January 24, 2008

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J. Edgar Hoover, A Graphic Biography, by Rick Geary (2008, Hill & Wang, 102 pages
By Amy Diaz adiaz@hippopress.com

Did J. Edgar Hoover wear dresses? Was he gay? Did he have a long-term relationship with a fellow G-man?

For answers to these questions, look elsewhere.

Though probably the most sensational part of Hoover’s recent legacy, the rumors about his personal life are not nearly as interesting as the more public information about his professional biography, as laid out in this graphic-novel-like account of his life. A law school graduate, Hoover went to work for the attorney general during World War I, working at the vaguely Homeland-Security-sounding “alien enemy registration section,” the book said. He became deeply involved in anti-communism efforts — a cause that would follow most of his career. When he was eventually chosen as the head of the Justice Department’s Bureau of Investigation, he began to professionalize the organization and to build its power base, according to the book. He opened field offices, introduced scientific detective work and went after high-profile bank robbers and other criminals. As the book explains, Hoover took what had been an office tied up in politics (patronage, strike-breaking) and made it a part of popular culture (with the G-Man image in movies and pulp magazines) and an agency that had its eyes on a variety of groups across the country — communists, Nazi sympathizers, civil rights activist, unions and more.

As the first F.B.I. director, Hoover helped shape — for better and for worse — the country’s modern approach to surveillance. It is amazing to read about how much power he built and how little restriction was put on his activities (he kept investigating the Kennedys even after John F. Kennedy was in the White House).

Though not encyclopedic by any means, J. Edgar Hoover does give you a fascinating picture of his professional life and how his principles had an impact on the times in which he lived. In many ways, his battle with communism is the modern generation’s battle with terrorism and you wonder as you read how different and how similar the government’s tactics at fighting today’s intelligence war might be. Though nearly 36 years dead, Hoover suddenly seems as relevant as ever. BAmy Diaz