Love Me, Love Me, Love Me, I’m a G-Man

in her new biography, beverly gage contrasts j. edgar hoover, efficient, liberal, professional, new deal state bureaucrat to j. edgar hoover, reactionary, racist, anticommunist, strong-arm abuser of state power—which one was he? how were these two hoovers connected?

In the cleverly contrasting photographs of J. Edgar Hoover accompanying Beverly Gage’s essay in the New York Times, the head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation for almost a half century whispers conspiratorially in President Richard Nixon’s ear in one and softens his eyes for Lyndon Baines Johnson just a few years earlier in the other while he clasps LBJ’s hands warmly.

The images are meant to illustrate Gage’s argument: Hoover was not merely the sinister, reactionary, racist, anticommunist, strong-arm abuser of state power who went after Civil Rights, Black Power, and New Left activists in corrupt ways; he was also, for many years, a model of the professional crime-fighter and New Deal liberal state bureaucrat, a figure focused on efficient, decent civil service. Gage’s point is to bring out these contradictions, which are all the more on display these days due to a strange flip in American politics: now right-wingers attack the FBI; liberals increasingly defend it.

One wonders, however, if Gage has not gone far enough in puzzling out this contradiction. We might ask: what were the links between New Deal, liberal, anticommunist statism in the mid-twentieth century and the turn to reactionary, Machiavellian tactics? Is this less a contradiction than a telling revelation about the formations of power at the time? In these decades, a kind of hateful agreement emerged around radicalism as the dangerous Other in America. By only focusing on liberalism and conservatism and leaving radicalism out of the picture, Gage conflates contradiction with consensus, at least in her Times op-ed.

One thinks of Phil Ochs’ 1966 song, “Love Me, I’m a Liberal” as a better interpretation of the climate in which Hoover and the FBI emerged during the mid-twentieth century. Ochs gives the lie to a certain mode of mid-twentieth century liberalism that ultimately turned reactionary when pushed from the Left. As Ochs’ closing verse puts it:

Once I was young and impulsive
I wore every conceivable pin
Even went to the socialist meetings
Learned all the old union hymns
But I’ve grown older and wiser
And that’s why I’m turning you in
So love me, love me, love me, I’m a liberal

Phil Ochs, “Love Me, I’m a Liberal” (1966)

If we are to truly understand what made Hoover tick, perhaps we need to understand him not as a contradiction of liberal and conservative, but rather as the working out of that contradiction into a synthesis—postwar consensus liberalism—that was driven as much by the fear of more radical change as it was by its attempt to expand the welfare state in limited (but still meaningful) ways.

If Hoover was the ultimate “G-Man,” the head of the Feds, a master bureaucrat and civil servant working for the federal government, but sometimes pursuing rather startling unprofessional tactics to do so, this was perhaps less contradiction than consummation. How this G-Man’s government itself is to relate to those it governs, however, that remains an open case.

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