Thursday, July 9, 2009

J. Edgar Hoover

In honor of the new movie
Public Enemies starring JohnnyDepp and based on the terrific book by Bryan Burrough, here is my favorite picture of that tough, gruff, civil-liberties-stomping autocratic crime-fighter J. Edgar Hoover.

The dark side: Hoover would grow up to be Director for Life of the FBI, holding the job for 48 years under nine presidents (Calvin Coolidge to Richard Nixon) from 1924 till his death in 1972. Hoover would use his secret FBI files to blackmail presidents, senators, and movie stars, and felt no scruples conducting sabotage, black bag jobs, or secret wiretaps against any person or group he considered "subversive." By the 1960s, this included mostly civil rights leaders and anti-Viet Nam War dissenters.

Earlier, he aided Senator Joe McCarthy on his anti-Communist witch hunts. He remains one of the most-hated figures in American history.

On the good side, he used his organizational brilliance in the 1930s to build the then-disfunctional Bureau into a modern professional force with scientific methods, a national academy and lab, a Most Wanted List, finger print files, and a strict agent code of conduct. At his peak, he made the G-Man brand so popular that it was tougher to be accepted as a rookie FBI agent than it was to get into an Ivy League college.

How did he get this way? Here, we see young J. Edgar as a shockingly-normal boy playing with his bike. Hoover grew up in the Capitol Hill section of Washington, D.C., son of a lifelong government clerk, youngest of four siblings, spoiled, his mother's favorite. He was smart, eager, sang in a church choir, carried groceries for old ladies, and was the star of his high school track, debate, and cadet teams. His classmates elected him their valedictorian. He worked his way through Law School and graduated in 1917 as America entered World War I.

What changed him from this normal, smart, eager child of the Jazz Age into the corrupt autocrat of later years was the question behind my own book Young J. Edgar, which tells the story of Hoover's first big assignment in the 1919 Justice Depatment, running the notorious anti-Communist crackdown known as the Palmer Raids.

In between, though, he brought in John Dillinger, the bank robber-- played by Johnny Depp in the new movie. Enjoy.

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