Digging into the coercion and propaganda of J. Edgar Hoover

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He was not a handsome man like some of the gangsters he pursued. He looked more like a snarling bulldog. We’re not sure what he looked like when he dressed in women's clothes, but we do know he had a way with words. As the nation’s top “Gangbuster,” a potent protector of the American way of life and the impenetrable firewall between the Red Menace, Nazis and democracy, J. Edgar Hoover served 42 years as the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

During those years he wielded sweeping — and sometimes illegal — police powers, while leading a public relations team that was second to none. Above all he knew words mattered, especially to polish his image, which in the end may have been more important than fighting crime.

Marshall University associate professor Stephen M. Underhill covers that aspect of Hoover’s career in his new book “The Manufacture of Consent: J. Edgar Hoover and the Rhetorical Rise of the FBI.” The book, published by the Michigan State University Press, is part of its rhetoric and writing series.

Underhill readily admits his book is meant for the academic world, but it also will be enlightening to Hoover followers and to those who, during the anti-war, red scare and civil rights movements, thought they were under surveillance.

Hoover and his agency not only developed surveillance files on criminals but also his friends and enemies, and he often used the content of those files to coerce them to do his bidding. Numerous presidents used Hoover’s unique talents to investigate their enemies and build incriminating evidence on them about something unsavory they did, such as drug use, homosexuality or infidelity.

Underhill first became interested in the FBI and Hoover because his aunt was blacklisted during the Red Scare of the ’50s. “She had visited Russia and had enrolled in Russian language classes and she was blacklisted. She was a nurse and was unable to find a job until 1970,” he said.

Underhill said that after reviewing her FBI file, he discovered the Bureau had not seen her as a risk. “She was blacklisted because she pinged,” he said.

Fast-forward a few years, and Underhill is working at the National Archives as a student assistant making $15 an hour as the lead reference person for processing records relating to the FBI.

In 1994, a truckload of declassified FBI records relating to its propaganda activities arrived at the Archives. It was at a time he was looking around for a dissertation topic.

“After understanding what was in these records, I knew what I was going to do. I have to write about this but I am going to take my time,” he said. Following the rules in place at the time, he began using Freedom of Information Act requests to access the files. His inside position, however, did give him a leg up.

“There was a Wal-Mart-sized wall of files in boxes,” he said. Because he knew what was in the boxes he could make more specific requests. Requesting records through FOIA at the federal level can be very wonky because you have to know what’s there before you can ask for it, Underhill said.

Not surprisingly, before he left the Archives he discovered the FBI had purposely slowed down the time to process his requests. The Archives now prohibits requests from student workers.

Underhill shows how carefully Hoover and his team of public relations practitioners chose his words for public consumption,  how he used and abused media along and spread popular myths.

For example, he used words and metaphors to create images of wrong doers, aligning them with vermin, contagion and dope.

He also borrowed from the masculinity espoused by the old frontier in defending Americanism. In a speech he once said, “the vital test of Americanism is the revival of the pioneer spirit of our ancestors.”

The venomous speech he used with African-American and foreign-born was especially derogatory.

While doing this, Underhill said Hoover masked his sexuality with his own portrayal of masculinity and his choice of words. Who could doubt his courage and his virility if they listened to his speeches?

He also was a master showman perhaps influenced by one of his staff, who was once a clown and a PR person for Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show.

Tourists visiting the FBI headquarters in the ’50s were given a demonstration of a blazing 50 caliber Tommy gun and heard insider stories about gangsters, bootleggers, Nazis and commie spies the FBI had brought down.

Underhill said, “He was a genius, but an evil genius.”

The author now ponders what would the course of history be if we didn’t have Hoover. He asks, “Would there have been a Cold War?”

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