Hollywood’s Portrayal of J. Edgar Hoover

November 15, 2011

Dirty Hands


Some may consider J. Edgar Hoover an American icon because of the way in which he changed the American crime fighting system, but there are others who thought he was corrupt. Just a week ago Hollywood came out with a movie entitled J. Edgar directed by Clint Eastwoodwith Leonardo DiCaprio playing J. Edgar both young and old. I love Clint Eastwood and the way he directs movies and I thought his portrayal of J. Edgar was very fair in that he highlighted the achievements and delved into the controversies surrounding his tenure. While watching the movie I thought that his career was an almost perfect example of people dirtying their hands in politics. The movie was very powerful and I would really recommend it as a historical narrative and for its entertainment value.

J. Edgar Hoover founded the FBI in 1935 and did not give up his power until his death in 1972. In the film we see a young Hoover with much ambition and absolutely no social life besides having a strong relationship with his mother. This was because he was dedicated to serving his nation and a social life he thought would interfere with this. Later on we see him develop an odd friendship with Clyde Tolson-his #2 man. There is no doubt that Hoover’s career was filled with much success by catching numerous murders and bandits as well as suppressing the scare of Communism in America. Additionally, he centralized a fingerprint database,  developed new methods for evidence retrieval, and built the FBI into an efficient crime-fighting force. However, Hoover’s success was plagued with a paranoia that caused him to abuse his power in order to achieve these goals and keep him in power. During his tenure some said he was more powerful than the President because he kept secret files that had dirt on everybody. In the movie we see him use these files on Presidents and their families, in order to keep himself as director and satisfy his goals. He blackmailed politicians and Presidents to gain support in his actions so that he could have complete control over the FBI. With this control he exceeded his jurisdiction in order to protect our nation and it didn’t matter to him whether it was legal or not. In his mind, he thought that he was the only one who could protect America because others were not willing to break the law to do so. In turn it was in the best interests of the state to have him in power and he corruptly made sure it stayed that way. In his eyes he was not doing it out of self-interest but for the interest of the state.

It was Hoover’s ideology that led him to abuse his power as director of the FBI. There’s a specific scene in the movie where Hoover is telling Tolson that he has set up illegal wiretaps to try and catch Communist leaders in America. Tolson notes that is an illegal act but Hoover responds that sometimes the rules need to be bent in order to keep your country safe. In this quote we see that Hoover was willing to dirty his hands so that people in America would be protected. He bent the rules many times during his political career to achieve his goals of protecting the people of the United States and because of this he is either seen as a hero or a villain. Either way without J.Edgar Hoover and his dirty hands the American system for fighting crime would not be as effective as it is today. He put his reputation on the line in order to better the people of America in both his time and ours. What do you think of Hoover’s policies being a case of dirty hands? Is he an American hero or a corrupt scumbag?

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About ndreynolds864

Student at University of Michigan

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2 Comments on “Hollywood’s Portrayal of J. Edgar Hoover”

  1. nasearc Says:

    I like this post and the way you relate Hoover to dirty hands, but there is a difference between having dirty hands and thinking you have dirty hands. Hoover may of thought he was was being corrupt and misusing power for the greater good. However the united states is a democracy, and power is rewarded not taken. So although Hoover may crime fighting techniques in the US, he tarnished the democratic method we take pride in. However I would say the good outweighs the bad in this case. The power of out government is spread thin between three different branches of government, so often decisions take a while to be made. So I would say our government needs people who are willing to do anything to help the country. People who stay out of the eye of the public, but have an immense amount of power. Because of this I believe Hoover’s policies were a case of dirty hands, but I don’t think he was an american hero or a corrupt scumbag. Maybe you could call him a corrupt hero.

  2. yonglee92 Says:

    No one can deny that America would not be what it is today without the actions and efforts of J. Edgar Hoover. Though the question you pose is a very interesting one as it connects it to the dirty hands problem we discussed in class. Granted, Hoover may have committed acts considered illegal to meet his goals. Yes Hoover may have even taken actions deemed immoral to accomplish his objectives. But let me propose another lens that we could analyze this matter through. Just for a moment, let us view this situation through the lens of a Machiavellian mindset. In the case of J. Edgar Hoover, would the ends justify the means?

    First let us examine the ends he was able to reach. As you say he was able to build the Federal Bureau of Investigation and transform it into a crime-fighting powerhouse. Through this powerhouse, he was able to catch numerous criminals and therefore create a safer country for the rest of us. In doing so, he put the security of the nation on the highest priority.

    But how did he abuse his power to build the FBI in the first place? It was not until after he had proved that he could bring about a powerful security that he began to use blackmail in order to stay in power. It was not because he was being greedy or trying to feed his insatiable appetite for control. He wanted to stay in power because it was necessary for the ultimate goal of protecting America.

    Though you bring up a good point when Hoover defends his act of setting up illegal wiretaps to try and catch Communist leaders in America. It sounds something close to the Patriot Act of the Bush Administration does it not? Back when the Patriot Act allowed the government to spy on American citizens? Then again, the Bush administration did not centralize a fingerprint database and set up a crime-fighting machine of an agency.

    Food for thought.

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