Beverly Gage: Reflections on Hoover, the FBI, and Writing History.

The Buckley Program hosted Beverly Gage for a dinner seminar on March 7, 2023. Beverly Gage is a professor of 20th-century U.S. history at Yale University. Her courses focus on American politics, government, and social movements. The following interview was conducted on April 4, 2023.

William Wang: Since you worked on this book for over a decade, I was wondering what you thought the reception to the book was going to be. Did you think it was going to be embraced by historians and general readers alike?  

Beverly Gage: Well, I think it’s gotten sort of the reception that everyone dreams that their book will get. But it’s been really heartening both because it’s nice to see it get out there and to see people take an interest. But also it’s just nice to know that there is actually a place in the world for a dense 800-page history book that took a decade to write. It’s heartening that people actually still want to read that.  

William Wang: Right. But even though the book is so dense, I’m sure there is constantly new information, through leaks or other revelations, that come out about Hoover. A lot of writers also seem to share this conviction, that their work is always incomplete. As a writer, at what point do you decide it’s time to put down the pen?  

Beverly Gage: So there is more research that could have been done. I could start listing off the things that I wished I had written more about. And as people have been writing to me, they’ve said, well, why didn’t you write more about this? And why didn’t you write more about that? But I reached a point where my publisher wanted me to be done with it. I was writing to let go, but I had covered all of the big themes and moments that really mattered to me. That moment has to come for every writer. I did feel pretty satisfied when I finally had it wrenched out of my white-knuckled fists from my publisher. I did feel pretty good about it in the end.  

WW: It seems the FBI is trying to promulgate an image of nonpartisanship. Did Hoover ever let his personal sentiments get in the way of the rule of law that he was trying to promulgate?  

BG: Oh, for sure. He did that pretty frequently. I think he was a real believer, actually, in the rule of law. And I think he observed more limits than most people might have imagined because his popular image is that he’s this villain abusing everyone’s civil liberties all the time. And that’s not true. But in his assessments of who was dangerous to the nation, his political, racial, cultural, and social views played into that. He, as an unelected official, was able to, pretty effectively within what is ostensibly a democratic government, create this piece of the government over which he had such close personal control.  

WW: Well, he did survive under eight presidents, four Democrats, and four Republicans. Do you think that would be possible today?  

BG: That is the amazing thing about his life and career, that he was there for 48 years in that job under eight presidents, four Democrats for Republicans. That seems pretty difficult to imagine anyone doing today. I think both because we live in a more partisan era, but also because when he became director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, it was just this tiny little organization and nobody envisioned what it was going to become 50 years later. Back then, there weren’t many mechanisms of accountability. There weren’t many people eyeing that job. I think we’re just in a very different situation now.  

WW: And how did Hoover get away with some of his personal vendettas against presidents he disagreed with? Take, for example, his personal vendetta against Kennedy.

BG: Yeah, that’s a great question because any of those presidents during his career could have fired him had they wanted to. He was just an appointed official. They were presidents of the United States. None of them did. I think the conventional answer, which has some truths to this, is that people were afraid of him. That was true, particularly in his later years, when they were afraid of his political knowledge. That was particularly true of Nixon and Johnson. But, you know, one of the points of this book is that that’s not really a total answer. There were all sorts of other things that he was very good at. He was very good at public relations and congressional relations. He was extremely popular. In 1960 when John Kennedy became president, he looked and said he’s gonna keep Hoover on. What he says to his compatriots is not, “I’m so afraid of J. Edgar Hoover.” He says, “Oh, he’s too popular. If I were to fire him, I would alienate all of the conservative Democrats in the party.” 

WW: Right. And well, Hoover certainly gets all the spotlight. I did notice, Hoover seems like a bureaucrat who was the mind, not the hands of the FBI. I don’t recall him kicking down any doors or pointing his gun at everyone. Do you think he deserves all the responsibilities or should we look at the individual agents who commit these invidious political investigations?  

BG: That’s right. Hoover was not himself an investigator. There’s almost no crime where he started out as the detective. He was a lawyer and an administrator, and he was an institution builder. I think that’s one of the challenges of writing biographies. You are really focused on your central figure. But of course, in the case of someone like Hoover, he is the head of a very large institution. There are lots of people who are responsible for doing the work of solving crimes and keeping the institution running. And so there’s some degree to which a biography probably always, you know, overstates the significance of its central character. But in Hoover’s case, it is also really, while he was not solving the crimes, he was a super micromanager and he really did have, you know, iron control over that whole institution. And so it’s actually very hard to see where Hoover ends and the FBI agents begin.  

WW: Would you mind giving an example of that?  

BG: Well, I would look to the 1930s, which is the moment that he really became a household name, when agents started to be referred to as G Men. Hoover was not the person out there, aiming the gun at John Dillinger and shooting him down in the streets of Chicago. But Hoover was the one who was responsible for getting his agents trained, getting them in the right places, and hiring people who could actually do that work. And they were always reporting back to him. So in any high-profile crime, you see Hoover very directly involved in pressuring the men under him.

WW:  Right. And one of the takeaways from your book was that historical figures are very nuanced. And I know Professor David Blight made a similar claim about Lincoln, that he is whoever you want him to be. And I think the book makes a compelling claim about Hoover, detailing his racism, his yet, his prosecutions of the Klan. But I was wondering, um, as a biographer, if you ever think there are some extreme cases where biographers shouldn’t try to look for redeeming good. Maybe, these people should better serve as pure villains.

BG:  I think the duty of a biographer is to try to tell the truth as best you see it. No matter who the historical figure is, we all benefit from having real complex, pictures. In Hoover’s case, one of the more difficult things about the biography is the reminder that he was so popular. We didn’t know all of the details of everything the FBI was doing, but a lot of his views were right out there in the open, and lots of people supported him. Is the fact that he’s popular redeeming? I don’t think so. I actually think it then complicates the story in good ways.  

WW: The Republican Party has moved away from Hoover’s idea of a strong central government. What happened?  

BG: Well, I think Hoover’s story is the story of a different party system. So during the time from the twenties through the seventies that he was in office, both of the parties looked quite different than they do now. The White South was the bedrock of the Democratic Party. And then the Republican Party had a whole northeastern liberal wing. The president of Yale in the 1960s was a liberal Republican. We just have a very different split in the parties now, and that’s part of what makes a figure like Hoover, for better or worse, so hard to imagine. That said, I think there are lots of themes that you can see in Republican Party rhetoric today around race, around law and order, that do resonate with some of Hoover’s time.  

WW: Looking at the FBI under Mueller, Wray, and Comey, how do you think Hoover would see it?  

BG: Well, I think Hoover would recognize actually a lot of the dilemmas that current FBI directors have had to face, that the FBI is supposed to be this kind of expert nonpartisan organization. On the other hand, they’re constantly being drawn into these incredibly politicized investigations. So I think he would recognize that and would have some sympathy. I think he would think that his power would’ve allowed him to kind of maybe deal with things. Now, I don’t know that that’s actually true, but he certainly would’ve thought that. I think there is some truth in the sense that because he was there for so long. He did have a level of power and he was insulated from certain kinds of political pressure in a way that’s much harder for modern FBI directors.  

WW: Let’s move on to some more fun questions. What are some of the books you’re reading right now and any you would strongly recommend?  

BG: Well, right now I’m trying to read pieces of American history that I don’t have as much time to read. So I’m working on a project that’s going around to different historic sites and, thinking about how Americans relate to the past. So right now I’m actually sitting in Philadelphia and going to sites related to the Constitution and the Revolution. So I’ve been having a lot of fun doing that. So I was reading a great book about Cherokee removal and Indian removal policy in the 1820s and 1830s. Since I’m on leave, I admit to reading some truly excellent novels. 

WW: That was going to be my next question. Do you have any favorite fictional writers?    

BG: Oh, Rebecca Makkai is my current favorite author. 

WW: I’m going to make a very bold assumption that J. Edgar Hoover is not a role model of yours. Who, then, is your role model?

BG: That’s interesting. Right, I definitely don’t think of Hoover as a hero and role model, although I came to admire more things about him than I thought that I would when I started. He knew how to run an institution, how to maintain continuity and all of that. I tend to like the rabble-rousers of history. Among the presidents, I’m kind of an FDR admirer. My next biography is about Ronald Reagan. He is, again, someone who is a hero to a lot of people. But he’s not my personal hero. But I do find him and his life in time really interesting.  

WW: Well, thank you so much for speaking with me, Professor Gage. All the best with your new project.