book cover imageHoover’s FBI and the Fourth Estate: The Campaign to Control the Press and the Bureau’s Image

by Matthew Cecil.

University of Kansas Press, 2014.
Hardcover, 368 pages, $35.

Reviewed by R. J. Stove

The largely ignored death in South Carolina, in March 2013, of ninety-two-year-old Cartha DeLoach—for years No. 3 at the FBI after J. Edgar Hoover and Clyde Tolson—surely inspired in many a Hooverologist the sense that a historiographical dam would soon break. So close had DeLoach been to uttermost FBI power, albeit the actual directorship eluded him, that while he lived, chroniclers of Bureau intrigue must have found him an immovable obstacle. Most of DeLoach’s 1995 memoir Hoover’s FBI relied on publicly accessible sources; and it scarcely let cats out of bags, even in the passages where DeLoach portrayed Hoover in (so to speak) his shirt-sleeves. (Yes, shirt-sleeves rather than dresses. No tabloid Munchausen’s spiels about Hoover the alleged transvestite can survive DeLoach’s evidence, which likewise demolishes similar agitprop about Edgar and Clyde high-tailing it to Brokeback Mountain.) Very much worth reading; DeLoach proved to be a naturally fluent writer, but Solzhenitsyn he was not.

Consequently the field has been wide open for a thorough, archives-based account of just how the FBI sold itself to a public hitherto skeptical, not of foreign entanglements alone, but of sacrificing local jurisdictions upon new Beltway altars. Hoover in many ways shared Louis XIV’s genius for both publicity and trivia. Yet even le Roi Soleil had once needed to face down his Fronde. As for Hoover’s own patrons, no one knew better than that other publicity genius FDR how provisional the New Deal imperium always was before Huey Long’s failure to emerge from his 1935 gunfight at the Baton Rouge corral.

Inasmuch as a Hooverian brain-trust could be improvised into being, it carried the decided risk of unpopularity added to outright physical danger. While Hoover exploited the periodic combat deaths of G-men for all they were worth, being the Bureau’s resident Tacitus or Macaulay seldom allowed for excessive cosseting in head office. At the very lowest assessment, head office presupposed two criteria which both Tacitus and Macaulay would have struggled to meet: beautifully laundered white shirts and immaculately polished shoes.

Come what may, the deed was done. Within a decade of Hoover’s 1924 takeover, the FBI had accomplished the metamorphosis of the typical agent’s reputation from that of standing joke to that of hero, and of gentlemanly hero to boot. Pre-1924, his national image had run the entire gamut of valor and administrative competence from Falstaff to Bardolph. By 1934, a more fitting analogy could be found in Charlemagne’s paladins: Counts Roland and Oliver at the eighth-century battle of Roncesvalles, who, even in defeat, prided themselves on never having condoned the dirty tricks of a Ganelon.

As Matthew Cecil of Wichita State University notes: “Tales of the FBI’s infallible laboratory and army of honest and professional agents became part of popular culture … the FBI was widely considered to be an indispensable government agency.” Well, “once upon a time” the British public placed an analogous trust in Sir Bernard Spilsbury, Home Office pathologist under Liberal, Conservative, and Labour cabinets alike. Only with DNA technology’s advent did even experts acknowledge, or voters discern, that Sir Bernard’s “evidence” consigned several innocent defendants to the gallows, and that the humblest modern undergraduate in forensic medicine must abide by collegial peer-review expectations stricter than anything Spilsbury faced. So “the culture of deference,” however much we may regret its banishment by the Culture of Caliban, had casualties well east of the Potomac.

But for Hoover still more than for Spilsbury, the son et lumière had a good long run. To say that Hollywood helped Hoover is to say almost nothing. Hoover’s predecessors in the directorship were beyond help, Hollywood’s or anyone else’s. No studio tycoon would have given Hoover the time of day had he not already delivered the goods. How, confronted with an America still Mencken’s, did he deliver the goods? Who were his Arthur Schlesingers, his Theodore Sorensens, or (when things got really bad) his Ilya Ehrenburgs? Whatever talents an “engineer of human souls” may innately boast, he is worse than useless without—to employ that other beloved Stalinist metaphor—his “transmission belt.”

The trouble with getting such a transmission belt to function is the sheer awkwardness of most writers in a land at least half-free. Uncle Joe had the boundless luck to preside over a gulag where—Churchill’s words—“all form and emphasis [was] lost in the vast process of Asiatic liquefaction.” Administrations more chaotic and less tyrannical than the USSR are faced with the difficulty of finding scribes who are servile, but not so servile as to arouse contempt. However great the relief which a latter-day King Lear will feel at being spared Cordelia’s “mission statements,” this relief might not compensate for the factual lacunae characterizing Goneril’s and Regan’s. (Sometimes, in practice, authorities must deal with mission statements which are candid but unintelligible. Consider those wartime Fascisti who, baffled by Ezra Pound’s sermonizing over the Rome radio, assumed—with authentic Italianate over-cleverness—that “Ol’ Ez” must be an FDR spy talking in code.)

Former French prime minister Michel Debré shone an unwitting light upon the problem involved when, during 1968’s riots, he artlessly explained to a British interviewer that “the ORTF [then France’s main broadcasting network] lacks objectivity … It’s up to us, the government, to get a firm grip on it again, so as to ensure its objectivity.” Hoover himself could not have matched Debré’s Gallic concision. Nevertheless, restating the dilemma is one thing; solving it, another. Here is Professor Cecil:

“After a few tentative steps into the realm of publicity during the late 1920s, the Bureau became a key element of FDR’s New Deal war on crime in the mid-1930s. Two journalists, independent author Courtney Ryley Cooper and Neil (Rex) Collier, collaborated with Hoover and his top lieutenants to create a template for FBI news stories emphasizing responsibility and science and featuring Hoover as America’s always careful and reliable top law enforcement officer. With the creation of the public relations-oriented Crime Records Section in 1935 and the establishment of clear lines of public communication authority, Hoover had both a public relations message and a management team to amplify and enforce it.”

The Washington-Star-based Collier’s comic strip “War on Crime”—syndicated, at its height, in eighty newspapers—did more to win battles for kids’ hearts and minds than any General Westmoreland would accomplish later. (“In the morgue of the Fingerprint Division,” one “War on Crime” panel intoned, “are the cancelled records of criminals removed from circulation such as [John] Dillinger, [Pretty Boy] Floyd, and [Baby Face] Nelson.” As twenty-first-century youngsters might put it: “Sick!”) But no management team, though it comprise ten thousand Talleyrands, could have predicted one of Hoover’s greatest assets: the dead Lindbergh baby. No dead Lindbergh baby, no Federal Kidnapping Act or any possibility of one. No Federal Kidnapping Act, no chance of federal law enforcement in a wider sense, good or bad. (FDR’s icy response to Eleanor’s pleas for an anti-lynching bill: “First things come first.”) While Anne Morrow Lindbergh uttered several aphoristic phrases following 1932, we may infer that one phrase habitually outside her lexicon was “States’ Rights.”

Alas for FBI hopes! The pre-Bureau Courtney Ryley Cooper had been a traveling circus clown, for Pete’s sake. When (in 1940) Cooper’s hanged corpse was found in a New York City hotel room, there remained little more money on his person than could settle the hotel expenses. Suicide? Homicide? Neither Professor Cecil nor the rest of us can be definite. Two FBI agents expressed in writing their belief that murder had been involved. Murder by decree? Would J. Edgar have actually given such a cold-blooded command? Here is one reviewer who respectfully doubts it. Far easier to imagine a hot-blooded Hoover yelling “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?” C’est magnifique, mais ce n’est pas la guerre.

World-Telegram reporter Fred J. Cook—eyewitness, inter alia, to the Hindenburg crash—persuaded The Nation to devote its entire October 16, 1958 edition to a predominantly anti-Hoover article. Hoover (having wildly overestimated the level of Nation-related expertise in, say, Nebraska) reacted first with incredulity, then with rage. Cook, whatever Hoover might have thought, appears to have been neither stupid enough nor pernicious enough for card-carrying commie status. Before obediently mounting the Alger Hiss bandwagon, Cook had called Hiss “guilty as hell.” A year later Cook lost his World-Telegram reportorial job through an unrelated scoop, and if Hoover did not help ensure this firing through well-placed phone calls, he shed no tears over it.

Much more to Hoover’s liking were newspapermen like Don Whitehead, best known for The FBI Story (1956). Professor Cecil tends to be somewhat snide on the subject of Whitehead—“Hoover counted on the public’s logical conclusion that a famed, objective journalist had reviewed the evidence and verified the Bureau’s history as it had always been told”—but the man’s résumé had indisputable merits. When Uncle Sam invaded Sicily and Salerno, Whitehead was there. Anzio: check. Omaha Beach: check. De Gaulle’s entry into Paris: check. Korean War: check. Merely to entertain the thought of Whitehead mustering basic politeness towards post-9/11 laptop bombardiers is to run the risk that one’s skull will burst.

Whitehead won the Pulitzer Prize not once but twice, during the fortunate mid-century epoch when that award had shed the disgrace into which Walter Duranty had brought it, but had not yet acquired new infamy with Janet Cooke’s hoaxing. It is true that (as Professor Cecil shows) The FBI Story failed to represent an early chapter in the annals of Dirty Realism. Professor Cecil might have explored the charitable hypothesis that after half a decade spent with Hitler’s and Kim Il-Sung’s bullets whizzing past his ears, Whitehead had earned—if any man had earned—a humdrum desk job. Coolness, competence, decency, and literacy marked Whitehead’s prose. Sentences like Karl Rove’s 2004 masterpiece, “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality,” did not.

Rove’s postmodern metaphysics also failed to penetrate the 241 television episodes of The FBI, featuring Efrem Zimbalist but manifestly not featuring sex, drugs, rock’n’roll, wiretaps, G-men lighting up after-hours Camels,G-men quaffing after-hours Budweisers, or—at Hoover’s personal command—a solitary example of on-screen violence against women. Hence, we may presume, the lack of references to the “Black Dahlia.” So much even a clueless Australian lad of the time, beholding The FBI in glorious living black-and-white, could detect: if only by that “osmosis” which Professor Cecil correctly cites as the chief means of intra-newsroom communication. What no Australian realized was the equal censoriousness with which Hoover monitored the commercial breaks. From Professor Cecil it emerges that Hoover prohibited advertising that promoted beer, cigarettes, or (you had better believe it) toilet products. This embargo upon Rabelaisian domestic appliances neither began nor ended with Hoover; but really, how in a mere two generations did American popular culture get to the empyrean heights of Kardashian posteriors from Hoover’s explicit ban upon The FBI’s screenplays incorporating agents who used … diet pills?

A factor often overlooked in considerations of Hoover’s old age: before April 1972 Hoover—who died in May—never supposed that McGovern would win the Democratic nomination. Like almost everyone else then, he thought that if Nixon could not get himself re-elected, the betting would be on Ted Kennedy or Edmund Muskie in the White House. Nixon himself had made utterly clear the importance which a post-Hoover FBI had in his own second-term agenda (“whoever wins in ’72, [Hoover]’s through”). Professor Cecil’s account lays insufficient stress on these things, and on relevant Watergate-era documents.

It is ill-advised to slight Ralph de Toledano’s 1973 study of Hoover, or (two years after that) The Director, the work of crime-writer Ovid Demaris, who based it on his own Esquire interviews with Hoover’s friends and enemies. Although no one would accuse Toledano or Demaris of footnote fetishism, both men supplied observations seldom if ever duplicated anywhere else, and probably neither man wrote a mendacious or inelegant paragraph. Other gaps in Professor Cecil’s survey also surprise. The definitive (2001) biography of Fulton Sheen alludes to Sheen having performed some sort of intermittent unpublicized FBI-related role, but what exactly? Ghostwriting? Getting greater numbers of Catholic G-men hired? It is never explained.

“That [fornication] was in another country, and besides, the wench is dead.” Even most of those generally unfamiliar with Marlowe’s play The Jew of Malta will have read that extract. The same play’s prologue they have never read, and Marlowe ascribed its most piercing sentiment to Machiavelli: “I count religion but a childish toy, / And hold there is no sin but ignorance.”

One finishes Professor Cecil’s tome with the thought that perhaps, guard convivially and briefly down, Hoover resorted to “wench is dead” rationalizing of his own carnal life, assuming he had a carnal life. Upon this sacrilegious thought, another follows hard: that Hoover would not have “count[ed] religion but a childish toy,” and that he would not have “h[e]ld there is no sin but ignorance.”  

R. J. Stove lives in Melbourne. His books include The Unsleeping Eye (Encounter, San Francisco, 2002), which has a chapter on Hoover’s Bureau.