Justice  /  Q&A

J. Edgar Hoover Shaped US History for the Worse

As director of the FBI for decades, J. Edgar Hoover helped build a massive, professionalized national security state and hounded leftists out of public life.

Micah Uetricht:

Hoover’s position was technically a nonpartisan one; it was unelected. Yet he managed to successfully portray himself throughout his career as a kind of neutral bureaucrat while still openly proclaiming his reactionary politics. For decades, he made no secret about what his political beliefs were. I was surprised in reading the book to learn that his two closest White House allies in your telling were the two liberal titan presidents of the twentieth century, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson. How did this happen?

Beverly Gage:

You’ve described very well the political puzzle of the book, or the two pieces of politics that one needs to understand Hoover. One is that he was steeped in a Progressive Era tradition that emphasized the importance of nonpartisan, professional, career government service that would stand as a counterweight to partisanship, that would bring expertise and professionalism into the government. He was a believer of sorts in that, and in many ways executed it effectively at certain moments, in the ways that he built the FBI, but particularly in his public image.

He was constantly saying the FBI is a nonpartisan institution. At the same time, he had very clear conservative beliefs of his own — particularly around communism, around race, around religion, around crime, and he made no secret of that either. This is a combination we don’t see all that often in our politics, particularly in the Trump era and since: a belief in professional government service and expertise, and a deep ideological conservatism.

But Hoover put those things together and made them work. One of the reasons it worked during his period is because the parties themselves looked so different. You could be a conservative and be a Democrat; you could be a liberal and be a Republican. The makeup of the parties was different. So Hoover had real constituencies on both sides of the aisle in a partisan sense.

He was also very good at doing political favors for people, at ingratiating himself — not only with figures in the White House, but with Congress as a whole. Lyndon Johnson and Franklin Roosevelt were particularly interesting because they were great believers in state building, and one piece of the state that they really believed in building was the FBI.

Micah Uetricht:

We mostly remember Hoover for his political beliefs and for his overreach in some of the repressive policies that he carried out. But throughout the book, you constantly talk about his role as an effective bureaucrat.