The Cult of J. Edgar Hoover

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The cult of J. Edgar Hoover.

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J. Edgar Hoover, we’ve always assumed, became the most powerful unelected American of his time because he had the goods on everybody: the mistresses, financial shenanigans, and underworld connections of presidents who might fire him and legislators who might investigate him. Two new books about the longtime FBI chief make you realize that there was something else as well. Hoover’s half-century of immense influence rested on his mastery of a very American art—the crafting of his image.

In the Yale historian Beverly Gage’s lengthy and judicious G-Man: J. Edgar Hoover and the Making of the American Century, there are few facets of Hoover’s career that go unexplored. By contrast, Lerone A. Martin’s The Gospel of J. Edgar Hoover: How the FBI Aided and Abetted the Rise of White Christian Nationalism is more of a prosecutor’s brief. Martin, the director of the Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute at Stanford (a copublisher of King’s papers), focuses not just on Hoover’s notorious racism but also on his promotion of a distinct brand of conservative evangelicalism. Despite their differences, however, both books document the prodigious effort Hoover put into self-promotion. The FBI director would leave behind more than 200 boxes of press clippings.

Hoover grew up in a lower-middle-class world far removed from glamorous headlines. His father, after failing to make ends meet working in a shoe shop, became a printing foreman in a government agency but long struggled—at one point in an asylum—with what was then called “melancholia.” In response, the young J. Edgar became ferociously determined to succeed, working by day while getting his college and law degrees at night. He then immediately joined the Justice Department, and in 1919, at the remarkably young age of 24, he got his first big break: an appointment to head the department’s new Radical Division just as the nation was in the midst of its first Red Scare. Ignited by the revolution in Russia and labor militancy at home, this period saw public hysteria and government prosecution directed against anarchists, socialists, and communists—and Hoover was there to do his part.

An early sign of his eye for media coverage appeared in 1920, when Hoover invited half a dozen journalists along on one of the notorious Palmer Raids against radicals that he personally led. He was rewarded when a newspaper reported how the intrepid raiders raced over the snow-covered streets of Paterson, N.J., in “a large bobsled drawn by two fast steeds” to catch their dangerous quarry. Another part of skillful PR is knowing when to keep your name out of the papers, and one suspects Hoover’s agile hand as well in stories vilifying the groups targeted in the raids, such as a New York Times article based on information “from an official source in Washington.”

In 1924, Hoover got his next promotion, to the position he would hold for the rest of his life: chief of the Justice Department’s Bureau of Investigation (“Federal” would be added just over a decade later). Once a small, inconspicuous unit, the Bureau of Investigation had mushroomed dramatically during the Red Scare, and it would continue to grow with the rise of organized crime during Prohibition.

As Hoover settled into his new job, he became ever more zealous about winning himself and “the Bureau” royal treatment in the mass media of the 1930s and ’40s. One great gift, as Gage explains, turned out to be the Hays Code, which movie producers adopted in 1934 to fend off government censorship. Among other things, the code forbade the glamorization of gangsters, which meant, in effect, that “if American directors wanted to make movies about crime, the policemen now had to be the heroes.”

In the 1935 Warner Brothers film G-Men, one character says of his crime-fighting colleagues, “When they tackle a job, they stick to it till they’re finished, with no fat-faced politician standing around telling ‘em what to do.” A torrent of similar movies followed, with the increasingly influential Hoover ensuring that they glorified the FBI. A decade later, he even appeared briefly on-screen as himself, reading through papers at his desk in The House on 92nd Street, about the FBI’s cracking of a Nazi spy ring. The films kept coming, including The FBI Story, starring Jimmy Stewart. Hoover won the adulation he craved; movie directors, in return, received personal tours of FBI facilities and selected information from case files.

Hoover’s years in the spotlight spanned the Great Depression, World War II, and the tumultuous 1960s. In 1965, the TV series The FBI was born and would run for nearly a decade. Its star was Efrem Zimbalist Jr., who, before filming started, spent several weeks absorbing FBI culture at its training academy. “At Hoover’s direction,” Gage writes, “the show largely dispensed with women and romance.” Over time, he made other demands, “including the elimination of any portrayal of police brutality, wiretapping…and civil rights cases.” Hoover invited Zimbalist, a Goldwater Republican, to speak to some 750 bureau workers and their guests, who gave him a standing ovation after he voiced his “awe and admiration” for the FBI. For 40 minutes afterward, the actor signed autographs.

Martin’s The Gospel of J. Edgar Hoover explores a more neglected aspect of Hoover’s mastery of the media: its connection with religion. “His squadron of efficient Protestant and Catholic ghostwriters in the Crime Records Division [the name for the FBI’s huge public relations staff] pumped out material at an astonishing rate…. He was featured in Our Sunday Visitor, the nation’s most widely circulated Catholic weekly, as well as in the popular Sunday School Times. Nothing, however, surpassed the influence and prominence of Hoover’s presence in Christianity Today.”

That magazine, founded and overseen by Billy Graham, was the voice of conservative white evangelicals. To them, the ecumenically minded National Council of Churches, with its support of integration, was dangerously left-wing. By 1960, Christianity Today had a circulation upwards of 160,000—more than quadruple that of William F. Buckley’s National Review. Hoover—or rather the FBI wordsmiths who penned his articles, as well as the laudatory comments introducing them, supposedly from the magazine’s editors—wrote for the journal for years. Addressing the clergymen who were its main audience, he asked, “Have you, as a minister, preached any sermons describing the frightful challenge which communism poses for the spiritual heritage of America?” No one ever asked, it seems, whether suggesting sermon topics was a proper task for a nonpartisan civil servant. In Christianity Today’s pages, Hoover decried youth crime, the lack of faith, and more. The Campus Crusade for Christ reprinted portions of these articles, and daily newspapers ran other writings by Hoover. The director’s many friends in Congress—by the end of his life an astonishing 15 members were former FBI agents—inserted them in the Congressional Record.

Christianity Today’s imprimatur gave Hoover’s words more impact than if they had appeared in a press release, for it meant that the Crime Records Division could distribute well over 100,000 copies of his articles carrying both the FBI seal and the line “Reprinted from Christianity Today.” Large bundles went to the bureau’s field offices throughout the country, to US embassies around the world, to the many favored friends on Hoover’s “Special Correspondents List,” and to anyone who wrote in—one enthusiast in Garden Grove, Calif., requested 1,000 copies. Not only did all of this paint a halo of piety around Hoover’s image, Martin observes, but Christianity Today and its brand of evangelicalism received free promotion at taxpayer expense.

Hoover also mastered the art of cultivating reporters and feeding them scurrilous items about his enemies. And when any paper, large or small, reprinted a speech or article of his, he sent a thank-you letter acknowledging its contribution to the war on crime. The awed editor of the Shelbyville, Ky., Sentinel was thrilled to see his efforts appreciated by the figure he called the “Chief of America’s Heroic G-Men.”

Hoover lost no opportunity to shape how he was portrayed. An unlikely friendship with Morris Ernst, a onetime chief counsel for the ACLU, resulted in a chapter on Hoover in a memoir that Ernst wrote in 1945. Ernst sent it to Hoover for review; when Hoover had finished his edits, the chapter spoke of Ernst’s “increasing admiration” for him and concluded that any criticisms of the FBI director “do not stand up in the eyes of anyone desirous of looking at the complete record.”

Hoover also drew on his contacts to determine how stories were reported. When the FBI arrested a bumbling group of Nazi saboteurs put ashore by submarine during World War II, Hoover skillfully managed to take all the credit, even though it was the Coast Guard that had first spotted the men, and one of the saboteurs had lost his nerve, gone to the FBI, and confessed.

Another way Hoover won his glowing press was to turn even routine occasions into news events. For instance, there was usually a celebrity speaker at the FBI Academy’s graduation ceremony. One year, President Dwight Eisenhower appeared and was awarded an honorary gold badge. More than a decade later, President Richard Nixon went a step further and actually hosted the graduation in the White House.

Hoover’s PR operation conducted thousands of tours of the FBI’s headquarters: the basement shooting range (VIPs got to fire a tommy gun), the rooms holding the machine guns of John Dillinger and trophies of conquest from other gangsters; the vast rows of filing cabinets containing the secrets of dangerous subversives. The tours drew even more attention when the visitors themselves were newsworthy: Eleanor Roosevelt, the bandleader Guy Lombardo, the Detroit Tigers’ manager, and various movie stars.

The summit of Hoover’s conquest of the media was his 1958 book Masters of Deceit: The Story of Communism in America and How to Fight It. Yet another product of his busy ghostwriters, the book was syndicated in many newspapers and became a No. 1 best seller, which was all the more remarkable because by that point only a minuscule number of Americans were still enraptured by the USSR. Of the US Communist Party’s estimated 5,000 members, some 1,500 were FBI informants. Hoover “shared with the communists an interest in exaggerating their influence,” Gage observes.

The FBI itself gave the book its greatest push, mobilizing agents to extoll its virtues and hand out copies. Each field office was expected to contact local bookstores…. Those who did the best received bonuses and raises. On one occasion, [senior FBI official William] Sullivan traveled to Ohio to speak before the Citizens’ Committee of Cincinnati, a grassroots group invented by the local field office to impress Hoover. Sullivan arrived to find a fleet of trucks packed with copies of Masters of Deceit, with a free book promised to anyone who showed up for the event.

It was a publicity machine that lesser authors could only dream of.

Much of what’s included in G-Man and The Gospel of J. Edgar Hoover is already familiar: the story of Hoover’s long, bitter vendetta against Martin Luther King Jr., for example, including his bugging of King’s extramarital affairs, his leaks about them to journalists and politicians, and his sending the recordings to King himself, along with a threatening anonymous letter intended to provoke him to suicide. Gage correctly reminds us, however, that Hoover was no lone wolf here. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy signed off on the wiretapping, and the results of it were shared with President Lyndon Johnson, just as, earlier, top Eisenhower administration officials and key members of Congress knew about COINTELPRO, the bureau’s “counterintelligence program” intended to infiltrate and disrupt left-wing organizations.

Curiously, though, the otherwise thorough Gage omits one instance when Hoover forced a president to submit to his will. On the spurious grounds of alleged communist connections, he torpedoed Johnson’s plan to appoint to his cabinet the University of California president Clark Kerr—a story Seth Rosenfeld tells in his important 2012 book Subversives.

We’re all too familiar by now with Hoover’s lifelong racial prejudice. He called King a “burrhead” and declared in 1965 that “white citizens are primarily decent,” while “the colored people are quite ignorant, mostly uneducated, and I doubt they would seek an education if they had an opportunity.” When he came under pressure to remedy the FBI’s paucity of Black agents, Hoover sent his chauffeur to the training academy and made him an agent but kept him on as his driver and gardener.

Also known for decades is Hoover’s long relationship with his aide Clyde Tolson, a bond so public that it’s hardly fair to call Hoover closeted. The two men drove to work together, vacationed together, went to the Stork Club and racetracks together, and even double-dated with Richard and Patricia Nixon. On ceremonial occasions, Tolson was always one step behind or to the side of his boss, like a royal or presidential spouse. Hoover brought Tolson to his home to recuperate from various illnesses. Successive presidents granted each man an exemption from the rule requiring federal civil servants to retire at 70. Although they both developed trouble walking, they kept tottering to their offices at FBI headquarters even when Hoover was taking long afternoon naps and Tolson was blind in one eye and having speech and memory problems. What the couple may have done together in the privacy of a bedroom, we will never know. Quite possibly nothing—and all that sublimated sexual energy instead went into putting additional coats of polish on Hoover’s image as a bold crusader against gangsters, communists, and Black radicals.

Their relationship did not prevent the FBI, however, from pursuing homosexual government employees, who lost jobs by the hundreds in the “Lavender Scare” of the 1950s. Martin tells the chilling story of an FBI agent whose adult son had changed his name and become a gay rights activist. According to an internal memo, the agent told his superiors “that he hopes that he might continue to occasionally contact his son but if the Bureau desires, he will stop seeing him.” Even this was not enough; the man was censured, put on probation, and transferred away from Washington.

A revealing but largely unknown story about Hoover is mentioned in passing by Gage and elaborated on by Martin. It concerns Elder Lightfoot Solomon Michaux, an evangelist who became the first African American—and first minister of any race—to have his own TV show. Michaux’s politics were in line with Hoover’s: He preached a sermon, for example, in which he declared that Black Americans lagged behind the “intellectual culture of [their] White brother” by centuries and that slavery had been God’s way of introducing them to Christianity. But what Martin reveals is the extent to which the FBI was aware of Michaux’s extreme conservativism, rejoiced in it, and enlisted him in its vicious campaign against King. Early on, an agent identified Michaux as a “very vigorous exponent for race segregation. He believes everybody, White, Black, Yellow or Red has a definite place in life and that each should keep their place.” In 1950, Hoover sent Michaux a fan letter claiming that he watched him on television, and the next year a telegram: “Keep up the good work.” A half-dozen years later, when the civil rights movement was heating up, the FBI invited Michaux for a visit and told him, an agent reported, that “it might be necessary to call [you] into service.” Michaux said he would be ready “at any time.”

That time drew closer as the movement’s support soared after the 1963 March on Washington, where King gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. Hoover and his underlings were pleased when Michaux gave a radio sermon attacking King and insisting that civil rights legislation was useless because “God’s will must be done on this earth before you are made equal.” A year later, the FBI gave him a call.

In 1964, just two days after the bureau sent King the notorious poison-pen letter and recordings, Michaux met Hoover, apparently for the first time. Hoover shared his rage that King kept criticizing the FBI for its negligence on civil rights, with an aide noting that Michaux was “distressed to learn of…King’s false statements against the Director and…wanted to do something about the situation.”

Michaux returned for a second meeting with Hoover some two weeks later, where it was agreed that he would “issue to the wire services a public letter which he would write to King…and state that the Director and the FBI have been extremely effective in the Civil Rights Movement. He will also call upon Reverend King to issue a public apology to the Director so that Negro people may realize who their friends are.” Michaux delivered on his promise, condemning King for his “suspicious remarks” and demanding that he “aid the FBI.” He also quoted a Hoover speech and some statistics that the FBI had supplied him with and added a final flourish about how Americans needed to choose between “God and the Devil.”

A radio sermon on the same theme and another visit to FBI headquarters followed, along with several thank-you letters from Hoover. The following year, Michaux brought more than 100 of his parishioners to protest outside a Baltimore meeting of King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which was planning a voter registration drive in the South and a campaign supporting the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Echoing Hoover’s obsession, Michaux told reporters that King’s followers were riddled with “Communist infiltrators.” Already the object of outrage in the Black community, Michaux and his protesters were quietly watched over by agents from the FBI’s Baltimore office—the kind of protection that Hoover almost never extended to civil rights demonstrators.

After reading these books, it is hard not to picture Hoover’s FBI as a cult. Much like the followers of a highly demanding guru, FBI men—and for half a century, the agents were all men—understood their work as something more than just a job. It was a way of life, and the fewer connections you had outside that life, the better. Afraid that local ties might bias or distract them, Hoover did not post new agents to their hometowns or even their home states. Not surprisingly, bureau men largely ended up socializing with one another. Hoover created an FBI athletic league and also headed a Masonic lodge for Justice Department employees. Unlike priests, FBI agents could marry, but Hoover once fired an unmarried clerk when he learned that a woman had slept in the young man’s apartment for two nights.

As in most cults, the leader looked for certain kinds of people as his followers, and so some things gave you an inside track at the FBI, such as being a Mason, or an alumnus of Hoover’s alma mater, George Washington University, or a fraternity man there—especially a member of Kappa Alpha, whose chapter Hoover had headed. This fraternity was tight-knit, heavily Southern, and glorified the “Lost Cause” of the Confederacy; the Kappa Alpha motto was even etched into the ceiling of the Mississippi statehouse.

Something else that helped your FBI career was being ardently Christian. There were special vesper services for Protestant agents and their families, a regular FBI mass and communion breakfast for Catholics, and retreats (no families allowed) open to agents of any faith. The Presbyterian Hoover was widely but incorrectly believed to be Catholic because of his fondness for Jesuits, the order cofounded by the “soldier-saint” Ignatius of Loyola. Hoover told one group of Jesuit students that their spiritual practices were “analogous to the FBI’s approach to training.” The bureau’s twice-yearly weekend retreats—to which no Black agents were invited—were even held at a Jesuit center in Maryland with a high-ranking agent serving as “retreat captain.” Hoover’s books, autographed by the director, were in the center’s library; awards given by him were on the wall; and an engraved silver communion chalice, purchased with donations from FBI agents, was presented by him as well. Back in Washington, Catholic agents knew it was politic to worship at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle, which several senior FBI officials (including one who was Episcopalian) attended faithfully. According to Martin, one of them also reported on attendance to Hoover.

The cult of Hoover even extended to how its members dressed. The FBI director, Gage writes, “cultivated a particular type of man as his ideal agent: tall, white, conservative, athletic, always in a dark suit and spit-shined shoes.” Hats were required outdoors. Hoover once harshly reprimanded a field office manager for hiring a man whose lips were too “large” and “prominent.” FBI men had to meet exacting physical standards—even though their day-to-day duties didn’t usually involve physical labor. The bureau circulated a chart specifying “Desirable Weight Ranges for Males,” which depended on height and whether one had a “Small,” a “Medium,” or a “Large Frame.” Like boxers, agents forever worried if they would “make the weight,” especially since some offices had surprise “weigh-ins” between annual medical exams. Overweight agents were put on probation, given punitive transfers to remote locations, or fired. Exempted from these requirements was Hoover himself. Although he doesn’t say how long it was used, Martin quotes an astonishing oath that new FBI agents had to take as of 1937: “I shall, as a minister, seek to supply comfort, advice and aid to those who may be in need of such benefits; as a soldier, I shall wage vigorous warfare against the enemies of my country.” Hoover was imagining his followers as both a church and an army.

What does a cult gain its creator? When it is centered not in an isolated ashram but at the very heart of national power, it can turn an outsider into an insider. In the eyes of Washington’s elite, Hoover might have appeared to be an outsider: short, overweight, and possibly homosexual, the son of a low-level federal employee with a history of mental illness, and the graduate of a college far from the Ivy League. But commanding the FBI, molding its agents into his version of holy warriors, and demonizing as un-American Martin Luther King, student radicals, Communist Party members, and Black Americans all turned Hoover into the ultimate insider. Although investigations, the shattering of his reputation, and reforms of the FBI would soon follow, nothing symbolized Hoover’s acceptance by Washington insiders as much as the solemn ceremonies after his death, from a heart attack, at the age of 77. His body lay in state in the Capitol rotunda; Chief Justice Warren Burger and President Nixon delivered eulogies; and when an honor guard finally folded the American flag that had covered his coffin, it was presented to Clyde Tolson.

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