The Untouchable

Young J. Edgar: Hoover, the Red Scare, and the Assault on Civil Liberties BY Kenneth D. Ackerman. Carroll & Graf. Hardcover, 496 pages. $28.
Bobby and J. Edgar: The Historic Face-Off Between the Kennedys and J. Edgar Hoov BY Burton Hersh. Carroll & Graf. Hardcover, 624 pages. $28.

The cover of Young J. Edgar: Hoover, the Red Scare, and the Assault on Civil Liberties The cover of Bobby and J. Edgar: The Historic Face-Off Between the Kennedys and J. Edgar Hoov

America has had its famous lawmen and its hero detectives, real and somewhat less so: Wyatt Earp, Dick Tracy, Allan Pinkerton, Hawkshaw, and, above all, J. Edgar Hoover. From 1924 to his death in 1972, Hoover ran the FBI and its predecessor, the Justice Department's Bureau of Investigation. When he died, his name was as well known as that of any movie star, sports hero, or president.

As a rule, the people who head law-enforcement organizations are not in the limelight. They are anonymous, deskbound administrators. Hoover was deskbound but anything except anonymous. At the apogee of his career, left-wing parents threatened their naughty children with a visit from J. Edgar, while those on the right urged their offspring to make him their model. Hoover was a unique figure in our history, and not simply because he made himself a household name. Throughout much of the last century, he also made history.

In the travail the United States is living through today, Hoover's career has much to say to us. As bewildering and frightening as 9/11 remains, the destruction of the World Trade Center is not the first time that Americans have had to deal with terrorism and the panic it engenders. The response to the terror attacks of eighty-seven years ago and the part played in it by Hoover are the subjects of Kenneth D. Ackerman's new Young J. Edgar: Hoover, the Red Scare, and the Assault on Civil Liberties.

On June 2, 1919, a man killed himself in an attempt to bomb the Washington, DC, home of A. Mitchell Palmer, the attorney general. It was the opening salvo of a series of bombings across the country that pitched America into a state of hysteria. Too little of the Palmer house bomber was left to make an identification, but it was believed that he, along with the perpetrators of the other attacks, was some sort of anarcho-communist.

The American government's answer to the Palmer house bombing was not long in coming. It took the form of an ever-increasing number of arrests of people who, for the most part, had nothing to do with the violence. It climaxed in the Palmer raids, as the largest mass arrests came to be called.

The raid of all raids occurred on January 2, 1920. Robert K. Murray describes it in Red Scare (1955):

More than 4,000 suspected radicals were rounded
up in thirty-three major cities, covering twenty-three
states. Virtually every local Communist organization
in the nation was affected; practically every leader
of the movement, national or local, was put under
arrest. Often such arrests were made without the
formality of warrants as bureau agents entered
bowling alleys, pool halls, cafes, club rooms, and
even homes, and seized everyone in sight. Families
were separated; prisoners were held incommunicado
and deprived of their right to legal counsel.

Until now, with Ackerman's book, the part played by the young Hoover has been largely overlooked. (Murray, for example, has only three references to Hoover, who went to work at the Justice Department as a newly minted lawyer in 1917.) Hoover would have preferred to keep it that way.

Ackerman tells us:

Edgar himself would spend a lifetime denying any
major role in the raids. His FBI publicity machine
would blast as a "vicious and false . . . smear" that
he had led them. Edgar would tell one biographer
that he "parted company" with his Justice Department
bosses "in the illegal methods and the brutality
sometimes employed in rounding up aliens [and was]
appalled [by] agents who lacked any knowledge of the
rules of evidence and who made arrests which could
not stand up in court." In 1924, he would tell Roger
Baldwin, head of the recently formed American Civil
Liberties Union, created in response to the raids, that
he played only an "unwilling part."

We now know, thanks to this book, that Hoover played not only a leading but an indispensable role in the raids. He organized the logistics, which were formidable; liaised, if you will permit the use of a lessthan- lovely but popular neologism, with local police across the country; and prepared the arrest warrants, huge numbers of which turned out to be unconstitutional since they lacked probable cause or evidentiary foundation.

Discovering Hoover's role in the raids was no easy job. For as famous and long tenured in such an important government position as he was, surprisingly little is known with certainty. Hoover seems to have done more than cover his tracks; he seems to have erased them.

President John F. Kennedy signs antiracketeering bills while Senator Kenneth B. Keating, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, and Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy look on, Washington, DC, 1961.
President John F. Kennedy signs antiracketeering bills while Senator Kenneth B. Keating, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, and Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy look on, Washington, DC, 1961.

Despite the scratchings and diggings of indefatigable investigative reporters in Hoover's lifetime and of historians after his death, much of his private life is a cipher. Here and there, Ackerman is able to provide a glimpse of Mr. Enigma's inner life: "His nieces Anna and Margaret both remembered incidents . . . when Edgar and his mother matched their towering egos . . . within the small confines of their home on Capitol Hill. 'There was never any real fighting,' Anna recalled years later. . . . Margaret remembered how they had crossed swords even over something as simple as breakfast. 'His favorite breakfast was a poached egg on toast, and if that egg was broken, he wouldn't eat it. It went back to the kitchen and another egg was prepared. This was pretty funny, because he'd eat one bite of it, then cut it up and put the dish on the floor for [the dog] to finish up.'"

The martinet in Hoover would come through at the office during his last decade at the FBI in arbitrary and ofttimes unjust behavior toward subordinates. During the Red-scare years, however, he did no more than the country and his superiors were demanding of him. What they asked of him was to pack people into disgusting places of detention, ship aliens out of the country with the most perfunctory of legal processes, and beat, mistreat, and deny benefit of counsel to trade unionists, radicals, and immigrants.

Add this performance to Hoover's subsequent record during the McCarthy period and in handling the civil rights and Vietnam War movements, and he begins to look like an unadulterated monster, but the man Ackerman gives us is much more complicated. When the young Hoover came on the scene, professional police work did not exist in the United States. Torture, under the name of the third degree, was routine. Corruption was common, and the protections of the Bill of Rights had not yet been extended to cover local or state police forces.

Police academies were in the future, and in fact, the professionalization of law officers through organized training was one of Hoover's many accomplishments. Crime labs, uniform crime statistics, and a vast data bank of criminal records were among the changes that must be credited to J. Edgar. He gave the United States a well-administered law-enforcement agency that recruited on merit, not political connections. The Hoover who emerges from the pages of Ackerman's book is an intelligent, imaginative, and hardworking public official.

The excesses of this gifted administrator are also those of his superiors. Palmer was hoping to ride the terrorist hysteria into the 1920 Democratic presidential nomination and was of no mind to rein in his energetic, inexperienced subordinate. As for President Woodrow Wilson, during much of this period he was in Europe negotiating the Treaty of Versailles and then hors de combat thanks to a massive stroke. What Wilson may have thought about what Palmer was doing is a mystery, but one that may eventually be solved. Bubbling up into the hands of historians almost ninety years after the events in question are the papers of Cary Grayson, Wilson's doctor and closest of friends. The Grayson papers, which no one knew existed until the Grayson family suddenly produced them in the last several months, run to more than ten thousand items but came too late to be available to Ackerman.

In the light of America's struggle with twenty-first-century terrorism, one would be hard-pressed to say the nation is much the wiser from the Red-scare experience. From Abu Ghraib to Guantánamo to indiscriminate wiretapping and profiling, tactics and practices do not appear essentially different from those of 1920. The anger and fright brought on by atrocities committed by "persons unknown" override civil liberties, except perhaps in democracies whose people have unusual self-discipline, a quality for which Americans are not known.

Such considerations aside, when terrorism breaks out, the authorities not only have to catch those who did it but have to stop those who are planning to do it. The rub is in the latter exigency. It's the forestalling of a terrorist act that leads baffled authorities to employ wholesale sweeps, suspend habeas corpus, profile groups of people, and use the counterterrorism of midnight arrest and secret incarceration.

The reaction to 9/11 might have been different if Hoover had been alive and in charge. After the Palmer raids, Hoover abandoned vigilantism. The backlash from the tactics, which set in after the fear had subsided, turned him into a cautious and secretive bureaucrat. Henceforth, he made sure the onus for questionable FBI activities would fall on his superiors. It will come as a surprise, for instance, that Hoover opposed putting the Japanese into concentration camps and told President Franklin Roosevelt he thought such a thing was unconstitutional.

Burton Hersh's Bobby and J. Edgar: The Historic Face-Off Between the Kennedys and J. Edgar Hoover That Transformed America picks up the Hoover story many years later, after he had become a Mount Rushmore figure. Hoover's story is melded with the Kennedy men's story, and it is a dark tale. By then, the director had become an aging moocher, cadging accommodations for himself at Mafia- as well as non-Mafiacontrolled resorts, casinos, and luxurious watering holes. He enjoyed his freeloading self at the expense of others but was crafty in how he repaid favors.

In return for gratuities, he would detail FBI agents to guard certain persons' homes, have agents pick up people at airports, pass along bits of inside information gathered up by his operatives, discourage certain prosecutions, and generally make life smooth for interconnecting networks of crooks and respectables engaged in vice, politics, banking, finance, media, unions, and industry. Joseph Kennedy, father of the president, had a prominent place in the tracery of interlocking relationships that characterized much of society's business during the Eisenhower era, but the use of extralegal mechanisms of social control is not discussed in this book.

The Hoover painted by Hersh is a grotesque voyeur, using the FBI to collect information on all and sundry and filing it away to serve as blackmail. The objective of his ubiquitous spying and snooping was to help him keep his job and his power. If he could not get something on someone, he would get something on a family member. This knowledge also allowed him to get authorization to use the FBI to ride his political hobbyhorses. These nags were the civil rights movement, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the Vietnam War movement, the Black Panthers, and any other raucous voice raised to disturb the status quo. All of them he deemed Communist.

With the Kennedys, he had the perfect blackmailable family. In Joseph, he had a man whose business interests had long been tied up with organized crime. The story, as it unfolds in Hersh's book, has Joseph using his gangster allies to provide the money and man power to put John over the top in the close 1960 election. The quid for this pro quo was a high degree of immunity from prosecution, but this does not do justice to Hersh's narrative of deal-makings, skimmings, murders, double crosses, scams, shakedowns, betrayals, errant cruelties, and robberies.

The oldest son and president, judging by the description here and elsewhere, suffered from an advanced case of acute satyriasis, but that hardly covers his condition as sketched by the author: "According to CIA Section Chief Cord Meyers, the president was now experimenting with grass, coke and poppers. Other writers mention acid. To navigate without crutches he required, every six hours, massive injections of procaine across the lower back and buttocks. Amphetamines cranked up his charm level through many a reception. He napped much of every afternoon. He was lactoseintolerant and had an underactive thyroid and a 350 cholesterol reading. His prostate was giving him trouble, and he continued to contend with a nasty, incurable drip from chlamydia and gonorrhea, which were under constant treatment with heavy antibiotics. . . . Otherwise he was fine."

As Hersh picks his way through the lianas of intrigue, crime, and lust, he describes the attorney general, the president's brother Bobby, who was not party to the election deal with the gangsters, as out to rid the country of them, even as the president was using the underworld to assassinate Fidel Castro while he bedded at least one of their women, Judith Campbell, not to mention a gorgeous prostitute who was suspected of being a Communist spy.

At the time, Bobby was in a life-or-death bureaucratic struggle with Hoover, his nominal subordinate, over organized-crime prosecutions, control of the Department of Justice, and the director's implacable enmity toward King and the civil rights movement. The book rambles and roars to its conclusion with the deaths of both brothers and Marilyn Monroe, all three of whom Hersh believes were murdered by gangsters.

To tell his story, Hersh has ransacked the archives and the very large body of literature, which he has augmented with a number of interviews with those survivors willing to talk. Although a few mistakes of fact pop out here and there, it is a prodigious effort. But is it the true story?

Certainly, much of it is true and much of it cannot be known for certain. However that may be, what we are left with is a less-than-pretty picture: the civil liberties of thousands ignored and bruised by a half-crazy, corrupt FBI director; a maniacal attorney general; a sick, sex-besotted president. Taken together, theirs is a story worthy of Suetonius, but one that never made it into the newspapers while they lived. Hoover would have been turned out of office and Kennedy not elected had people known, but they did not then, and they may not now.

Nicholas von Hoffman is a columnist for the New York Observer. His latest book is A Devil's Dictionary of Business (Nation Books, 2005).