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Hoover and the FBI. Story of a crime fighter

Secrecy and Power: The Life of J.Edgar Hoover, by Richard Gid Powers. New York: the Free Press/A Division of Macmillan. Illustrated. 624 pp. $27.95. THROUGHOUT his unprecedented tenure as head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, J. Edgar Hoover (1895-1972) came to represent many things to many people. The projected images ranged from the nation's No. 1 crime fighter to the sinister director of a secretive agency involved in a wide array of infringements on civil liberties. Richard Gid Powers, a professor of history at City University of New York's College of Staten Island, has previously written a book about ``G-Men: Hoover's FBI in American Popular Culture.'' Now, in this extensively researched biography of the man himself, Powers deftly disentangles reality from mythology: not only the 1930s myth of the crime-busting G-Man, but also the myth of the implacable red-baiter. Powers clearly understands and conveys the essential truth in both these images, but he never allows the merely legendary to cloud his appraisal of the facts. Relations with presidents

Although Hoover was politically right wing, he was proud to boast that he had never voted and never joined a political party. Among the most interesting aspects of this book is its discussion of Hoover's relations with the presidents he served. He worked closely with Franklin Roosevelt: Although one was conservative, the other liberal, both men shared a predilection for doing whatever seemed necessary to accomplish their goals. He was constantly at loggerheads with Harry Truman over ``loyalty'' questions like the Alger Hiss case. He deeply admired Dwight Eisenhower, but was alienated by the youthful style of the Kennedy administration.

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With Lyndon Johnson, who came to rely on him, he worked hand in glove. But surprisingly (in view of their shared history of exposing communist infiltration) he kept his distance from Richard Nixon. Thus, although he'd worked under LBJ on schemes to discredit radical groups, in the Nixon years, perceiving how the temper of the times had turned against wiretaps and other covert action, Hoover chose to safeguard the FBI's image by adhering to a stricter line of conduct, leaving Nixon's men to undertake such actions on their own.

Thorough in its research, which draws on a wealth of primary source materials - FBI files, personal documents, interviews, presidential papers - this book is also thorough in examining Hoover from a variety of perspectives. Powers always places Hoover in the context of his times, showing us how he resisted and how he adjusted to change. On a more personal level, Powers traces the youthful character traits that continued to mark the Hoover style: As a high school debater, Hoover relied on a cool and logical presentation of the facts. But, as Powers notes, what Hoover deemed ``fact'' was usually his own interpretation of a set of facts.

Powers aptly characterizes Hoover as a ``peculiar blend of patriotism and prejudice, of bureaucratic cunning and homespun morality.'' He does not soft-pedal Hoover's disregard for civil liberties, and he is unrelenting in exposing the depth of Hoover's bias against blacks. Yet he also gives credit to his dedication, professionalism, sincerity, and ability to remain very much his own man. Security vs. reputation

Toward the end of his life, Powers concludes, Hoover's concern for the nation's security took a back seat to his preoccupation with safeguarding the reputation of the agency so closely identified with him. And, as the rest of the book has already shown, even in the days when Hoover was most sincerely committed to protecting America, his concept of America was based primarily on the segregated, middle-class, status-conscious Washington, D.C., neighborhood where he grew up. An old-fashioned moralist, Hoover tended to judge people by what he thought were their intentions: He needed to believe that the people he acted against - whether common criminals or political subversives - were not just wrong, but bad. His biographer has done an admirable job of helping us see Hoover's intentions so that we may judge him for ourselves.