J. Edgar Hoover, who directed the Federal Bureau of Investigation from 1924 to 1972, is one of the central figures in the twentieth-century development of the federal government and the national security state. For decades he was one of the most widely admired Americans, only to become one of the most reviled following revelations of his racism, redbaiting, abuses of power, and persecution of figures like Martin Luther King Jr.
Beverly Gage, a professor of History and American Studies at Yale University, has recently published a monumental biography of the FBI leader entitled G-Man: J. Edgar Hoover and the Making of the American Century. While the book follows Hoover from birth to death, focusing on his service under eight U.S. presidents, it also analyzes Hoover as a political actor whose career explains the growth of federal power and Cold War ideology during America’s rise to global preeminence.
Gage highlights the duality that accounted for much of Hoover’s success and popularity. On the one hand, he promoted “conservative values ranging from anti-communism to white supremacy to a crusading and politicized interpretation of Christianity.” At the same time, he also embodied faith in progressive government, scientific authority, professionalism, and apolitical expertise. As Gage points out, “Today, when the Republican Party regularly denounces both federal authority and nonpartisan expertise, it can be hard to imagine these ideas fitting together.”
In this podcast discussion, Gage analyzes Hoover’s complexities, which included:
- his allegiance to the Confederate-worshipping Kappa Alpha fraternity along with his FBI operations against the Ku Klux Klan,
- and his forty-year marriage-in-all-but-name with the FBI’s number two official, Clyde Tolson, even while he launched the Lavender Scare persecuting homosexuals along with the Red Scare of the mid-twentieth century.
Gage says that to look at Hoover, the American Century’s “quintessential Government Man,” is also “to look at ourselves, at what Americans valued and fought over during those years, what we tolerated and what we refused to see.”
Beverly Gage: Thinking about what it meant to be an ideological conservative — which Hoover was in many, many ways, who made his whole career within the burgeoning federal government and particularly within the New Deal state…
Geoff Kabaservice: Hello! I’m Geoff Kabaservice from the Niskanen Center. Welcome to the Vital Center Podcast, where we try to sort through the problems of the muddled, moderate majority of Americans, drawing upon history, biography, and current events. And I’m privileged to be joined today by Beverly Gage. She is a professor of History and American Studies at Yale University, and in my estimation is one of the nation’s best historians. She has written for nearly every national media outlet you can think of and serves on the National Endowment for the Humanities Advisory Board, a position to which she was nominated by President Biden and confirmed by the Senate. But most relevantly to our discussion today, she is the author of a newly released biography of longtime FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. G-Man: J. Edgar Hoover and the Making of the American Century was named to the New York Times Notable Books of 2022 list as soon as it came out in November, and it is a huge, magisterial accomplishment. Congratulations and welcome, Bev!
Beverly Gage: Thank you, Geoff. It’s great to be here. And those were very, very kind words.
Geoff Kabaservice: Not at all. I feel like opening a bottle of champagne on your behalf. How does it feel to have this book come out after working on it for, how shall I say, a rather long amount of time?
Beverly Gage: That’s right. It feels great, and it feels great for a couple of reasons. I started working on this in 2009, which was when I signed the contract with my publisher. And while I wasn’t writing it at every moment of those thirteen years, nonetheless J. Edgar Hoover was sort of there in the shadows of my life for that whole time, and so it feels good to have it out in the world. And I think one of the things that’s been really heartening over the past couple of weeks is to see that the world does still, in fact, have a place for big, fat, serious history books that take thirteen years to research and write, and that run (with footnotes and all of that) more than 800 pages. And sometimes along the way, I wasn’t so sure that that would be the case. So it’s nice to see that it is.
Geoff Kabaservice: I would say more than just the world has a place for such books, I think the world needs such books. You know, I’m always a little uneasy when my friends take on books of that length and subjects as big as J. Edgar Hoover. But the benefit is that this is a book with just a tremendous depth of research and reflection to it. And there’s a real solidity to it. It’s like a well-constructed fortress. And by the end of it, I really found myself rethinking my understanding not just of Hoover but of the United States in the twentieth century.
Beverly Gage: Well, that’s great to hear. That was certainly one of the goals of the book, and it’s one of the things that actually attracted me to writing about a figure like Hoover. So Hoover is certainly interesting and influential in his own right, and this is a true biography in the sense that it really does try to grapple with the man as an individual. But he also struck me as an amazing vehicle to tell a bigger story about American politics — and particularly about the American federal government and the security state — over the course of practically the entire twentieth century.
Just for listeners who don’t actually know the scope of Hoover’s career, Hoover was director of the FBI from 1924 under the Coolidge administration to 1972 when he died, still in that job, under Richard Nixon. And so he was there at the FBI for 48 years — really the core of the American Century. And he had his fingers in everything.
Geoff Kabaservice: And that was a reign that spanned eight presidencies.
Beverly Gage: That’s right, four Republicans and four Democrats. And of course one of the questions then becomes: How did he pull that off? And how did he stay in power for so long under such an array of different political figures and administrations?
Geoff Kabaservice: And you point out that for much of that era, he was one of the most famous and most admired Americans, who was revered by liberals and conservatives, Republicans and Democrats alike.
Beverly Gage: Yes. In our own moment, Hoover is this almost universally reviled figure. There are not many people — I mean, even at the FBI itself there aren’t a whole lot of people who wholeheartedly embrace J. Edgar Hoover. And there are a whole lot of people who really revile him, and I think for very good reasons. But our perception of Hoover as this great villain has made it easy to forget what is one of the central themes of the book, which is that he was enormously popular for most of his career. He was popular, as you said, among Republicans, Democrats, liberals, conservatives. And he had this powerful constituency at the grassroots, in Congress, at the White House. And he wasn’t this rogue actor, which I think is how we tend to think about him — a guy who sat in backrooms writing memos, doing things in secret, and strongarming everyone into submission — but he actually was someone with a huge political base, political constituency, and lots of political support.
Geoff Kabaservice: But there is this Shakespearean dimension to his career because, as you point out, his reputation did undergo this titanic reversal — from one of the most admired Americans to actually one of the most despised — in the years immediately following his death, when revelations of the FBI’s abuses and excesses made him the symbol of unaccountable government power. But you point out that Hoover really has a lot of significance for the American Century. One of those aspects is that his career encapsulates the development of the American administrative state. He really built the FBI up from what you call “a scandal-ridden backwater in the Department of Justice” into a political surveillance force without precedent in American life. But you point out that Hoover’s surveillance tools and techniques were known to the presidents and attorneys generals whom he served, and even many members of Congress. And none objected, really, until very late in his career. And more than that, Hoover served so long because people at all levels of American life wanted him there and supported what he was doing.
Beverly Gage: Yeah, that’s right. Hoover came to the FBI director’s position in the 1920s when it was a tiny little institution — and wasn’t yet known as the FBI. And he came into that position as a good-government reformer, steeped in all of these traditions that we might describe as progressive traditions, and certainly at the time were described that way. He was a true believer in government professionalism, career government service, scientific methods, nonpartisan identity. And that’s really how he made his name during his very, very early career once he was director. And one of the tragedies of his life, I think, is not only that he betrayed many of those principles at many key moments, but that in the end his legacy and his memory, beginning in the 1970s, is one of our great symbols of why people have lost faith in government, in the administrative state, or of course today, the Deep State itself.
Geoff Kabaservice: And you do such a good job of pointing out that Janus-like quality of Hoover, how he unites two seemingly opposed qualities. On the one hand, as you say, he was a creature of the Progressive Era and the New Deal, this kind of civil servant who championed professionalism and scientific authority and apolitical expertise. But at the same time, he was also one of the leading avatars of an avenging social conservatism, who embodied conservative values ranging from anti-communism to white supremacy to a highly politicized version of Christianity. He was, as you put it, “a conservative state-builder throughout the heyday of American liberalism.”
Beverly Gage: In terms of thinking about the historical literature and what a figure like Hoover might contribute beyond setting the record straight about his own career, those themes of liberalism and conservatism were really interesting to me. And in particular thinking about what it meant to be an ideological conservative, which Hoover was in many, many ways, which you were just listing off, who made his whole career within the burgeoning federal government and particularly within the New Deal state. How did he do that? That’s not a figure we think about a lot: someone who is a believer in federal power, a believer in the good that the federal government can do for the country at large, and who is also one of the greatest conservative figures and symbols of his age. And so that’s really the political puzzle of the book: How did he embody these two traditions at once? How did he put them together? At what points did he stand for one or the other? And I think it is part of the secret to his longevity that so many people could see what they wanted to see in his public self.
Geoff Kabaservice: Let’s step out from the shadow of Hoover for a second. I always like to ask people who come on these podcasts to tell me something about themselves. So can you tell me where you grew up, where you went to school, maybe what some of your early influences were?
Beverly Gage: Sure. I grew up outside of Philadelphia, and one of the funny things about writing this book is that I encountered a few moments in my own life, or in my own family history, that I didn’t know about. So one of those is a very famous burglary that takes place in 1971, when some activists in Philadelphia break into an FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania. They steal all the files. This is one of the ways that FBI surveillance and infiltration is exposed. But that’s actually my hometown…
Geoff Kabaservice: Oh, wow.
Beverly Gage: …or the town next to it, and I hadn’t known anything about that growing up. So that’s where I’m from. I also encountered a couple of funny things about my own family history along the way. My mother grew up in Washington, but my parents had kids very late, and so I didn’t know my grandfather. But as it turned out, I was going through old yearbooks from George Washington University, which is where Hoover went to school, where Clyde Tolson went to school. And I was going through the Tolson yearbooks, and I happened upon this man whose name I recognized. And so many FBI agents came out of GW that I thought, “Huh, well, that must be one of them, but I don’t remember where…” And then I was like, “Oh, no, that’s my grandfather!” So Tolson and Hoover went into the Bureau of Investigation, and my grandfather went on to work in the Bureau of Engraving and Printing in Washington. That’s what GW did — it produced people who worked at bureaus.
Anyway, that was my growing up around Philadelphia. I was a classical musician as a kid, but then turned to history and American Studies as an undergraduate at Yale. It’s kind of coincidence that I ended up back there as a professor ten years after I graduated as an undergrad, but I’ve been there ever since.
Geoff Kabaservice: And you got your Ph.D. in history from Columbia University?
Beverly Gage: I did, yeah. I got my Ph.D. in history from Columbia. And I worked for about three years between undergrad and grad school, just being a journalist, freelancing, working in various places.
Geoff Kabaservice: And who were among your key professors and advisors at Columbia?
Beverly Gage: Well, I had this all-star team at Columbia. Alan Brinkley was my advisor — a great political historian, historian in particular of the New Deal. And he was really pretty influential, because when I went to graduate school I knew that I wanted to study history, but I didn’t know what kind of history I really wanted to study. And I certainly wouldn’t have said, as I think many people wouldn’t have said in the ’90s, that I wanted to study political history. It was a low moment within the historical profession for the study of political history. Alan Brinkley was one of the people who really did describe himself that way. And so it was during my time at Columbia that I not only began to think, “Oh, actually, formal political history is interesting” — and it was becoming just a much more vibrant field than it had been.
So he was my advisor. I also worked with Eric Foner, who was on my committee, and Ken Jackson, the great historian of New York; Foner of course is a historian of the Civil War and Reconstruction. And I worked with Simon Schama as well, and he was interesting. He taught a class called “Writing History Beyond the Academy” that was thinking about ways of writing history that would not only have a lot of scholarly rigor to them but that would also speak to a broader public audience. And that was really valuable to have the opportunity to do that while in graduate school.
Geoff Kabaservice: I recently interviewed Nicole Hemmer for the podcast, and she also was an Alan Brinkley student. And we talked a lot about how Alan, who sadly is no longer with us, was really one of the people most responsible for pointing out that the historical profession had utterly neglected the study of conservatives during the twentieth century. Then, of course, there followed a tsunami of scholarship on conservatism.
Beverly Gage: Yeah, it has been a really fascinating thing to watch. I actually was having dinner with Niki Hemmer last night. She was here to do a workshop at Yale that I run with Elizabeth Hinton, who actually is another product of the Columbia History graduate program but is now a professor with me at Yale. And when I started graduate school, it was the moment that Brinkley wrote this famous essay that said historians have neglected conservatives. And this is coming out of the Reagan years, when it seemed clear to everyone that you might really want to think more seriously about conservatives and the history of conservatism. And it has been fascinating to watch that field explode — such that, twenty years later, another Brinkley student, Kim Phillips-Fein, would write another overview essay saying, “Huh, is this all played out now? Are we done with this?” And my answer in the Hoover book is no — that actually thinking about conservatives and their relationship with state power is really important and actually is very underwritten. And because I think we have an idea of the conservative movement (in particular as it started in the ’50s and ’60s) as being somehow anti-federalist and anti-statist, we’ve missed out on these really important conservative figures like Hoover who were within the state itself.
Geoff Kabaservice: You do point out that most of the conservatives that scholars have written about have been politicians or provocateurs of some kind. And there has been relatively less attention to conservative state-builders and exercisers of real power in the system — which I think is one of the great contributions of your book. But before we get back to Hoover, I cannot resist pointing out that in the 2007-08 academic year, you were on a sabbatical leave and I came up to Yale to teach some of your classes. And I particularly remember that I taught the big lecture on “American Political History since 1945” that I myself had sat through when John Blum, the legendary history professor, was teaching it. And I remember thinking, “How on earth did Blum actually go into such detail about particular episodes of government and legislative history?” And then I thought, “Well, number one, Blum didn’t actually deal with conservatives at all, because most historians didn’t in those days. And number two, that was actually twenty years ago, and there has been a lot more history since then.” And nowadays, that period would be almost all but unteachable except in broad outlines, I would imagine.
Beverly Gage: And I actually, in part, because the students who are now in college were all born in the twenty-first century…
Geoff Kabaservice: Shocking, shocking,
Beverly Gage: …and have no living memory of the twentieth century at all… It used to be that we split the course in 1945, but I’ve smashed it all together into one semester. So I now teach a class called “The American Century” that tries to get through the entire twentieth century in one semester, and then at least give hints of places that students could go deeper from there.
Geoff Kabaservice: Very ambitious.
Beverly Gage: I should note that I’m teaching a seminar on liberalism and conservatism this semester, and we read The Guardians.
Geoff Kabaservice: That’s very kind of you.
Beverly Gage: We have assigned the first great Geoff Kabaservice book.
Geoff Kabaservice: You were kind to have assigned that. And actually, there were a number of points in Kingman Brewster’s career that you made me think about while I was reading your book, because there actually were certain overlaps, which we may get to. So just let’s back up. How did you decide that you wanted to write about J. Edgar Hoover?
Beverly Gage: I encountered Hoover as a historical character, aside from the household-name popular image, when I was writing my last book, which was a book about a 1920 bomb attack on Wall Street, a terrorist attack suspected at the time (and I think rightly) of being an anarchist attack. And it was a big event. It killed almost forty people. It shut down the financial markets. And it was seen as this great blow in the struggle between anti-capitalist radicals of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and the new world of Wall Street that was emerging in that moment.
Geoff Kabaservice: Let me parenthetically add that that was your great 2009 book, The Day Wall Street Exploded: A Story of America in Its First Age of Terror. And I had to laugh while reading the Hoover book because there’s a paragraph on page 88 that refers to that bombing, and there is your book lurking behind that paragraph — much as there are other huge books lurking behind every paragraph in the Hoover biography. But yes, go ahead.
Beverly Gage: It’s true. The nature of this biography is that every paragraph, every incident, there’s a whole historical literature that is devoted to that alone. So there’s a lot of primary research, but there’s a lot of synthesis too that I was doing. And some of that synthesis was in fact my own last book, which as you say got reduced to a paragraph in this book — but it is in fact the way that I began to get interested in Hoover. That was for a couple of reasons. One was that that was a very early period, and it was before he became Bureau director. But he was there investigating that bombing and conducting campaigns against political radicals in 1919 and 1920 as head of this little experiment in the Justice Department called the Radical Division, which really was the first federal peacetime surveillance program aimed at revolutionaries, left-wing radicals. Most famously, he helped to orchestrate the Palmer deportation raids of those years.
Geoff Kabaservice: So I encountered him there as a very young man and two things struck me. One was that so many of the ideas that he was going to carry on, and that he was still going to be talking about in the ‘60s and ‘70s, really had their origin in this much earlier period. That was fascinating for him, but it also was an interesting way of re-periodizing some of the twentieth century, moving some of that back in time. And then the second was that I started reading the literature about Hoover and found that there were good books, but some of them were already becoming dated; there was lots of new material coming out. And then particularly there were new fields of historical inquiry that seemed incredibly useful to understanding him. We were talking about conservatism as a field — that was one. Gay and lesbian history was another. All of the new studies of the state: state-building, American Political Development… Most of the literature on Hoover kind of came out in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. So it just seemed like a great moment for a rethinking and a kind of big story.
Yes, this is the first major biography of Hoover to appear in I think thirty years. I would encourage readers of your book to press on to the end where there’s a lovely “Note on Sources,” just a beautiful historical essay. And you say of Hoover that there is “at once too much material and too little.” Care to expand on that?
Beverly Gage: That’s right. I was very insistent with my publisher that we needed a note on sources that would both describe a little bit of the research and then also talk about some of the historical literature that was informing my own work, since I drew on the work of so many people who had kind of touched the world of J. Edgar Hoover in one way or another. The primary sources themselves were really interesting. On the one hand, he’s the head of this massive bureaucracy for decade after decade after decade, and he was a very devoted paperwork guy. The FBI just produced unbelievable amounts of paper reports, all of this, so there’s this incredible wealth of material there — some of which is newly released either through FOIA or through other processes, and I can talk about those files as well.
Geoff Kabaservice: Though you also mentioned “painful levels of redaction.”
Beverly Gage: Well, that’s the other part of the story, is that so many of the things that you want to know you can’t know, or don’t know, either because records have been destroyed or I think, more significantly, we still have pretty heavy levels of redaction on many files. Yeah, it’s a funny combination of having way too much and then not nearly enough.
Geoff Kabaservice: There is so much to talk about when one talks about Hoover. We cannot deal with everything, but I just want to touch on a few things. He was born in Washington, D.C., actually on New Year’s Day, 1895. And he lived his entire life in Washington, D.C. and he is buried in the Congressional Cemetery here, near his parents, the sister he never met, and Clyde Tolson, his number two at the FBI — of whom we’ll talk about more. You refer at one point to an aspect of his ancestry, which is his — what did you call it? — his “Swiss-bred devotion to cleanliness and order.” And you also found some family scandals of which previous biographers had been unaware.
Beverly Gage: That’s right. A lot of the story of Hoover’s family and childhood had been a story about a kind of idyllic upbringing; this was something that Hoover himself promoted and sold. When I began to be able to use new genealogical databases and new newspaper aggregation databases and search around for some of his family history, I found some really surprising things: suicides, murders, all sorts of pieces of the story that I think really complicate his upbringing and complicate his consciousness, even though this is not in any way an attempt at a psychobiography.
One of the pieces, as you say, that is very interesting to me as well about Hoover is the fact that he’s such a pure creature of Washington, D.C. He’s born there in 1895. He’s born to a family that already has a history of government service, which is pretty unusual in the late nineteenth century; I mean, the federal government isn’t doing very much then. But he’s born right on Capitol Hill. He lives in D.C. his entire life. He dies in D.C. And because he’s a D.C. resident during those years, he never votes, he never joins a political party. And so he is like a living, breathing embodiment of this kind of government, nonpartisan, very Washington tradition that’s very small when he’s born and is just this massive monolith by the time he dies.
Geoff Kabaservice: I know it’s said of D.C. that it’s the northernmost city of the South. JFK’s witticism was that it’s a city that combines Northern charm with Southern efficiency. But I didn’t really identify Hoover as a Southerner, and yet I noticed that when he went to George Washington University, he was a member of the Kappa Alpha fraternity — founded in 1865 to honor Robert E. Lee and sort of the uber-Confederate fraternity in American history. That was an element that you kept coming back to again and again.
Beverly Gage: Yes, I think the Southernness of Washington itself is really important for someone like Hoover. This period in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century when he is growing up is a period in which Washington, which is a multiracial city, is very self-consciously segregating and you’re getting much firmer divisions between white and black. Federal employment itself is segregating in new ways. And so purely in terms of when he’s born and where he’s born, he’s kind of coming of age in a segregationist tradition. And then he goes to college at George Washington University and joins this fraternity, Kappa Alpha. I had known from other books that Kappa Alpha he was very loyal to. He drew a lot of his first generation of FBI officials both out of GW and Kappa Alpha. But when I began to look into what Kappa Alpha was, I was pretty stunned.
So it was this explicitly Southern, exclusively Southern fraternity. It had been created in the aftermath of the Civil War really to carry on the Lost Cause of the white South. By the time Hoover joined it, it was sort of a power center for conservative, segregationist, southern Democrats in Washington. You have lots of conservative southerners who are members of the fraternity and are kind of around in the alumni chapter. Probably the most famous Kappa Alpha of Hoover’s day, from a slightly earlier generation, was a guy named Thomas Dixon, who was a novelist who wrote the novels upon which Birth of a Nation, the famously racist film that came out in 1915, was based. And those were Hoover’s college years. He is steeped in the culture of Kappa Alpha. He maintains those ties for all of his life. He remains quite closely tied to his fraternity and to the ideas that he learned, and learned to articulate, during those early years.
Geoff Kabaservice: Yes, he absolutely internalizes those Southern values of white supremacy, and order, and virtue, and the white Southern Christian gentleman’s way of life. It’s significant that just as Wilson re-segregated the Washington bureaucracy when he was president, Hoover re-segregated the FBI when he became its director as well.
Beverly Gage: That’s right. And Hoover resisted many calls and many pressure campaigns over the course of his career, particularly to hire more black agents. And Hoover’s ability to create the agent corps in the way that he wanted — with men, white men who represented his values, his background — is really one of the most extraordinary accomplishments, particularly of his early career. He does two things. One is that he is very careful to keep his agents outside of the civil service. By a quirk of the way the bureaucracy was developing they weren’t under civil service rules, and Hoover is adamant that he does not want to have to select his agents from a pool of qualified civil service applicants. He wants to be able to choose men who really are a lot like him: relatively conservative. Our image of the FBI agent or the “G-man,” the government man, which is what they become known as in the ‘30s — this kind of tall white guy in his suit with his spit-shined shoes and his hat — I think it’s still most people’s image of an FBI agent.
Geoff Kabaservice: You refer to “the sheer monotony of their outlook and background.”
Beverly Gage: Exactly, and that was very deliberate and very carefully built.
Geoff Kabaservice: Hoover really does come of age with the administrative state. And it’s a quirk of history that he comes into government at just about the time that the Great War, World War I, is really reshaping government and making it a very different force in American life.
Beverly Gage: It’s interesting to think: Had J. Edgar Hoover graduated from law school in some year other than 1917, would we have had a different course of history? Would he have had a different course of history? But he did not. He graduated in 1917 just as the U.S. was entering the war. Instead of signing up to go fight, he enters the Justice Department in that moment — in part because the Justice Department is desperate for smart young lawyers who can help to administer all the things that are being assigned to it in this moment of the war. Hoover’s first job is actually something that we don’t think about much, but it was interning Germans during the war. The United States had a pretty substantive program of internment aimed at non-naturalized Germans who were living in the U.S. who were, for one reason or another, deemed dangerous; the head of the Boston Symphony Orchestra was interned in the First World War. At any rate, he happens to enter government at the moment when these new forms of surveillance, of detention, of national security are just being born, and he learns them. And it turns out he’s really, really good at them, at least for the purposes that his bosses want.
Geoff Kabaservice: He actually also worked at the Library of Congress and brings the skill and art of cardmaking and filing with him to the FBI as well.
Beverly Gage: Yes, his first government job is at the Library of Congress and at it’s the moment when these library classification systems that are very familiar to us — the Dewey Decimal System, the Library of Congress system — are being invented. He’s this kind of cutting-age information technology figure for his age.
Geoff Kabaservice: Something that really comes out about Hoover in the time of the Palmer raids and the first Red Scare is his lack of curiosity about what it is that drives radicals, and his inability to distinguish between subversives who might actually be bent on causing the country harm and just freethinkers like Harlem Renaissance writers and artists.
Beverly Gage: That remains true his whole career. On the one hand, there is Hoover in the First World War, and the Red Scare that follows, rising very fast through the Justice Department as a very young man; he’s still in his early twenties. He is styling himself as the country’s first great expert on communism, because the Bolshevik Revolution has just happened in Russia. You get a couple of communist parties formed in the United States in 1919. Hoover writes the first substantive legal governmental briefs on who are these folks, what are they up to? It becomes the cause of his life. On the other hand, he actually, from that moment through the end of his life, doesn’t really understand (A) what attracts people to radical movements, (B) how to distinguish between, say, a violent revolutionary and someone who is just reading Lenin in a book group, or even (in that moment as well as later) liberals and civil libertarians who think that communists have a right to speak their mind like anyone else. Everyone’s just kind of lumped in together as suspect.
Geoff Kabaservice: This actually seems allied to his inability to understand crime as anything other than a moral failing, and his complete resistance to any possible structural explanation such as poverty or discrimination.
Beverly Gage: Yes. There are a few moments in his career where, under the Roosevelt administration or the Johnson administration, the pressure to articulate some kind of structural understanding of crime is significant enough that Hoover will gesture in that direction. But fundamentally what he stands for is the idea that crime is an individual moral failing. A lot of his cultural conservatism, as he’s articulating it throughout his whole career, is really centered around that question. He spends lots of time lecturing American mothers for not attending to their children well enough, for doing things like playing bridge and drinking alcohol rather than tending to their children at every moment — and if you are not, your children are going to grow up to be terrible, terrible criminals. Advocating that everybody go to Sunday school… These sorts of things that you think, “Why is the director of the FBI giving this long speech about Sunday school?” But those themes — the centrality of religious faith, of morality, of a kind of public religiosity — are really central to how he thinks about crime as well as communism.
Geoff Kabaservice: And he imposes these same values on the FBI in kind of a cultish way, in that the agents have to not just have a certain appearance and dress a certain way, they have to behave according to Hoover’s code of moral conduct. There are even some creepy details — like he keeps the windows open in the offices during the winter so that no one can be seen to be sleeping or slothful on the job.
Beverly Gage: He was an incredibly rigid boss in a whole variety of ways — first of all in who he hired, right? Again, particularly in the agent corps, there was a very particular type of man he wanted. Then, once you were in, you had a raft of rules to abide by. Office culture… He was both a germophobe and a kind of neat freak. And so particularly in the ‘20s and ‘30s, when he has lots of time to attend to such things, he’s writing these kind of operatic memos about how “Galoshes have been left out, and what if the Attorney General walked through our Bureau and saw those galoshes, what would he think? If you can’t even put your shoes and your snacks in the right place, what does that say about the possibility that you will ever be able to fight crime” or whatever it might be?
He was very rigid in a wide variety of ways. And there are moments where sometimes his employees attempt to push back a little bit, and they fail utterly. One of my favorites is an extraordinarily repressed attempt by members of his Fingerprint Division to unionize in the 1930s, at the moment when unions are a hot thing — and Hoover just crushes them.
Geoff Kabaservice: And yet behind this rigid facade, there is another side of Hoover. Tell us about Clyde Tolson.
Beverly Gage: Right. So one of the things that happens over the course of being a biographer is that you do find a human side, even to a man like J. Edgar Hoover. And one of the places that that really came out was in his relationship with Clyde Tolson, who was, for most of his career, his number-two at the FBI. So they worked very, very closely together. But more than that, Tolson was really his social partner for more than four decades. They traveled together. They went to nightclubs together. They ate all of their meals together. And they were a pretty widely recognized social couple in Washington, in New York. If you invited Edgar to dinner, you invited Clyde. And when they sent a thank-you note, it was, “Clyde and I had such a wonderful time. Thanks so much.”
So they really functioned as this couple in a very open and very widely accepted way. Of course, the question then becomes: What kind of couple were they? And of course we don’t really know what they were doing in the privacy of their respective bedrooms. There are of course famous stories about this, but a lot of them are not based on anything that historians would recognize as firm evidence. Some of the evidence that I really loved — and I hope you saw the hardback version of the book rather than the galleys, because it had the photo inserts. Hoover kept this kind of extraordinary personal photo collection, a lot of which is of his vacations with Tolson in the ’30s and ’40s. They’re incredibly intimate and often very erotic photos, and I was happy to be able to print some of those and put them out into the world.
Geoff Kabaservice: Those photos also appear in the Kindle edition, people will be glad to know.
Beverly Gage: Good, good.
Geoff Kabaservice: Jamie Kirchick was on my podcast a while ago, and he wrote Secret City (another New York Times Notable Book this year), in which he concluded that there’s no way of knowing whether Hoover and Tolson were in fact a gay couple. Yet I also agree with your argument that “understanding Hoover as a gay man is the most straightforward explanation for the life he chose.”
Beverly Gage: Right. We know a lot of pretty basic things. One is that he had no interest in women. He didn’t date women. The moment after his mother dies, there’s a brief flurry in which people say — because he’s been living with his mother his whole adult life — there’s a brief flurry of interest in whether he will now start dating women and get married. And that doesn’t go anywhere. It’s clearly just PR fluff. He and Tolson also clearly really did love and care for each other, in a pretty deep way. You see glimmers of this in their notes to each other, in the photographs, and just in the fact that they spent their whole lives together — which is a lot more than a lot of people can say, right? They had a relationship that lasted for more than forty years.
One of the more touching moments to me — and this is the final image of the book — is that when Hoover dies in 1972, there’s a big official funeral. But when he’s brought to Congressional Cemetery and there’s a flag over his casket, the honor guard folds the flag, and they hand that flag to Clyde Tolson in a gesture of respect of some sort for the relationship they had.
Geoff Kabaservice: And Tolson would later be buried right nearby Hoover’s grave as well.
Beverly Gage: Right.
Geoff Kabaservice: Yeah, one wonders if, in a later era, they might not have been regarded as the perfect couple who lived an office life together as well as a personal life together — because Tolson actually was Hoover’s number-two throughout this entire period as well.
Beverly Gage: Exactly. And they often said that they spent so much time together… Of course, they roundly denied that they were gay — and not only denied that they were gay, they were very active in the policing of and purging of other gay federal employees, which was federal policy in the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s; that if you were found to be homosexual, you were expelled from federal employment. So the FBI is enforcing that. And Hoover is also very actively policing rumors about his own homosexuality, which were there. But if you were at a cocktail party in Washington and said to the wrong person, “Hey, I’ve heard this thing about the FBI director,” you might in fact get an FBI agent showing up on your doorstep a few days later saying, “You should not say such scurrilous and terrible things about our very respectable FBI director.” So he actively policed his own image and the rumors about him.
Geoff Kabaservice: That is one of the more sinister aspects of the book that surfaces. It’s a paradox of Hoover that you point out, that although he is identified as a conservative (and rightly so), the two presidents who did the most to make the FBI (and Hoover personally) were FDR and Lyndon Baines Johnson — both Democrats, liberal Democrats at that. And FDR did that largely through enabling the FBI to change to meet the threat of the crime wave of the 1930s but then also to, in 1936, charge the FBI with beginning to investigate domestic fascism and communism. And that is really the power that allowed Hoover to grow and expand the FBI.
Beverly Gage: FDR liked Hoover and thought he was doing a good job. FDR was not much of a civil libertarian. So it really is Franklin Roosevelt that gives the FBI, first of all, vastly expanded criminal law enforcement powers. FBI agents don’t consistently carry guns until the mid-1930s. And it’s a kind of big transformation that they go through, from being kind of white-collar investigators to actually then needing to be gun-toting G-men. And it’s also Franklin Roosevelt who, as you said, gives them entree back into political surveillance and then massively expands the FBI’s size and Hoover’s power during the war. So the FBI quadruples in size during the Second World War as the domestic police force, basically.
Geoff Kabaservice: And, weirdly, Hoover can appear as a liberal in this administration, in the sense that he is against the detention of Japanese-American citizens. And he is also forming some alliances with the ACLU, his former critics, and even the NAACP during this time.
Beverly Gage: Yeah. In the ’40s, it would be hard to think of Hoover as being anything other than, if not quite a liberal, certainly a New Dealer. And he was always pretty good at reading the political winds. So he’s trying to stay pretty close to both what the president wants and where he thinks the political consensus of the moment might be, and to placate his historic critics. So there are these funny moments of collaboration with, as you say, the ACLU and with the NAACP, particularly around lynching campaigns. One of Hoover’s, I think, most cherished values — and genuinely held — was a kind of contempt for and hostility to vigilantism of any sort. So even if, in some way, he might have sympathized with the cause of the white South broadly conceived — and he certainly did — he had very little patience for groups like the Ku Klux Klan, who (A) sought to use extralegal violence to carry out their political aims or (B) spent a lot of time thumbing their nose at federal law enforcement authority. So he engaged in campaigns against lynchers, against the Ku Klux Klan, and those were important parts of his identity and his legacy.
Geoff Kabaservice: Although, as you point out, he never went after right-wing forces with the enthusiasm and passion that he did going after the communists and left-wing groups.
Beverly Gage: Right. That’s what he really cared about, was crushing communism, and not even as just a kind of espionage threat or the Communist Party itself. But he believed his whole life that he was engaged in this grand existential struggle with communism — as a national security issue, but also as a cultural force, as an assault on the American way of life, on American freedom, et cetera. That’s the thing that made, I think, his worldview really make sense.
Geoff Kabaservice: So Hoover really rises to become one of the New Deal elite during this time. There’s that heartwarming anecdote where FDR’s assistant, Harry Hopkins, asks Hoover to wiretap his wife, as one does. But you then point out that with the end of the war, Hoover began to use his state power to promote and enforce his conservative beliefs in order and hierarchy, religiosity, racial segregation, and anti-Communism as the bedrock of American life. And really, beginning in the 1940s, as you say, he was the single most important architect of the Red Scare.
Beverly Gage: Yes. During the first half of his career as FBI director, he’s kind of building his bureaucracy, he’s making his name. But he’s, in the grand scheme of things, relatively junior. And it’s only in the ’40s, particularly the late ’40s, that he begins to really exercise the kind of autonomous power that we think of him as having. And a lot of that comes through the Red Scare of that era. One of the most interesting relationships for me, and the most surprising, was to look at Hoover and Joseph McCarthy. We tend to, I think, think of them as basically the same kind of guy: operatically anti-Communist, very aggressive.
But in the McCarthy era, both Hoover himself and many other people see them as very different. McCarthy is kind of the public demagogue, the one who’s willing to play fast and loose with the facts. And Hoover is the statesman, the bureaucrat, the observer of limits and facts. We know now that some of that isn’t true. But Hoover was the much more serious institution-builder, and he really built the apparatus of the Red Scare. And in that sense, McCarthy was just kind of a showman who came and went.
Geoff Kabaservice: Ellen Schrecker, in a book about twenty years ago, Many Are the Crimes, did also conclude that Hooverism was ultimately more important than McCarthyism. But I think you put it really sharply, which is that “McCarthy never had Hoover’s political skills or his interest in the slow, difficult work of institution-building.” Which meant that “McCarthyism ultimately was a surface phenomenon, whereas Hooverism came first, lasted longer, and mattered more.”
Beverly Gage: Well said, Geoff.
Geoff Kabaservice: Very well indeed. And of course, again, there’s an irony that Hoover, as someone who probably was a gay man, also kicked off the Lavender Scare — which began with but then outlasted the Red Scare, and also resulted in a lot of firings from government positions, and really damaged and destroyed lives.
Beverly Gage: That’s right. Simultaneous with the Red Scare is the Lavender Scare. And the FBI didn’t make the policy, exactly, that civil service employees, in particular federal employees, who were found to be gay would be purged from federal employment. But it really became the chief enforcement and investigative mechanism for those inquiries. So in the end, Hoover and the Bureau were responsible for getting hundreds if not thousands of people brought up for hearings and in many cases fired. And that went on for a very long time.
Geoff Kabaservice: It’s also in the late ’50s, under Eisenhower’s presidency, that COINTELPRO starts. This, of course, will become one of the most damaging aspects of Hoover’s legacy. But you pointed out that it started small. Can you tell us about its creation?
Beverly Gage: I think today COINTELPRO is probably the most famous and most notorious of the abusive programs of the Hoover era. So the word stands for “Counterintelligence Program.” And what the FBI meant by counterintelligence was not just surveillance of political groups it didn’t like, but also active disruptive measures aimed at destabilizing organizations, discrediting leaders, anonymous letters, fake pamphlets… Sending your informants in to make the meetings really long and boring was a big FBI strategy. And for anyone who’s tried to do social movement organizing of one sort or another, you know that that in fact does kill organizations if you’ve got people in the room who are just asking dumb questions and it’s going on too long.
So they have this vast array of techniques that were aimed at these kinds of disruptive measures. Today, we associate COINTELPRO and those techniques with the FBI’s campaigns against people like Martin Luther King, the civil rights movement, the New Left, the anti-war movement. And that was all true. But there are a couple of things about COINTELPRO that I think changed that perception a little bit. One, as you say, it started in the ’50s. It started pretty small, and it started as a program specifically aimed at the Communist Party. The FBI was worried that its old techniques of prosecuting people or conducting surveillance were becoming more restricted by the Supreme Court and not supported by public opinion, so they started this secret program instead.
And the other was that, though most of this was aimed at the left, there was one program in particular, which was COINTELPRO-White Hate, that was aimed at white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups. And they used the same techniques — pretty effectively, actually. And often at the very same moment that the FBI is trying to target Martin Luther King, drive him out of public life, destabilize the civil rights movement, they’re doing exactly the same thing to the Ku Klux Klan.
Geoff Kabaservice: One of the significant aspects of your book is that this is the first Hoover biography that uses the Venona files and also the Operation SOLO files. Can you tell us about those?
Beverly Gage: Those were two of the FBI’s, as they would’ve described it, great triumphs in thinking about Soviet espionage. Venona was a decryption program, very secret, that was started by the Army and then the FBI stepped in, in which they had all these cables from the war that turned out to be the Soviets talking with themselves about all of the spies they had in the United States. So they began to decrypt a lot of this in the late ’40s and early ’50s. It’s the program that led them to figures like Julius Rosenberg. Although it was all top secret in that moment, Venona turns out to be sort of a mixed bag. It was infiltrated. The famous British Soviet operative, Kim Philby, ended up basically telling the Soviets everything that the FBI knew. So it wasn’t as effective as they thought that it was, but they thought it was a great success in that moment.
And then Operation SOLO was a really incredible story. These are amazing files in which the FBI had both the international representative of the American Communist Party and the secret courier of Soviet money to the American Communist Party both on its own payroll. And they spent the late ’50s, really up through the ’80s, telling the FBI everything that they were up to. And they were going around the world meeting with people like Mao and Fidel Castro, and the FBI has very elaborate charts of the millions of dollars that the Soviet Union is sending to prop up the Communist Party.
Geoff Kabaservice: I found those descriptions utterly fascinating. You point out that the ’50s was really Hoover’s zenith, because on the one hand conservatives just love how he is willing to use state power in support of the American way of life. At the same time, liberals appreciate that he actually is a counterweight to the irresponsibility and chaos of Joe McCarthy. And in a weird way, Hoover also provides some ballast to the “responsible” conservatives, like Bill Buckley and the National Review, against the “extremists” when it came to marginalizing the John Birch Society and some of these other really conspiratorially-minded anti-communist groups, even though they thought of Hoover as virtually their patron saint. But you also point out that this balance ultimately collapses in the 1960s, both as the issue of Communism fades and as race and civil rights really come to the fore and divide the country.
But I’ve got to say, one of the funniest and in some ways most telling parts of the book is reading about the conflicts that Hoover had with his new boss, Robert F. Kennedy, during the Kennedy administration. And the ways in which Kennedy kind of tormented Hoover really showed just how rigid and ossified Hoover’s FBI had become, but also the real drawbacks of his version of order for America.
Beverly Gage: The Kennedy years — they basically are driving Hoover crazy. That is probably the most fractious relationship that he had with any presidential administration — although I have to say I ended up, during those years, having a little bit of sympathy for Hoover. So first of all, he’s getting old, and here you’ve got this new generation coming into power. But he’s a little skeptical of the idea that the president should be able to appoint his — what was Robert Kennedy, 35-years-old or something when he became Attorney General? And Hoover was sort of like, “I don’t think you should be able to do that.” And this guy, he seems a little bit more sure of himself than maybe his actual skills and background would suggest. So there’s a generational conflict, there’s a conflict of sensibility, there is an institutional conflict over what the real purpose of the FBI is around things like organized crime and civil rights.
And then there is what was the kind of worst thing that you could do, which is a conflict… Because Robert Kennedy in particular was criticizing the FBI as having become slow and ossified, particularly around organized crime — not really having its act together. And nothing more earned you Hoover’s enmity. But it’s pretty funny stuff because they really are just vicious about each other, and they’re stylistically so different. I mean, Hoover just would get so angry when Robert Kennedy would take off his tie; it’s just like total disrespect for the work of government to walk around in your shirt sleeves. So there are all these shirt-sleeves memos in which he’s really quite upset about this.
And RFK actually installs a buzzer from which he can summon Hoover to his office, which Hoover did not like at all.
Beverly Gage: That’s right. He was rightly saying, “You know, you might think that you’re everyone’s boss, Edgar, but actually the attorney general is the boss of the FBI director. And you answer to me, I don’t answer to you” — which actually turned out not to be true in the end. He’s not very good at this, and in fact he does end up answering to Hoover more than Hoover answers to him.
Geoff Kabaservice: Something that you raised in your book, which I hadn’t thought much about, is that a lot of Hoover’s FBI agents go on to play important roles in the conservative movement. Dan Smoot, who became kind of an early media mogul, was a former agent. So was W. Cleon Skousen, who wrote a lot of the books that were critical to the John Birch Society. Senator Thomas Dodd was one of the former agents. And Nixon had applied to be an agent but didn’t actually get through. At Yale University in the early ’60s, then-president Whitney Griswold hired John Powell to be the dean of security, and Powell started keeping files on supposedly subversive tendencies of individual students and faculty members, which he then sent on to the FBI.
Although there’s not time to get into all of the difficulties that the FBI experienced (and the contradictions that Hoover experienced) in confronting the Jim Crow segregation and violence against the civil rights movement in the ’50s and ’60s, I was really interested to see that Laurie Pritchett, the sheriff in Albany, Georgia, was also a former FBI agent. And he’s the one who seemed to actually use Hoover’s ideas of professionalism to effectively repress the civil rights movement. Because Martin Luther King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference actually spent a whole year in Albany trying to integrate it, and Pritchett frustrated their plans because instead of giving them the spectacle of violence that could be captured on television and move the hearts and minds of viewers around the country, he would just very blandly arrest the protestors. He would pray with them. He actually would claim for himself the mantle of passive resistance in this case.
In some ways, this is what Martin Luther King I think is writing about when he writes “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” This is the face of white moderation that wants order and is prepared to let segregation go on forever as long as it doesn’t provide something really inconveniencing or damaging. And he needs not a Pritchett but a sort of dumb, anti-Hoover type like Bull Connor in Birmingham to actually have his movement succeed.
Beverly Gage: Yeah. Those two pieces that you mentioned — the ex-agents and then also this kind of hidden history of FBI influence on southern policing during the heyday of the civil rights movement — were both really fascinating to me. If I were to continue writing about such a thing — I’m going to pause, I think, after these thirteen years — those are two areas that I think are really ready for deeper historical work and explanation. The ex-agents, they’re sort of everywhere: they’re within law enforcement, they’re running their own private security firms, they’re becoming conservative activists. And it’s just a fascinating story about how the state creates all of these private actors who are in fact trained by Hoover, given legitimacy by him, get their skills from him. And then Laurie Pritchett is a really great character. I think he was not an ex-agent but had gone through the FBI Academy…
Geoff Kabaservice: The Academy, that’s right.
Beverly Gage: …which is the FBI’s training ground for local police officials and was a really important source of Hoover spreading his ideas into law enforcement, which mostly happens at the local level in the United States. And he’s a fascinating strategist. Yeah, one of the reasons that King goes to Birmingham is he’s like, “We really need a bully like Bull Connor who is going to create a violent spectacle that will get public attention.” And in fact, Bull Connor had his own history of refusing to send Birmingham policemen to the FBI Academy because he didn’t want that kind of professionalizing, moderating force. So there’s a whole hidden history of police politics within all of these organizations.
Geoff Kabaservice: I’m not encouraging you to write a sequel, but I am going to say that it really struck me that Hoover was such a significant figure through which to view the 1960s. Because the ’60s witnesses, on the one hand, the enormous increase in crime that continues through the 1990s and affects so much of American politics and life during that time. And at the same time, you also have the rise of these protest movements — not just the civil rights movement but also the anti-war movement, the student movement, and the more extreme forms of protest such as the Black Panthers. And Hoover, you point out, unlike the various conservative commentators who just denounced these developments, actually had the power to contain, to manipulate, to infiltrate, and ultimately to destroy entire organizations and movements. And although I don’t have a great deal of sympathy for the Black Panthers, I think there’s no doubt that Hoover, through his actions against groups like that, helped really to destroy a lot of Americans’ faith in government.
Beverly Gage: Yes. And that is the key, I think, to thinking about Hoover. First of all, during that period, as you say, he really had an enormous amount of independent power and secret power that he could use to enforce his vision of who was legitimate and who was illegitimate within the big sprawl of American democracy. And he did that quite actively. As a result, there’s practically nothing that happens in the 1960s that you can understand in a deep way without thinking about the role of the FBI. So any social movement, any organization that is engaged in political activity during that period — whether you’re talking about non-violent protest or you’re talking about violent protest or even more conventional forms of politics — the FBI is there.
One great example is Lyndon Johnson getting a special squad of FBI agents to surveil and infiltrate and report back to him about civil rights activists at the 1964 Democratic Convention. So everything that’s happening is being influenced by Hoover in particular, by the FBI. And I think it’s worth thinking about whether the fate of the movements of the ’60s would have been different if you’d had a different man in power. And I think it’s the best case for the idea that a more restrained FBI director might have produced a very different set of political fates in the 1960s.
Geoff Kabaservice: By the time of Hoover’s death in 1972, a lot of people seem to feel that he’s there because he has dirty secrets on everyone who matters in politics and American life, and that’s how he’s able to maintain his position of power. And you mostly, I think, show that that’s not true, that in fact there are actually reasons of Hoover’s popularity with the public and also his skill at bureaucratic manipulation and just sheer political relations that keep him in power for all that time. But you do say that there actually were secret files that Hoover kept locked up in his office. Tell us about those.
Beverly Gage: Right. Our image is that this is the sole source of Hoover’s power. And I think that that is not true, but it is certainly true that his secret files were a source of his power. And he did have lots of information on major political figures, on other figures prominent in public life. And some of those were just knowledge of what people had asked the FBI to do. So in the Nixon administration… Nixon and Hoover had been great friends for a long time. They get into a lot of conflict when Nixon is president.
Nixon actually wants to ease Hoover out but feels that he can’t do it for a couple of different reasons, all of which I think are important. One is that Hoover is still pretty popular, especially among conservatives that Nixon feels like he really needs to keep in his camp. So there’s that piece. They have this long history together. But Hoover has also set up a series of wiretaps, at the behest of Nixon and Henry Kissinger, on members of the White House staff, on members of the press. He’s been keeping those logs, and Nixon does not want this to come out. There’s a moment in which he says, “Well, we could try to get him out, but if we do, he’s going to bring the whole temple down around him.”
So Nixon as well as Kennedy and others were really very nervous about what was in Hoover’s files. It’s also worth saying that it doesn’t really matter if you have the goods on people as long as people think you might. That’s the power. So in some cases, he does. In other cases, he doesn’t. But if you believe that he does, then you’re going to do what he wants you to do.
Geoff Kabaservice: It’s true. Lyndon Johnson’s analogy of micturation inside or outside the tent also comes to mind as well. There’s something very interesting to me about your book, which is that at the time you started it, the conservative movement was in no way similar to what it was post-Donald Trump. And you, of course, could not have envisioned Donald Trump’s coming into existence. But there is now a national conservatism movement which actually I think at some point will seize upon Hoover as the kind of model government executive that they want. Because these are people who believe that they have been shut out of every important aspect of American culture, whether it be Hollywood, the media, academia, even large corporations and the military. And the only instrument that they have available to them to right the balance is the state, which they can use to smash their enemies, whether that’s by confiscating Harvard’s endowment or resorting to some of these extralegal, extra-constitutional means that J. Edgar Hoover at various points in his career employed. And I wonder what lesson you might implore these national conservatives to take from your study of Hoover and his significance.
Beverly Gage: Well, I think first of all Hoover is a study in some of the dangers and downsides of having one man with unaccountable power. And I don’t think we’re in any danger specifically of having an FBI director who’s going to be in office for 48 years again. I think that was very particular to a certain moment of state expansion, and we have a lot of other restrictions and such in place. So that scenario is not going to happen. But one of the lessons of Hoover’s life is that a set of techniques and ideas deployed in one space are very easily transferred over to other figures. COINTELPRO, right? The great story of COINTELPRO is something that starts out as a secret program aimed at the Communist Party in particular. Ultimately because it is in many ways secret, it mushrooms out to go after a vast array of other organizations and institutions. So I think it is a story about the danger of a secret bureaucracy.
One of the things that’s actually been interesting to me in this moment about the FBI’s changing image and reputation is that when Hoover died, he and the FBI were much more popular among self-identified Republicans and conservatives than among Democrats and liberals. And that was true for the next four decades, really up until the Trump administration. But the thing that’s happened over the last six or so years is that that has almost entirely flipped in public opinion polls. So Democrats now like the FBI much better than Republicans — for some partisan reasons, one would imagine. But also I think liberals have come to recognize the value of a certain kind of professional, fact-finding, nonpartisan aspect to the FBI that is still there and is pretty central to what the FBI does.
So that has been really interesting to watch. It has been interesting to see parts of the conservative movement as Trump would define it — which maybe isn’t really the conservative movement, but that’s a different debate — attacking the Deep State in ways that would be very familiar to ’60s and ’70s radicals and that would be shared by people on the left. So it’s a little hard for me to say in this moment what the reputational fate of the Bureau is going to be five years from now. Some of that will depend on what the Bureau itself does and then on what happens in electoral politics.
Geoff Kabaservice: Well, Bev Gage, thank you so much for joining me today. Your magnificent new biography G-Man: J. Edgar Hoover and the Making of the American Century is just a real achievement and has given us so much to think about, both in the present and for how we regard our own American past. Thank you again.
Beverly Gage: Thanks, Geoff.
Geoff Kabaservice: And thank you all for listening to the Vital Center Podcast. Please subscribe and rate us on your preferred podcasting platform. If you have any questions, comments, or other responses, please include them along with your rating or send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks as always to our technical director, Kristie Eshelman, our sound engineer, Ray Ingegneri, and the Niskanen Center in Washington, D.C.