book review g man by beverly gage

Book Review: ‘G-Man,’ by Beverly Gage

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That article appeared in 1971, when a burglary at an F.B.I. office revealed the existence of COINTELPRO, the F.B.I.’s (that is to say, Hoover’s) counterintelligence program, which was initially designed to “manipulate, misinform and disrupt” the Communist Party in the United States, but eventually expanded beyond that. Tactics would include spreading rumors, sending anonymous letters and throwing sand in the gears by wasting people’s time. Hoover did all of this for 15 years in secret, seemingly accountable to no one. The centrist liberals who had long admired him were aghast, seeing themselves as innocents duped by a conniving schemer who had run amok.

Credit…Kathleen Cei

This, Gage says, is the story about Hoover that stuck, especially after the Church Committee was formed in 1975 and exposed such secrets as the F.B.I.’s “black bag jobs,” or illegal break-ins. But part of what makes “G-Man” such a fascinating book is how much attention Gage pays to Hoover’s other side — that of the consummate bureaucrat who was determined to modernize and professionalize the F.B.I. As such, despite his obsession with secrecy, he left behind an enormous paper trail. “G-Man” is the first major biography of Hoover in nearly three decades, and the first to make ample use of records that have become available in the intervening years, including documents from a Cold War decryption project known as Venona.

Gage tells us about Hoover’s early years in Washington, D.C., where he was born on New Year’s Day in 1895 to a “loving if troubled household.” There were any number of family secrets to keep hidden — a murdered aunt, his grandfather’s suicide, his father’s mental breakdown. Washington was also a Southern city, and Hoover came of age in segregated schools and institutions. As a freshman at George Washington University, he joined Kappa Alpha, a fraternity that championed the myth of the Lost Cause.

Hoover’s racism, Gage says, isn’t in doubt. But it sometimes ran up against his duties as a federal lawman. Hoover, who started at the F.B.I.’s precursor, the Bureau of Investigation, in 1919, imposed “a culture of technical skill, professionalism and nonpartisan administration,” she writes, while never entirely abandoning the prejudices that were familiar to him. He was often caught in the teeth of such contradictions, though the varying amounts of energy he expended on his projects often suggested which impulse went deeper. He pulled out all the stops when chasing Communists; he pleaded limited jurisdiction when it came to protecting the civil rights of Black people in the South.