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”?