of the public—including some of Washington’s most revered liberals—supported him, funded him and cheered him on.
From today’s vantage point, it can be hard to recall just how popular Hoover once was, and how thoroughly his support spanned the Washington political spectrum. As Eastwood notes, the roots of that influence lay in his early years as Bureau of Investigation director in the 1920s (“Federal” was added in the ’30s), when he set about reshaping the bureau from a scandal-ridden backwater into a respectable government agency. It was the New Deal, however, that gave Hoover his first serious taste of power. Contrary to J. Edgar’s plodding depiction, the Lindbergh kidnapping was not the great turning point of Hoover’s career. He won his most rousing accolades as a New Deal gangster-buster, the scourge of John Dillinger, Baby Face Nelson and other famed 1930s criminals. Those manhunts transformed the obscure bureaucrat into the man most Americans came to know: a bona fide swashbuckling Government Man, representative of an empowered federal government.
Over the next decade, Hoover took advantage of his G-man image, pouring out reams of speeches and columns testifying to the superior crime-fighting abilities of the FBI. The media eagerly parroted this grand narrative, depicting an epic struggle for law and order. A few farsighted critics questioned this story even in the ’30s, warning that Hoover was a “dangerous fascistic type of man” who posed a grave threat to American democracy.
One person who did not subscribe to this view, however, was Franklin Roosevelt, the most important president in Hoover’s career. Beginning in the mid-’30s, Roosevelt quietly encouraged Hoover to conduct surveillance of domestic fascists and communists. In 1939, with the outbreak of World War II in Europe, the president expanded the FBI’s jurisdiction to include all cases of domestic sabotage, espionage and subversion. Based on J. Edgar, one would think he made this decision solely because Hoover had the goods on Roosevelt’s wife, Eleanor. The truth is that Roosevelt also recognized Hoover’s talents and popularity. The century’s greatest liberal president deliberately empowered one of its most influential conservatives.
In most standard accounts, Hoover’s career began to turn sour after the war, first with his vicious attacks on homegrown communists, later with his illegal Cointelpro campaign against civil rights and New Left activists. J. Edgar pays special attention to Hoover’s surveillance of Martin Luther King Jr., including the infamous hotel room audiotapes that Hoover peddled to the press as evidence of King’s “degenerate sexual urges.”
What this story leaves out is the equally disturbing fact that much of Hoover’s campaign against King was conducted right out in the open, and with the support of millions of Americans. In 1964, during a speech to female reporters, Hoover denounced King as “the most notorious liar in the country,” warning that the civil rights leader was a danger to the national way of life. In a poll conducted a few months later, fully 50 percent of Americans sided with Hoover. Only 16 percent supported King.
Today, those sympathies have been reversed: we have Hoover the villain and King the saint. But this enlightenment should not obscure the darker parts of our history. The belief that Hoover maintained power only because Americans didn’t know what he was doing is little more than a comforting myth.