There is a new man in my life and his name is J Edgar Hoover. We’re spending an awful lot of time together right now because Radio 4 has commissioned a 10-part documentary on the man who ruled the FBI—and some would say America—for almost 50 years.
Its working title is “American Enemies”: this was a man who saw enmity everywhere—some of it real (New York gangsters, the Soviet nuclear threat) and some of it horrendously distorted (civil rights campaigners, Martin Luther King Jr, the women’s liberation movement).
He’s a curious figure, one who has inspired endless demonising, eulogising and mythologising. Numerous people have tried to tell me that he was a cross-dresser (zero proof), or that his long-term male companion was his lover (entirely possible but, again, no evidence), or that he had kompromat on seven presidents (curiously, the eighth, Nixon, tried but failed to fire Hoover). We are trying to establish just how great his potential for blackmailing presidents was.
Right now, the US broadcasters are obsessed with what’s happening here—the Trumpification of British politics
We do know that he was adored in his lifetime. Public approval for this monarchic figure who “kept America safe” hovered around 80 per cent—and yet his legacy quickly soured. Nowadays, he is seen as the man who spied on America, stored its secrets and played fast and loose with the constitution when it came to surveillance.
I wonder if wiretapping was to Hoover what Guantanamo was to Bush. When you believe the security of your country is at stake, pretty much any counter-measure seems justified. But I also wonder if the fear with which many Americans now view “big government”—from gun laws to vaccine mandates—can be traced to Hoover’s overreach. When I hear the phrase “deep state,” I assume knucklehead levels of conspiracy. But one historian suggests to me that the origins of the deep state can be laid at Hoover’s feet. Maybe he made all of us less trusting of the mechanisms and institutions of government.
Tuesday brings a day where my own world turns slightly upside down. We announce a move to begin a major new podcast with Global. It is terrifying and exhilarating in one gulp. I will be working with old friends and colleagues—Jon Sopel and Dino Sofos, the former powerhouse of BBC podcasts—which gives the whole thing the feeling of adventure. We get the warmest welcome from the team at Global, but I know that leaving BBC Newsnight colleagues will be impossibly hard. My home for the last 20 years—these are the people who’ve helped me keep my sanity when things were hard and my head when things were brilliant. I genuinely owe them everything.
My recent absence from Newsnight has been difficult during such an extraordinary period of news, but there is also joy in having evenings back for the first time in so long. I can say yes to friends’ book launches and the odd invitation to dinner at the River Café. Last week, I sat next to Tom Parker Bowles who was every bit as fun as I was hoping. As the ice was breaking, I admitted to him that I suffer from chronic facial blindness. I took him into my confidence and asked him for help.
“Who’s the bloke next to us that looks like Liam Gallagher?” I asked, my voice has fallen to an am-dram conspiratorial whisper. “Noel,” says Tom, copying my tone. He breaks into peals of laughter.
If only all these socially debilitating moments were that easy.
The BBC’s US-facing podcast, Americast, throws up the loveliest responses from younger listeners, many of them students. One even told us she was about to take a US politics course at university, but after listening to us for a year felt she now didn’t need to. We had, she told us, saved her the tuition fees. I’m not sure how I feel about that. A little nervous, in truth.
Our job has been to break US politics down for predominantly UK audiences. But right now, the US broadcasters are obsessed with what’s happening here—the Trumpification of British politics, as they have been telling us. It’s the excitement they’ve lacked since Biden came to office.
Then, as if on cue, a story emerges—thanks to Trumpologist and New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman—that the former president blocked the White House loo with documents he’d ripped into shreds and tried to flush away. All this as 15 boxes ofWhite House records are discovered at his pad in Mar-a-Lago—a violation of the Presidential Records Act.
The story is so very current, the fear so very ancient. And it brings us back full circle to J Edgar. The FBI director asked his long-serving secretary Miss Gandy to destroy 48 years’ worth of FBI files after his death. Through loyalty, she shredded every single one—telling a congressional committee it was just “his personal correspondence.”
It is hard to imagine what was lost to history through that one act. Notes, surveillance, names and dates that spanned half of America’s 20th century will never see the light of day.