Beverly Gage’s new biography of J. Edgar Hoover, G-Man, perceptively situates him within “the rise of the administrative state” that “came of age alongside Hoover,” in the author’s words.1 Indeed, partly because of the fbi’s own self-understanding, arising from its “crucial origins in the Progressive Era,” the current attempts to bring the Bureau to heel are unlikely to produce any meaningful change. The real problems with the fbi are difficult to grasp, and while it appears the Republican voter base would support radical restructuring or even abolition of the agency, powerful incentives in Congress will likely prevent anything more than cosmetic reforms. Gage, an academic historian, does not quite say all this, but her comprehensive treatment of Hoover—who formed the fbi’s character and political identity over forty-eight years as its director—provides significant evidence to support these suspicions.

The fbi has suffered popular disapproval before in its 114-year history, yet never has the Bureau been so distrusted by the Right as it is today. It is playing a central role in the attempt to criminalize Donald Trump and his supporters, with heavy-handed tactics deployed against the January 6 “insurrectionists” and a raid on Trump’s Mar-a-Lago home reminiscent of what occurs in a banana republic. In addition, its aggressive targeting of “right-wing extremists,” including pro-life activists, indicates a surprising willingness by the Bureau to become identified as a partisan police force for the Democratic Party.

This apparent ideological shift is noteworthy but misleading. The world’s most famous law enforcement agency, with its buttoned-down, by-the-book reputation, had long been one of the few arms of the federal behemoth that earned conservatives’ unqualified support. This confidence proved to be a case of holding the tiger by the tail, on the assumption that the claws would always be aimed primarily at mobsters and left-wing subversives. But secret police forces have a way of getting out of control, which is an old story. The Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus reports that under the tyrant Gallus Caesar people were afraid to discuss their dreams lest they be overheard and accused of treason. The danger is far greater in a democracy.

Gage recounts that Hoover joined the Justice Department in 1917, just as the United States was entering World War I. The prosecution of the war under Woodrow Wilson, she writes, spurred

the birth of a vast new experiment in federal surveillance of political dissidents and “alien enemies,” so that was where Hoover got his start. World War I marked a turning point in the history of civil liberties, the moment that the federal government began to watch its citizens and residents on a mass scale, and to keep files on their political activities. Hoover happened to be present at the creation, an accident of timing that forever altered his ambitions and his professional path.

The potential for the fbi to turn against conservatives, pro-lifers, and maga voters—treating them as enemies of the regime—was present from the beginning. How this happened, however, is not essentially a story about partisanship or due process. It concerns the nature of republican government and whether the fbi’s anti-constitutional foundations even can be reformed.

G-Man: J. Edgar Hoover and the Making of the American Century is an impressive achievement: clearly written, appropriately detailed, and meticulously sourced. It makes extensive use of newly released archival material, including previously classified documents. Gage was the Brady-Johnson Professor of Grand Strategy in Yale’s history department and is the author of a previous book about the 1920 bombing of Wall Street (suspected, but never proved, to have been perpetrated by Italian-immigrant anarchists).

His vigorous anti-communism was unswerving and almost entirely justified.

The individual depicted in G-Man is the fascinating and troubled Hoover we are generally familiar with: vain, stubborn, and rigid, but also shrewd, disciplined, patriotic, and deeply committed to his own peculiar but sincerely held ideal of professional integrity. If not exactly a paragon of civil liberties, he was more respectful of the law and its restraints (even obdurately so at the end) than many of his critics admit. His vigorous anti-communism was unswerving and almost entirely justified, based on what we now know about Soviet active measures against the United States. Hoover’s racism was equally consistent, about average for a white man of his generation (certainly no worse than Lyndon Johnson’s), yet no hindrance to his contempt for and prosecution of the Ku Klux Klan and its enablers among Southern law enforcement.

The book judges Hoover a bit too harshly (in my view) with regard to the fbi’s aggressive and sometimes unethical actions against the Black Panthers, a violent terrorist organization responsible for numerous bombings and murders in the 1960s and ’70s—crimes that the book does not quite minimize but treats somewhat matter-of-factly. Interestingly, Gage devotes more attention to, yet seems somewhat less appalled by, Hoover’s visceral animus toward Martin Luther King Jr., who comes across in many ways as the liar, hypocrite, and sexual libertine Hoover thought him to be. The book even relates that when the fbi bugged King’s Las Vegas hotel room in 1964, the summary of the transcript shows that King’s companion, a Baptist minister, raped a woman while King stood by and laughed.

Regarding Hoover’s own sexual inclinations, the evidence offered by Gage indicates that the never-married director found a life partner in Clyde Tolson, the fbi’s longtime number-two official. The men were near-constant companions, both professionally and socially, for most of their adult lives, and generally acknowledged as a couple in official Washington. This “don’t ask, don’t tell” attitude on the cocktail circuit did not preclude a steady stream of gossip and innuendo about Hoover’s alleged homosexuality, which he vehemently denied and used official fbi resources to suppress, sometimes with intimidation and threats. G-Man recounts, but downplays as implausible, the famous allegation of Hoover’s cross-dressing, which Gage finds was based on a single unreliable witness.

The book also makes little of Hoover’s “secret files,” which loom so large in the popular imagination and which he allegedly used for extensive blackmail. G-Man devotes only three paragraphs to this material in the context of Hoover’s aides reacting to his death in May 1972. “There were, in fact, two major sets of files in Hoover’s office”; one consisted mostly of personal letters, which were destroyed by Hoover’s devoted secretary, Helen Gandy. The second “was the Official & Confidential file . . . mostly a hodgepodge of reports and rumors, some dating as far back as the investigation in the 1920 Wall Street bombing.” These were not destroyed, but in order to “shield them from any outside query,” the aged and ailing Clyde Tolson ordered the files to be transferred to his next-in-command, Hoover’s second deputy, Mark Felt.

Some readers may recognize the name, though Felt is better known by his Washington Post alias: Deep Throat. As the next in line behind the almost incapacitated Tolson, Felt assumed he would be promoted to director. When President Richard Nixon instead named an outsider (Patrick Gray, an assistant attorney general), Felt was shocked and dismayed. What he did with the secret files is almost inconsequential compared with his actions during the Watergate investigation, which had an effect on American government and society far beyond the disposition of some disorganized old reports.

Gage explored the dramatic two years that followed Hoover’s death in a scholarly essay published in 2012, “Deep Throat, Watergate, and the Bureaucratic Politics of the fbi,” in which she notes that the conditions for the Watergate crisis had already been established by Hoover before his death. Though Hoover and Nixon were close personal friends, “Hoover believed in the administrative state—in the power of independent bureaucrats. . . . Nixon, by contrast, was a man of parties, someone who hated the bureaucracy and believed that . . . voter control offered the best hope for effective government.” From this perspective, Watergate emerges as “an institutional struggle between political allies, contained within the executive branch and locked in conflict over the proper use of the state.”

How did the Bureau get to that point? Despite Hoover’s conservatism and anticommunism, G-Man observes, “New Deal liberalism—professionalization, centralization, administrative expansion—are what enabled his rise”:

Popular legend suggests that Hoover held on to power as long as he did through blackmail and intimidation—and it is true that he was skilled in such arts. But no public servant could survive for forty-eight years without support from both above and below. The truth is that Hoover stayed in office for so long because many people, from the highest reaches of government down to the grassroots, wanted him there and supported what he was doing.

This goes a long way toward explaining many of Hoover’s apparent inconsistencies. The fbi was useful to different people, in different ways, at different times—and Hoover in turn made many decisions on the same utilitarian grounds, which often appeared to conflict with his personal opinions and even the Bureau’s short-term priorities. What persisted were two things: a near obsession with the fbi’s “apolitical professionalism” (an idea with far-reaching implications, well beyond ethical standards of law enforcement) and the steady transfer of institutional patronage from the presidency to Congress. That shift took a major step in the 1968 crime bill—giving the Senate the authority to confirm the fbi director—and was solidified after Watergate, when Congress fully embraced our current post-constitutional regime built around a centralized bureaucracy operating on modern rational or scientific principles.

Old-fashioned constitutionalists have long understood that if the government “gives” us our rights, it can just as easily take them away.

As early as the 1940s, the fbi began asserting its autonomy from the executive branch. Hoover considered Harry Truman an unreliable Cold Warrior, and when Republicans swept the 1946 midterm congressional elections, Hoover “stopped worrying quite so much about the man in the White House. Instead, he turned to his friends in Congress, who were eager to talk more about communism.” Many conservatives cheered Hoover’s tough stance, but in the urgent fight against Soviet imperialism and espionage they overlooked the danger of executive-branch policy being made independent of the chief executive. Old-fashioned constitutionalists have long understood that if the government “gives” us our rights, it can just as easily take them away. But they often missed a corresponding truth: if the fbi can decide, in open contradiction of the president, that it will determine how to fight communism, then the agency can just as well decide what it will not do, about communism or anything else. (Indeed, it might very well decide that alleged white nationalists, or even the president himself, represent the greatest threat to national security.)

In other circumstances, Hoover was more than happy to work with Democratic presidents. He got along well with Lyndon Johnson—they had been neighbors for several years in Northwest D.C.—though he hardly shared the latter’s Great Society enthusiasms. Yet friendly feelings cannot fully explain the lengths to which Hoover went to accommodate Johnson’s outrageous requests for fbi subterfuge. Fearing a fight over his nomination at the 1964 Democratic National Convention, Johnson wanted to keep tabs on a possible floor challenge and forestall any disruption by the all-black Freedom Summer delegation. G-Man records that Johnson called on the fbi to infiltrate the convention; he “wanted bugs, taps, and confidential informants.” Hoover obliged. One senior agent complained that the director “should have held the line at such blatant political use of his men.” (Hoover would finally hold the line, firmly . . . with Richard Nixon.) Even as late as October 1968 Johnson requested “that the fbi surveil and wiretap the South Vietnamese embassy, for fear that Nixon was secretly negotiating to delay a peace settlement.” G-Man observes laconically that “Hoover did as the president requested,” in no small part, we may assume, because Hoover found Johnson useful. (It was lbj who waived the federal retirement rule for Hoover shortly before the latter’s seventieth birthday.)

After Nixon’s election, however, “the liberals and Democrats who had held their tongues throughout the Johnson years began to come for Hoover, decrying him as a dangerous reactionary.” And by 1970, Gage relates,

Hoover seemed strangely hesitant to use certain other techniques that had long been staples of the domestic intelligence systems. . . . [The] public and the courts were in no mood to tolerate, much less applaud, clandestine techniques that had once been routine. To Nixon, though, his decisions look like a puzzling unwillingness to do what needed to be done in the midst of a national crisis. After all this time—and despite many public words to the contrary—Nixon thought that Hoover was losing his nerve.

G-Man even includes the astounding revelation that “Nixon would later become convinced that the fbi had bugged his campaign plane at Johnson’s behest, a misunderstanding that Hoover would alternately encourage and dismiss.” The book doesn’t elaborate on why Hoover might encourage this “misunderstanding” on the part of his good friend.

Despite her interest in the administrative state and the battles within the executive branch over control of the bureaucracy, Gage never addresses the central importance of Nixon’s “New American Revolution”—his second-term agenda for dispersing government power back to the states and bringing federal agencies more directly under the authority of the White House. It was this overt assault on centralized administration, and the defensive reaction by the congressional–bureaucratic nexus (including the fbi), that some scholars see as the real story of Watergate.

The political scientist John Marini has written extensively on the theoretical origins of bureaucratic government and the rational state. He notes what Richard Nixon recorded in his diary after the 1972 election:

This is . . . probably the last time, that we can get government under control before it gets so big that it submerges the individual completely and destroys the dynamism which makes the American system what it is.

Nixon was reelected in what is still one of the biggest landslides in American history. One can read the results as a referendum on whether the president or Congress should control the permanent government in the executive branch. The people supported Nixon’s plan; the administrative state did not. The final outcome of that battle has not yet been determined.

Accusing political adversaries of lawbreaking and threatening criminal indictment has become the new form of waging political warfare.

In Marini’s view, the regime of centralized bureaucracy solidified its hold on American politics during this period, when it joined with Congress to neutralize the threat posed by Nixon’s second-term platform. “The equivalent of a Watergate,” Marini writes “was an absolute necessity for the defenders of the New Deal order.” What “made consensus impossible was a disagreement over what constituted a fundamentally good or just regime.” For Marini, Watergate, which established the precedent for Donald Trump, was the attempt to neutralize a political event (an unacceptable election) through nonpolitical means, including the media and especially the investigative and prosecutorial powers of the Justice Department. Accusing political adversaries of lawbreaking and threatening criminal indictment has become the new form of waging political warfare. Thus, the fbi is an indispensable weapon for the permanent government, which now constitutes the most powerful faction in American society.

The bureaucracy can, of course, mobilize other agencies in highly effective ways. Anthony Fauci has deployed the niaid, part of the nih, on behalf of what some have the called the “biosecurity state.” Yet the genuinely compulsory aspects of the covid restrictions were legal: arresting people for violating social-distancing rules and imposing (or threatening) fines and jail time for obstreperous business owners. Even with the great power of medical propaganda, the surgical glove of public health often contained an iron fist of criminal sanctions to enforce the pandemic mandates.

Fauci’s arrogance, like that of fbi directors James Comey and Christopher Wray—and Hoover before them—is no accident. These officials often feel unappreciated and even put-upon by a lackadaisical public that fails to acknowledge their efforts. They certainly don’t see themselves as oppressive, let alone despotic. So far from being malicious, the typical administrative functionary sees himself as reasonable and helpful. Above all, the bureaucratic professional understands his authority as legitimate and rational. This is not quite what C. S. Lewis had in mind with his memorable lines about those who tyrannize over us for our own good; that’s a bit too selflessly high-minded. Our experts view themselves as doing a job; they work. But that work is methodical and nonpolitical precisely because there are no longer any politically or morally meaningful questions outside the bureaucracy. There is nothing to be political about. The question of popular consent is not so much objectionable as irrelevant: on what grounds would the people grant or withhold their consent? No rational person is in favor of disease, or crime, or pollution, or racism—thus no one can reasonably object to the experts utilizing modern medicine, criminology, and other empirical sciences to fight such evils.

From this perspective, the fbi’s “conservativism” can be understood as a defense of its respectability and prerogatives. The Bureau uses its expert professionalism to uphold the law—and thus a modern, morally progressive society—largely as it determines. As Marini notes, the fbi, and the Justice Department more broadly, “see themselves as defenders of institutional rationality, as a part of the social intelligence that establishes the legitimacy of rule within the administrative state.”

To guarantee both its authority and funding, the bureaucracy operates with the support of, and in consultation with, the senior leadership in Congress—which has in key respects ceased to be a partisan institution. Leaders of both parties are deeply attached to their power to supervise the administrative state. Of course, it is the Democrats who have long been the party of big government, and they are truly in charge over the long term. Nominal Republicans in Congress send out spirited fundraising letters invoking the Constitution, but in practice the gop leadership remains firmly within the bounds of establishment opinion. (May we wonder, based on the evidence, whether Senator Mitch McConnell even wanted a Republican majority in November? Might he be entirely content, and even find it preferable, to remain in the minority—retaining his perks without the burden of accountability?)

With regard to the congressional–bureaucratic nexus, consider the remarkable statement made by Mark Felt in a speech at Rutgers in October 1973, in which he called for fbi oversight by a congressional watchdog group comprising six senior legislators. Any disputes, Felt urged, “would be laid out on the table and [a] decision would be made between the fbi director and the committee members.” He added, “that type of political control would be better than political control from the White House.” This is a fairly good description of what has come to pass. (Gage refers to this speech in her 2012 essay but doesn’t quote these arresting lines, which I tracked down and, as far as I can tell, have been ignored by scholars and journalists for fifty years.)

In fact, the framers assumed this would be a constant danger and went to considerable pains to establish the separation of powers.

Thus, when Donald Trump fired the fbi director James Comey in 2017, prominent law professors responded on cue to declare a “constitutional crisis” because the president was interfering in the fbi’s investigation of alleged White House misconduct. The entire spectacle would have been baffling to James Madison. How could a crisis arise from the chief executive interfering with the executive branch? And why is one of the president’s ostensible subordinates investigating him in the first place? It isn’t as if Madison hadn’t contemplated a president exceeding his constitutional authority. In fact, the framers assumed this would be a constant danger and went to considerable pains to establish the separation of powers, with various checks and balances, precisely in anticipation of this contingency. Madison’s plan provided a political solution for a political problem—which was intended to secure the common good. The modern fbi, the Justice Department, and the leak-addicted intelligence community, by contrast, represent an insular administrative apparatus that undermines, at its own discretion, the elected head of the government in order to protect its own interests.

Today, the last vestige of partisanship, and the last expression of popular sovereignty, is limited to presidential elections, which alone can reflect the deliberative will and consent of the people at large. Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and Donald Trump have been the only serious threats to the half century of growth in the administrative state, and they were assailed accordingly. (Why Reagan managed to finish his second term without the total annihilation inflicted on Nixon and Trump is beyond the scope of this review, but it largely concerns his focus on victory in the Cold War, which made him less successful, and thus less threatening, domestically.)

Though she doesn’t make the point herself, Gage helps us see that Trump’s ordeals are in many ways the second act of Watergate. Trump has sometimes compared himself to Nixon, but one wonders if he privately regards Nixon as a “loser.” That would not be entirely wrong. Nixon was more politically sophisticated in the sense of having a more intimate understanding of how Washington worked and a thoughtful plan for curtailing the bureaucracy. Yet, as G-Man shows, when he was engulfed by the Watergate scandal, he didn’t quite understand what was happening and—as he did in his 1960 bid for the presidency, with John F. Kennedy’s controversial victory—bowed out for the good of the country. But it isn’t clear that surrender was better for the country.

The deeper truth is that Trump seems to intuit, without quite articulating, that America has descended into post-constitutionalism.

Trump stubbornly insists on continuing to challenge the 2020 election. He does so despite the outrage of the ruling class and the condemnation of all respectable opinion leaders. In fact, Trump’s great political virtue may be that he does so because of their outrage and condemnation. If Trumpism represents the last political defense of the sovereignty of the people, he must deny the authority of the establishment—in the bureaucracy, media, and academia—to define political legitimacy. The superficial view of Trump’s apolitical approach to his presidency is that all politics is now show business. The deeper truth is that Trump seems to intuit, without quite articulating, that America has descended into post-constitutionalism. He knows there is an existential war over the future of the American regime, as well as the meaning of its past, hence Make America Great Again.

Only a major realigning election, with a Republican president and large Republican majorities in the House and Senate—including a substantial number of new members loyal to the president’s agenda and not the congressional leadership—can hope to break the overwhelming power of what Gage calls “the U.S. security state.” The possibility that this will succeed is remote. Yet unlikely events have happened in politics before. Consider how unlikely it is that, after fifty years of consolidating its power and indoctrinating generations of students, the ruling class remains insecure; indeed it feels deeply threatened. Despite everything, the American people have never fully consented to this post-constitutional regime.

It is fitting then that the citizens of the United States may yet be “the last, best hope” for freedom in the world. “The fiery trial through which we pass,” Lincoln said in 1862, “will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation. . . . The way is plain, peaceful, generous, just—a way which, if followed, the world will forever applaud, and God must forever bless.”

  1.   G-Man: J. Edgar Hoover and the Making of the American Century, by Beverly Gage; Viking, 864 pages, $45.

A Message from the Editors

Your donation sustains our efforts to inspire joyous rediscoveries.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 41 Number 5, on page 13
Copyright © 2024 The New Criterion |

Popular Right Now