In Brief: Junior G-Man

Sunday, June 24, 2007

As Kenneth D. Ackerman explains in Young J. Edgar (Carroll & Graf, $28.95), the future FBI director first made his mark after the most dramatic outburst of terrorism to hit the United States before 9/11. On June 2, 1919, bombs went off in nine American cities, including Washington, D.C. In most cases, the target was the residence of a political figure or man of wealth. In Washington, it was the R Street house of Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer; the house was badly damaged, anarchists were blamed, and Palmer pledged that "for the rest of his time in office, he would commit his Department of Justice to the singular task of tracking down and stopping this Red Menace." He put his young assistant Hoover in charge.

Among the results of this campaign were the infamous Palmer Raids, which left their namesake, who had once entertained notions of succeeding Woodrow Wilson as president, so discredited that the man who got the Democratic nomination in his stead, James M. Cox, told Palmer not to campaign for him. Cox lost to Warren G. Harding anyway, but Hoover, in Ackerman's words, "repackaged himself for the new regime." His slickest maneuver was one that became a trademark: playing up the information to which his office made him privy. The new attorney general, Harry Daugherty, "became a convert" to Hoover's view that the Red Menace had to be extirpated, and subsequent attorneys general, all the way up to Hoover's death in 1972, fell into line. In Ackerman's view, Hoover "was precisely the wrong person" for the job of leading this crusade: "Despite his clear genius for organization, Edgar lacked the other essential qualification for the job, the life experience and human context to appreciate the responsibility that came with power."

In Bobby and J. Edgar (Carroll & Graf, $28.95), Burton Hersh carries the story forward to one of the last in that line of attorneys general. Robert Kennedy had maneuvered effectively to bring Hoover under control, even installing a buzzer on the director's desk so that Kennedy could summon him with the touch of a finger. But by now, the early 1960s, Hoover had been consolidating power for decades, and the attorney general had to ask for Hoover's help as scandal threatened to break out. A call-girl named Ellen Rometsch, something of a favorite with President Kennedy, became embroiled in a possible spy case, and Congress was looking into it. The president's image was in danger, and Hoover was enlisted to persuade Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield and Minority Leader Everett Dirksen to call off their investigation. "It had been over a year since Hoover and JFK had enjoyed a lunch together," Hersh writes, partly because the president considered the FBI director "an awful bore." But after Hoover's success on the Hill, an invitation was forthcoming from the White House -- an indication of "the extent to which . . . power had shifted."

-- Dennis Drabelle

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