Sunday, June 24, 2007; BW14
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.”