Wednesday, November 16, 2011

What I learned after I read: Puppetmaster: The Secret Life of J. Edgar Hoover

Students of the Hamilton-Semester-In-Washington Program were required to read about the life of J. Edgar Hoover in the book, Puppetmaster: The Secret Life of J. Edgar Hoover. After reading the book, here are three things that I learned/realized:

1. All "big men" have soft spots.

Normally, we see our leaders (or people with authority) act with grotesque bravery. This sometimes leaves us wondering whether these people ever have moments of deep introspection, and behave like 'cry babies' when things are not going well.  Even if they do, is there that one person who they don't show that brave face to? Yes there is. Hoover with all the intrepid things that he did (coming up with 'false' lists of communists, persecuting criminals, etc) had a mother he 'cried' to when things didn't go his way.  There is a story in the book where Hoover appears at a Senate hearing before its Committee on Appropriations. At this hearing, a Senator (who wasn't really a fan of Hoover's methods) 'exposed' the fact that Hoover never made a personal arrest.  My thinking was that the 'brave' Hoover would have taken the comments as 'one of those things.' But guess what?...he was so distraught by the Senator's comments that he complained bitterly to his mother just like a 5-year old would do when a kid from his school says something uncomplimentary about or to him. Key quote from book: "Hoover's mother was his best friend, his confidante, his disciplinarian, and his rock."

2. There is nothing really like a "rags-to-riches" story.

I've been reading Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers. A very good book, I must say. I'll encourage all to read it. That said, one of the main themes of the book is that there is typically nothing like "rags-to-riches stories."  In other words, stories of successful people, painting the picture that they rose from nothing to something.  These stories, more often than not, describe successful people as having attained that feat only by sheer dint of hard work, and/or talent. To quote Gladwell: "the idea of a lone hero battling overwhelming odds."  According to Gladwell, in as much as those people worked hard (or were very talented), there were some hidden opportunities they had that facilitated their success. The story is not different from Hoover––the renowned FBI director who outlived 8 US Presidents.  Hoover's success at the FBI could, in large measure, be attributed to the opportunities he had when growing up. For instance, he worked at the Library of Congress while pursuing a masters degree in law at the George Washington University. According to the book: "it was Hoover's first direct exposure to the inner workings and a primer on politics from a superb administrator." Coupled with this, he was in the cadet corps, rising to become the Captain of Company A of his high school cadet. This opportunity inculcated traits of discipline and 'professionalism' in him, which he arguably used to run the Bureau.  So yes, Hoover was very talented (reciting alphabets at an early age, printing words by the age of three, etc.), worked hard, and used various tactics to succeed. However, there is no denying the fact that his affiliation with the cadet corps, and his job at the Library of Congress greatly inured to his success.

3. America has come a long way.

Duh!!!...everyone knows this.  I wouldn't really say this is a new thing I learned/realized per se. Rather, after reading the book, this has been largely reinforced. Just reading the book, and realizing that about a century ago, as a result of Washington, DC being a segregated society, I could not have been able to rub shoulders with most of my friends today makes me acknowledge the how far America has come. Also, the unconventional methods of surveillance (illegal wire tapping, etc) used by the Bureau are now things of the past. Well that is kinda arguable now...but you get the general drift. (At least if at all, it's not done with the same impunity as Hoover did). Furthermore, legislation, such as the Sedition Act–which served as a perfect cover for Hoover to persecute innocent people he believed to be communists–have long been repealed, and may never ever be reconsidered ever! Finally, I don't think anyone would have a dog's chance becoming an FBI director today if s/he's known to be a "White Supremacist."


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