Tuesday, November 1, 2011

My favorite photo of J. Edgar Hoover

J. Edgar Hoover, circa 8 years old, with his bike.

 For the upcoming new movie J. Edgar, starring Leonardo DiCaprio in the title role, here is my favorite picture of the real-life future tough, gruff, civil-liberties-stomping autocratic crime-fighter, J. Edgar Hoover himself.
I spent two years of my life getting to know Hoover while researching and writing  my own book YOUNG J. EDGAR: Hoover the and Red Scare 1919-1920, and found him surprisingly sympathetic in his early years.  

Yes, he grew up with a very dark side:  Hoover would become 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.  He 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-Vietnam War protestors.  He would aid Senator Joe McCarthy in his anti-Communist witch hunts, and remains today a widely hated figure.

DiCaprio as Hoover, looking a bit older,
but still with his bike.
On the good side, he used his organizational brilliance in the late 1920s and 1930s to build the then-dysfunctional 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 become a rookie FBI agent than it was to get into an Ivy League college.

How did he get this way?  In the photo, you see Edgar as a shockingly-normal boy playing with his bicycle.  Hoover grew up in the Capitol Hill section of Washington, D.C., son of a lifelong government clerk, youngest of four kids, a spoiled, mother's favorite.  He sang in his church choir, carried groceries for old ladies, and starred on his high school track, debate, and cadet teams.  He made lots of friends.  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 Edgar from this normal, smart, eager child of the Jazz Age into the corrupt autocrat of later years?  This was the question behind my own book, Young J. Edgar (which tells of Hoover's first big assignment in the 1919 Justice Depatment, running the notorious anti-Communist crackdown called the Palmer Raids) and seems to be a key theme of the upcoming Eastwood-DiCaprio film as well.

Enjoy the movie, and please check out the book while you're at it.  

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