As we watch strongmen in Russia and China propel their great countries towards ruin, it is worth remembering that even in established democracies, autocrats can flourish and cause immense damage. This article based on a new biography of J Edgar Hoover, the man who ran the FBI from 1924 up to his death in 1972, by Beverly Gage (“G-Man: J. Edgar Hoover and the Making of the American Century”) documents how one-man terrified successive US Presidents and went on to destroy the lives of people and politicians who he did not like.

Sometime in the 1950s, Hoover set up a program called COINTELPRO (an acronym for Counter-Intelligence Program). The main job of this program was to attack the Left: “Hoover’s F.B.I., as the files established, had engineered a clandestine campaign aimed at “disrupting” and “neutralizing” left-wing and civil-rights organizations through the use of informants, smear campaigns, and callous, cunning plots to break up marriages, get people fired, and exacerbate political divisions.”

COINTELPRO proved to be a great success for Hoover by engaging in a range of extra-judicial activities: “Under its auspices, the F.B.I. had wiretapped Martin Luther King, Jr.,’s hotel rooms and recorded his sexual assignations. In 1964, soon after King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, a package containing the tapes arrived at his home. His wife, Coretta Scott King, opened it. Inside was a letter, concocted by the F.B.I. and purporting to be from a disappointed Black supporter of King’s, that called him “a filthy, abnormal animal” while seemingly urging him to kill himself. cointelpro operatives went on to spread a false rumor that the actress Jean Seberg was pregnant by a member of the Black Panthers. (In fact, she was married and pregnant with her husband’s child, but, after the rumor circulated, she gave birth prematurely and lost the baby.) In 1969, cointelpro operatives collaborated with Chicago police in the raid that killed the twenty-one-year-old Black Panther leader Fred Hampton in his bed. Hoover, Gage notes, approved a bonus for the F.B.I. informant who had drawn a map of Hampton’s apartment, including where he slept.”

So how did Hoover acquire so much power? Why were Presidents, even Republican ones, scared of taking him on? The answer lies in how Hoover had in the decades either side of the Second World War carefully built his image with the American public as the one man who could be trusted to do the right thing for America: “For a very long time, most Americans admired Hoover. In the nineteen-thirties, the Bureau’s white-collar officers acquired a new mystique when, at Franklin Roosevelt’s behest, they took on gangsters such as John Dillinger and Pretty Boy Floyd. For the first time since the Bureau’s founding, in 1908, agents were allowed to make arrests and carry guns—they shot Dillinger down as he left a movie theatre in Chicago, where he’d been watching a gangster picture. Though initially wary of the press and publicity, Hoover proved adept at turning them to his advantage. The Bureau opened its doors to the public for tours, and coöperated with Hollywood studios on a spate of films and, later, a TV series that glamorized F.B.I. agents and offered tantalizing glimpses of the agency’s state-of-the-art forensics.…

By the late nineteen-forties, he had become the country’s most reliable anti-Communist warrior, more sober (in all senses of the word) and less erratic than Joseph McCarthy, and in it for the long haul. While husbanding his hoard of secrets, he managed to fashion himself into a sort of avuncular avatar of conservative Americanism. Until the cointelpro revelations, that persona insured his wide appeal. In interviews with reporters and in speeches before women’s clubs and the American Legion, Hoover extolled Christian faith and the importance of Sunday school; inveighed against “sob sisters,” defense lawyers, “convict lovers,” criminal-justice reformers, and civil-rights “agitators”; and harped on the unrelenting threat of Communism to the American way of life. “The truth is that Hoover stayed in office for so long because many people, from the highest reaches of government, down to the grassroots, wanted him there and supported what he was doing,” Gage writes. In 1964, after he gave a press conference in which he denounced King as America’s “most notorious liar,” fifty per cent of Americans sided with Hoover and just sixteen per cent sided with King. (The rest were undecided.)”

Beverly Gage’s biography paints a picture of a man who from his college days engaged in a range of activities which smell of racial stereotyping and from his earliest days in the Department of Justice took a firm right wing stance. The more positive side of Hoover emerges in his private life where in the conservative environs of Washington DC and in the 40s, 50s and 60s, Hoover a more or less openly gay life with his lifelong partner, Clyde Tolson. If a politician or industrialist wanted to stay in Hoover’s good books, dinner invitations to Hoover had to addressed to Tolson as well.

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