Secrecy and Power: The Life of J. Edgar Hoover – Review

by: Powers, Richard Gid

Publisher: The Free Press, Mcmillian Publishers, Inc

Copyright: 1987

Cover: A/P Wide World Photo

Type: Softcover

reviewed by: Lynard Barnes 2/1/2001

Summary: Highly Recommended. A rather comprehensive look at the life of the former FBI Director .

The oddity of J. Edgar Hoover, the man, is that it is impossible to draw up two lists and delineate all the good he did on one list and all the reprehensible things he did on another list. Hoover was what he did and what he did was him. So, we settle for the epithet that he was a “flawed human being”. Indeed he was. But was he any more flawed than the elected officials who adopted a hands-off policy toward the FBI?

In this book, Powers manages to achieve balance between Hoover, the man, and Hoover’s acts. The feat is achieved by placing Hoover within a stream of history starting with the “hysteria over traitors, spies, and saboteurs” in 1917 when President Woodrow Wilson signed the declaration of war against Germany. From May 10, 1924 to his ultimate victory in packaging the Kennedy assassination, Hoover learned the art of bureaucratic empire building, an endeavor greatly aided by mass media, especially the movies and later television. During the final part of the book, by which time Richard Nixon is in the White House and truly little men are occupying high positions everywhere, Hoover is beginning to retract his fangs to reveal his essence. The COINTELPRO operations in which his FBI spied on citizens had come to an end by 1971. But the Nixon White House-a consortium of little men-is kept busy attempting to douse little campfires of corruption. In March 1972 for example, columnist Jack Anderson published a memo from ITT lobbyist Dita Beard in which she said that U. S. Attorney John Mitchell could settle an antitrust case for a $400,000 contribution to the Republican part. The Nixon White House wanted Hoover’s FBI to declare the memo a forgery. Hoover refused to play. The Beard memo incident is perhaps the only cut and dry instance in which Hoover refused to cross an ethical boundary. The White House was forced to set up its own political investigative arm-the Plumbers who went on to Watergate infamy-because Hoover refused to let the FBI be used for such overt political purposes. Yet this was the same Hoover who loosed the FBI on Martin Luther King and liberals of the 1960s because of possible Communist ties. And therein lies the key to deciphering Hoover.

Richard Powers has crafted this history so well that the reader is allowed to focus on time and place and the continuity of both. Of course Hoover would not willy-nilly allow the FBI to become a political Gestapo. But if you drop the red flag of Communist activists or sympathizers in front of him, he is capable of practicing situational ethics-and law enforcement–with the best of them. Fighting the godless communists was Hoover’s life; a life of single-focus, and as near one dimensionality as a life, intellectually and perhaps spiritually as well, could get. So you come back to the question of making a list of the good and bad of J. Edgar Hoover and discover that the list is really irrelevant. Here was a man whose strength of character was his fear, and whose greatest weakness was the same fear. A flawed human, yes. In reading this biography of Hoover, you can’t help but to speculate on the possible course of American history and democracy itself had the man building a bureaucratic law enforcement empire was suffused with different flaws, different agendas. (Another work on J. Edgar Hoover is Anthony Summers’s “The Secret Life of J. Edgar Hoover”).