Given the FBI’s history of insinuating itself into presidential campaigns, this latest October surprise shouldn’t have been any surprise at all.
As early as 1919, Woodrow Wilson’s attorney general, the progressive A. Mitchell Palmer, deployed bureau agents in an eponymous operation to round up and deport alleged radical immigrants. The Palmer Raids were ostensibly a response to a series of bombings, but it became apparent that Palmer had had something more in mind when he threw his hat into the ring for the 1920 Democratic presidential nomination and ran on a proto-Trumpian agenda of “undiluted Americanism.” Palmer didn’t get past the first ballot, however, and ultimately the raids’ most lasting impact was Palmer’s decision to have his young assistant administer the arrests. The official, whose own youthful ambition earned him the nickname “Speed,” was 24-year-old J. Edgar Hoover.
Following the Teapot Dome scandal, the seemingly incorruptible Hoover was appointed to head the bureau. If money didn’t tempt Hoover, power did. While he managed to survive the Coolidge and Hoover administrations, Roosevelt nearly brought Hoover’s career to a premature halt. After his election, FDR announced that Montana Senator Thomas J. Walsh, a fierce opponent of the Palmer raids, would be his attorney general. Walsh told friends that Hoover would be replaced. But that month, Walsh married a Cuban woman in Havana. After flying back to Florida, the couple boarded a train to Washington. While passing through North Carolina, Walsh’s wife found him on the floor, dead, the apparent victim of too much honeymooning.
Homer Cummings, who replaced Walsh, retained Hoover. The director quickly realized the way to keep his job was to make himself indispensable to FDR. Wiretapping was a relatively new investigative tool, and as it turned out Roosevelt was eager to use it against his political opponents on the left and right. Up for reelection in 1936, he had Hoover eavesdrop on the leftist members of the Newspaper Guild and other suspected members of the Communist Party, despite the party’s attempt to establish a “popular front.”
Then, as FDR began to gear up for a third term, Hoover went after Father Charles E. Coughlin, the ultraconservative radio priest who was a major thorn in Roosevelt’s side. In January 1940, 17 members of Coughlin’s pro-Hitler Christian Front were arrested by the FBI, charged with plotting to kill several congressmen. Whether the charges were accurate or not, the arrests finished Coughlin as an influential political figure.