On July 27, 1917, a young man fresh out of law school named John Edgar Hoover accepted a job with the United States Department of Justice, and in two years became head of the General Intelligence Division in the little-known Bureau of Investigation. Hoover would stay in the Bureau for the rest of his life, rising from division head to bureau director in the 1920s, seeing the agency transform from a small part of the Justice Department into the massive FBI machine it became and still is today, serving eight presidents (Coolidge to Nixon), and becoming the longest-lasting and most powerful unelected government official of the 20th Century.
Hoover’s transformation of the Bureau from an unknown department, to a modern crime-fighting machine, was seen by those who witnessed it as a triumph of modernization during the impressive WWI and WWII boom days in his hometown of Washington, D.C. Instituting high standards for agents and clerks, creating a comprehensive indexing system for every document and fingerprint, and instilling a culture inspired by his fraternity experience at George Washington University, turned the Bureau from backwater to one of the greatest civil service institutions in the country. This inspired a view of Hoover as the quintessential Government Man, a nickname for FBI lawmen that gives the book its name.
Despite his administrative accomplishments, Hoover’s long tenure was not without controversy. From becoming the authority on crime and subversion in the 1930s, to the most popular non-partisan official in the 1950s, to as the New York Times put it, “The Man Who Stayed Too Long” by the time of his death after a day of work in 1972, Hoover was many things. He found success and popularity fighting the War on Crime in the 1930s, Nazi saboteurs during WWII, and Soviet espionage during the early Cold War years. However, in the 1960s the shine faded as he dragged his feet on civil rights and declared Martin Luther King, Jr. the “most notorious liar in America” after his critical comments against the FBI. Expanding the covert program COINTELPRO to civil rights and anti-war activists, Hoover’s FBI began a campaign to harass and discredit groups and figures within these movements, forever tarnishing his legacy when these activities were revealed after his death, creating an interpretation of Hoover as one of 20th Century America’s greatest villains that still stands today.
Author Beverly Gage, a historian at Yale University, best explains the importance of Hoover when she writes, “We cannot know our own story without understanding his, in all its high aspirations and terrible cruelty… To look at him is also to look at ourselves, at what America valued and fought over during those years, what we tolerated and what we refused to see.” Her work is the first comprehensive biography of Hoover in decades, taking a hard look at the many facets of the man without rushing to condemn as so many others have in the years that passed, showing that his lasting power came not only from public opinion, but because eight presidents wanted him there for all of the things that he and the FBI could provide.
This book can be found in the General Collection at the Bellevue University Library and can be checked out for 21 days.
Originally posted in the Freeman/Lozier Library’s quarterly newsletter, More Than Books, V. 26 No. 3, Summer 2023.