FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover in his Office, April 1940 (Library of Congress/Wiki commons)

In the final season of the British crime drama Peaky Blinders, a gangster-turned-MP explains why he is able to work with socialists as well as fascists. “I’ve learned that the line doesn’t go…to the left and the right. It goes in a circle…. You go far enough left, eventually you’ll meet someone who has gone far enough right to get to the same place.”

This is as good a starting “place” as any to try and make sense of “weird and historically discordant moments,” as historian Garrett M. Graff put it, such as when “former president [Trump] and his allies demonized the F.B.I. as some sort of rogue…deep state mob.” What happened to the good old days, when conservatives reliably—even maniacally—defended law enforcement?

Things were never so simple, of course. In the 1950s, far-right John Birchers and McCarthyites reserved some of their most venomous rhetoric for conservative icons like Eisenhower and the U.S. Army. And in the wake of the Mar-a-Lago raids, the FBI’s strange-bedfellow defenders included Joe Biden and Mike Pence.

Such complicated coalitions arise again and again in G-Man, Beverly Gage’s provocative biography of J. Edgar Hoover. The book is touted as the first “major” Hoover bio in nearly three decades, which seems odd since the flow of salacious material about the former FBI director never seems to stop. (Consider the damning 2020 documentary MLK / FBI.) Gage’s previous book, The Day Wall Street Exploded, surveyed a spectacular, largely forgotten crime from early in Hoover’s career: a 1920 terrorist bombing in Manhattan that killed nearly forty people and contributed to the passage of severe immigration restrictions four years later. This time around, Gage is working on a much bigger canvas, chronicling the intimate influences and vast cultural impact of a twentieth-century giant.

Since Hoover’s death in 1972—and the beginning of his colorful afterlife—revelations have emerged of blackmail and mob ties, wiretaps and women’s clothing. (About these, Gage simply says, “It is difficult to imagine Hoover taking that sort of risk, whatever his personal desires may have been.”)

Hoover has become a cloak-and-dagger Forrest Gump, omnipresent in the shadows of American history, the personification of Hofstadter’s paranoid style. He looms large over the American imagination and pop culture, chatting up JFK’s assassins in James Ellroy’s gonzo thriller American Tabloid. He’s at the polo grounds with Jackie Gleason and Frank Sinatra in Don DeLillo’s Cold War masterpiece Underworld. And Leonardo DiCaprio dons a bald cap and pearl necklace to depict Hoover in Clint Eastwood’s semi-sympathetic 2011 biopic. More recent Hooverian allusions range from scary to surreal—from Edward Snowden’s snooping revelations to Trump’s dismissal of one FBI official as “a poor man’s J. Edgar Hoover.”

Whether this was a compliment or an insult depends—as many things do these days—on how far you’re willing to venture around the ideological circle.


Gage herself calls Hoover “perhaps the most universally reviled American political figure of the twentieth century.” Yet G-Man is not another eight-hundred pages of skullduggery and hypocrisy. Many of its assessments are even-handed, measured—perhaps, for some readers, unsettlingly so. This approach complements Gage’s broader exploration of the twentieth century’s political and cultural landscape, over which Hoover loomed as a “conservative state-builder [in] the heyday of American liberalism.”

By the late 1950s, Hoover was on top of the world—hawking a bestseller, prominently featured in a fawning Jimmy Stewart movie, and waiting for like-minded ally Richard Nixon to assume the presidency. An astonishing thirty-nine out of forty Americans “either liked or accepted” the job Hoover was doing, according to one poll Gage cites. “Many people,” she adds, “would later profess to be outraged about what the FBI was doing, [but] nobody in Congress or the Justice Department seemed inclined to interfere.”

A deft iron fist–velvet glove combination elevated Hoover to this pinnacle, Gage suggests. For all of his norm-shattering machinations, Hoover was also a brilliant manager, grasping the importance of decidedly unsensational innovations, from fingerprinting to filing systems.

Gage also links Hoover’s rise to a powerful, if vague, cultural Christianity. This yields frustratingly hazy insights—partly because America’s broader relationship to Christianity is, well, frustratingly hazy, at once urgently existential and conspicuously un-Christian. More plainly disappointing is G-Man’s meager analysis of the Catholic Left, from Dorothy Day to the Berrigans and the so-called “Harrisburg 7,” none of whom are mentioned. Gage does present the notorious 1971 theft of FBI files at Media, Pennsylvania, as a watershed moment. Yet as historian Betty Medsger has noted, “there would have been no [Media] burglary,” without “the Catholic peace movement.” This is particularly relevant since Catholics—still suspect in the eyes of the 1920s Justice Department—were later recruited heavily by the FBI, especially out of universities such as Georgetown.

By then, of course, the country had evolved profoundly, even if Hoover had not. His grossest excesses came amidst the rising civil-rights movement. But G-Man emphasizes that Hoover was not alone in his opinions; he had powerful accomplices and enablers along the way. It was only weeks after Hoover’s death that Nixon’s “plumbers” broke into the Watergate hotel to install— what else?—wiretaps. 

Ultimately, Beverly Gage asks readers to reconsider the role J. Edgar Hoover played in America’s “long national nightmare,” the one from which we’ve perhaps not yet woken. Was he simplistically made into an “icon of oppression,” to use the outraged words of former Hoover aide Deke DeLoach? Have we, as Gage hints, used Hoover as a “too-easy scapegoat” to avoid confronting broader, messier complicities at the heart of “the American century”?

Ultimately, Beverly Gage asks readers to reconsider the role J. Edgar Hoover played in America’s “long national nightmare,” the one from which we’ve perhaps not yet woken.


John Edgar Hoover was born—fittingly—in the nation’s capital, in 1895. His was a “loving family,” Gage writes, but one with a volatile history, leaving Hoover with a “merciless anxiety” and “desire to control what happened around him.”

During an era of urgent debates about religion and masculinity, Hoover followed his older brother into an active Lutheran church community. For nearly two decades after his father’s death in 1921, Hoover lived with his mother, fueling lifelong rumors about his sexuality.

As classmates went off to college, Hoover remained in Washington, where a modest level of racial integration was giving way to Jim Crow’s far stricter codes. These were further reinforced, Gage suggests, by Hoover’s lifelong devotion to a George Washington University fraternity with powerful white-supremacist ties.

Throughout the 1910s, as Gage made clear in The Day Wall Street Exploded, many Americans of Hoover’s background feared that the United States was collapsing under the weight of urban crowds and crime, of Catholic and Jewish disloyalty and radicalism. After joining the Justice Department in 1917, Hoover initiated “the first systematic peacetime attempt to track the political opinions of noncitizens and to deport them,” Gage writes, while also “collect[ing] information on native-born and naturalized citizens.” At the same time, Hoover targeted the racist, anti-immigrant KKK—not the last time a nation riddled with crackpots left Hoover looking comparatively moderate. Still, Hoover’s career could have ended after the reckless, anti-radical Palmer raids, and when Hoover backed a post–World War I “sedition law,” Gage notes, Congress “adamantly refused.”

But reservations about an abusive, excessively powerful “national police” force coexisted with a fledgling, progressive faith in government problem-solving. And so maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that the “presidents who did the most to empower Hoover were the two great liberal titans of the twentieth century”: FDR and LBJ.

Roosevelt told Hoover to combat the rise of 1930s extremists on the Left and Right, though there’s a book’s worth of questions to be asked about why Hoover—like many Americans—seemed far less worried about the latter.

Ultimately, Gage says, it was FDR who “secretly overturned the Supreme Court’s ban on wiretapping,” in part to help “men like Hoover…sell their work to the public to show how the federal government could play an active and forward-thinking role.” Japanese Americans were surely among those who believed the feds were already “active” enough. Hoover apparently agreed; he opposed internment after Pearl Harbor. He did nothing, though, to challenge the government’s “lavender scare” targeting gays, an episode of particular import for “Washington’s best-known bachelor and most confirmed woman dodger,” in Gage’s words. A series of lynchings and other racial violence in the 1940s foreshadowed what would become Hoover’s most urgent challenges—Emmett Till, Freedom Summer, “four little girls” in Birmingham. At the end of World War II, though, Hoover was a “darling of the New Deal establishment,” and the FBI grew “four times larger,” according to Gage. This seemed more than justified amidst Soviet-spy hysteria and A-bomb anxiety.

The rise of Joe McCarthy was yet another opportunity for Hoover to distinguish himself from the crazies, a member of the more responsible—increasingly Catholic—anti-Communist camp. Some thought Hoover himself was Catholic, as he hobnobbed with Fulton Sheen and Cardinal Spellman, and “received an honorary degree or delivered a graduation speech at nearly every major Catholic university.” For many, Gage writes, reaching such cultural preeminence “might have inspired thoughts of retirement.” Instead, ironically, the Catholic candidate won the presidency in 1960, and appointed his cocksure brother attorney general—Hoover’s boss.

For all the animosity that followed, it was “with the approval of both Hoover and Bobby Kennedy” that “the FBI installed wiretaps at [Martin Luther] King’s home and offices,” citing concerns about Communist infiltration of the civil-rights movement.


Clearly—tragically—Hoover’s treatment of King was at least as appalling as the legal establishment’s broader response to the civil-rights movement, and, to a degree, to the New Left in general.

A far more complex problem with the conflicts of Hoover’s era—not to mention our own—is that they are rooted not only in simmering issues like race or radicalism or whether the Kennedys whacked Marilyn. Just as important are nuts-and-bolts questions about when the federal government should intervene to solve a given problem. And what should happen when they try and fail? Deep into the 1960s, Hoover was arguing that the FBI had no jurisdiction over various pressing matters. Almost always, G-Men were sent in anyway.

James Baldwin had already called out Hoover by name in 1963, after the notorious Birmingham church bombing. By the time JFK was killed months later, liberals already felt a broad “distrust of [Hoover’s] agency,” in Robert Caro’s words.

And who else felt the same way? Neo-Confederates in the Jim Crow South, who strung up effigies of Hoover as well as Bobby Kennedy. Talk about strange bedfellows.

In 1967, Richard Nixon wrote an article for Reader’s Digest, asking: “What happened to America?” In the national debates that followed, it was a lot more interesting to shout about the polarizing extremes—hippies, conspiracies, and the counterculture. That’s why, to this day, spectacular tragedies, like those of Emmet Till or Marilyn Monroe, are turned into high-profile, buzzworthy prestige films.

But unresolved conflicts over seemingly bland technical matters of local and national jurisdiction also exacerbated the Till family’s suffering and fueled some of the more outlandish theorizing surrounding Marilyn Monroe’s death. This leaves us with the de rigueur dark web of Don DeLillo, Oliver Stone, and The X-Files, as well as QAnon and the “deep state.”

This is the final, ultimate irony of Hoover’s career. In the harsh light of bipartisan criticisms, it becomes harder and harder to explain why the federal government should ever be in the business of trying to solve any problems at all, leaving us with only a scathing critique of “the very idea of government service…still a major feature of the modern right,” Gage notes.

Ultimately, G-Man offers a cerebral and engaging review of these complicated but important issues—some of which have been two centuries in the making and may well take as long to untangle.

For now, J. Edgar Hoover’s colorful afterlife continues: Netflix has announced it is turning Don DeLillo’s Underworld into a movie.


J. Edgar Hoover and the Making of the American Century

Beverly Gage
Viking Books
$45 | 864 pp.

Tom Deignan, a regular Commonweal contributor, has written about books for the New York Times and National Catholic Reporter. He teaches English and Humanities at CUNY and is working on a book about immigration.

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Published in the April 2023 issue: View Contents
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