America needs more powerful bureaucrats

No one wants another Hoover, but we should remember that career public servants built this nation's infrastructure

Topics: Great Recession, J. Edgar Hoover, J. Edgar, ,

America needs more powerful bureaucrats A man works on a Works Progress Administration project in Tennessee. (Credit: Library of Congress)

Following the passage of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, President Barack Obama appointed a little-known civil servant to become its public face. Displaying a genius for publicity, including self-promotion, the American infrastructure czar became one of the most visible figures in American public life.

Working tirelessly to rebut claims that the stimulus was nothing but a boondoggle, he made the otherwise boring subject of public investment in roads, bridges, parks and harbors glamorous in a way it had not been since the days of the WPA. From the beginning the infrastructure chief generated as much controversy as praise.

Investigative reporters accused him of sweetheart deals and political cronyism, while congressional demagogues roasted him regularly in auto-da-fés on Capitol Hill. Stories circulated of his vanity, paranoia and ruthlessness. But the criticism only increased the devotion of many young Americans who admired him and his team. For the first time in living memory, a career in public service was attractive to the young, talented and ambitious.

That didn’t happen, of course. And one reason it didn’t happen is the legacy of J. Edgar Hoover.

“J. Edgar,” the new biopic by Clint Eastwood with fine performances by Leonardo DeCaprio and Armie Hammer, has audiences across America asking the question: Did the founder of the FBI ever consummate his relationship with his life partner and No. 2, Clyde Tolson? The more pertinent question, from a political perspective, is: Why doesn’t America make powerful bureaucrats like Hoover anymore?

You cannot have buildings without builders. And the age of progressive and liberal state-building and nation-building in America, from the early 1900s to the 1960s, was an age of great bureaucratic empire-builders, many of whom, like Hoover, spent their entire lives in government. There was Thomas Harris Macdonald, known as “the Chief,” who was chief or commissioner of the Bureau of Public Roads from 1919 until 1953. To him as much as to anyone else we owe the interstate highway system. Another master builder was David Lilienthal, director or chairman of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) from 1933 until 1946 and chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission from 1947 to 1950. And there was Adm. Hyman Rickover, the longest-serving naval officer in American history, who in his 63 years in public service developed the nuclear fleet and civilian atomic power. Because of the outsize importance of New York in the nation, Robert Moses, who dominated infrastructure planning in New York City and New York State from the 1920s to the 1960s, was another bureaucratic titan of the time. (Yes, in response to the hand in the back of the class, they were all white men, as this was before the civil rights and sexual revolutions.)

Try to think of a similar celebrated career federal bureaucrat today, of any race, gender or sexual orientation. Not a revolving door “in-and-outer,” who undertakes brief stints in government to increase his or her marketability on K Street or Wall Street, not a political hack appointed to head a federal agency because of campaign contributions or family connections — “Heck of a job, Brownie” — but an American career bureaucrat who is also a celebrity and the leader of a team with a sense of mission and a powerful esprit de corps. Such powerful civil servants are commonplace in other modern democracies. Nor are they un-American; after all, they flourished in the U.S. for most of the 20th century. Why is this species now extinct?

A major answer is J. Edgar Hoover himself. Following his death in 1972, long before false allegations of his cross-dressing and plausible theories about his homosexuality were widely discussed, Americans were shocked to learn that the seemingly incorruptible G-Man had stayed in power under eight presidents by blackmailing his bosses, and had neglected the fight against organized crime while carrying out campaigns against the civil rights movement and an imaginary threat of communist revolution. All of this became public around the Watergate revelations, made possible, we now know, by leaks to the Washington Post from Hoover’s high-ranking aide Mark Felt, aka “Deep Throat” (all right, class, keep it clean).

Along with exposure of CIA-sponsored coups and assassinations, the Watergate and FBI scandals created a generation-long backlash against the federal government in popular culture. The new symbol of the FBI was the sinister Cigarette Man in “The X-Files.” The film director Oliver Stone laundered lunatic fringe conspiracy theories into mainstream consciousness in movies insinuating that JFK was the victim of a coup. Needless to say, this anti-government paranoia benefited Ronald Reagan and his conservative successors, who found a growing audience for their claims that government is not only incompetent but also inherently tyrannical.

Post-New Deal liberalism also played its part in creating a climate inhospitable to bureaucratic power brokers. In the turmoil of the 1960s and 1970s, the social center of gravity of the liberal left shifted from blue-collar workers and farmers to upscale white professionals and their minority allies. In an Oedipal rebellion against their political parents and grandparents, the baby boomer liberals of the late 20th century denigrated the infrastructure accomplishments of the Progressive and New Deal eras. Hydropower dams kill fish! Interstate highways create suburban sprawl! Nuclear power is evil!  Small-is-beautiful hippie romanticism merged with post-New Deal celebrations of free markets in neoliberals like Bill Clinton, whose assertion that “the era of big government is over” reinforced the propaganda of the right. Democrats paid a price when Clinton and Obama, respectively, were believed by much of the American public to have whacked former aides and political enemies or to have been a foreign national who forged his birth certificate and plotted to impose fascism or socialism on America.  What else would you expect, in an America where the most famous FBI agents were Agent Scully and Agent Mulder?

To make matters worse, many baby boomer liberals embraced an Orwellian rewriting of history, more conservative than liberal, according to which most of the major New Deal politicians and power brokers had been corrupt and tyrannical autocrats. “Biography lends to death a new terror,” Oscar Wilde observed, and the writer Robert Caro proved him right, by garnering Pulitzer Prizes for the hatchet jobs he penned about Robert Moses and Lyndon Johnson.

Caro was the Oliver Stone or Matt Drudge of the baby boomer highbrows. In the first volume of his biography of Lyndon Johnson, the second greatest liberal politician in American history, Caro portrays a governor of Texas, Coke Stevenson, a racist, anti-New Deal, isolationist Dixiecrat of the Strom Thurmond school, as a virtuous, incorruptible hero from a nobler time from whom the villainous Johnson stole a Senate seat in 1948. Quite apart from misleading readers by omission about Stevenson’s reactionary politics, Caro gets basic facts wrong, as Sidney Blumenthal pointed out in 1991:

In his climactic scene in “Means of Ascent,” Mr. Caro wrote: “Coke Stevenson and Frank Hamer walked side by side, two tall, broad-shouldered, erect, silent men — two living legends of Texas, in fact — two men out of another, vanishing age, another, vanishing code, marching down a street in a dusty Texas town to find out for themselves, and prove to the world, how Lyndon Johnson had gotten the two hundred crucial votes.” Mr. Caro goes on to describe how Hamer intimidated pistoleros blocking the way into the bank where the election records were kept, forcing them to part for Stevenson. About this passage, Rowe observed: “It left my mouth ajar when I read of the ‘dusty’ scene — after all, I followed the party into the bank and was the only reporter there … There were two banks, Texas State Bank and Alice National Bank. Furthermore the streets for many blocks around both banks have been paved for as long as I can remember. There wasn’t any dust around or near the bank when we went in. What is more, I never heard Frank Hamer say a word, nor did I see the pistoleros at or near the bank entrance as described by Caro.” Rowe added: “I share with at least several hundred thousand Texans astonishment over the picture of Stevenson painted by Caro.”

(For what it is worth, my father was a veteran of Texas politics who as a young lawyer gathered with others to listen to Frank Hamer, the Texas Ranger who killed Bonnie and Clyde, tell stories at the Driskill Hotel in Austin. In 1991 my father was baffled when I told him that the first volume of Caro’s biography idealized Coke Stevenson: “Coke Stevenson? He was just a tool of the oil companies.”)

Caro’s polemic against Robert Moses is even more of a travesty of the biographer’s art than his melodramatic morality play about Lyndon Johnson. Thanks to Caro, the only things that most people who have heard of Robert Moses think they know about him are that he deliberately built highway bridges too low for buses to keep blacks from riding buses to Jones Beach, and that he kept the water in public swimming pools in white neighborhoods cold, on the theory that this would repel black kids. Quite apart from being worthy of a cross between a Klan Wizard and Wile E. Coyote, these alleged schemes are urban myths that genuine scholars have long since refuted. They are comparable to allegations that Bush planned 9/11 or that LBJ and J. Edgar Hoover whacked JFK. (For fair and scholarly treatments of the men whom Caro defamed, see Hilary Ballon and Kenneth T. Jackson, “Robert Moses and the Modern City” and Robert Dallek’s “Lyndon B. Johnson: Portrait of a President.” )

No amount of revisionism is likely to rehabilitate the image of J. Edgar Hoover. Following Hoover’s death, Congress prudently imposed a 10-year term limit on FBI directors. The intelligence community was similarly reformed, after James Jesus Angleton, head of counterintelligence from 1954 to 1975, damaged it with his deluded belief that the Soviets had planted “moles” at the highest levels.

However, in other areas of public policy where there is no danger that personal or state secrets will be abused, a case can be made for effective career public servants who are allowed to spend at least a decade or two supervising major projects from gestation through legislation to completion. While it has real drawbacks, long tenure in office does eliminate the Future Employer Problem. A middle-aged power broker whose next career move is retirement is more likely to ask what private sector lobbies can do for his agency — not what his agency might do to please his future employers. (Among the figures I’ve mentioned, only Lilienthal went on to a long career in which he exploited his experience as an investment banker and businessman, having left public service in mid-career).

In the 1970s, the excesses of imperial presidents like Nixon and bureaucratic empire-builders like Hoover needed to be checked. Unfortunately, conservatives, libertarians and neoliberals neglected to read No. 70 in the Federalist Papers, in which Alexander Hamilton listed the ingredients for “energy in the executive,” which are “first, unity; secondly, duration; thirdly, an adequate provision for its support; fourthly, competent powers.” To use the 18th century language of the Founders, a democratic republic can be destroyed by tyranny (unchecked power) or faction (special-interest policymaking). Obsessed with thwarting anything resembling tyranny in the post-Hoover, post-Watergate era, we Americans have allowed faction to run riot.

Today the chief danger to the nation is not rogue bureaucrats but a locust plague of in-and-outer lobbyists who worm their way into the civil service and the staffs of the White House and Congress, making policy on behalf of their private sector employers and clients. This may not bother the Predator State Conservatives and the Crony Capitalist Progressives, whose shared program seems to be the conversion of what is left of the American public sector into rent-extracting concessions, including “green energy” concessions like renewable energy mandates on utilities, for the benefit of private equity firms, investment banks, mutual funds, and well-connected politicians enriched by the IPOs of privatized government agencies. But other Americans must ask themselves some tough questions.

Can you call for New Deal-style infrastructure projects or a new WPA, while favoring environmental regulations or not in my backyard (NIMBY) litigation that cripples new initiatives? Can you accomplish any major public initiative, if backroom deals are ruled out and all deliberations must take place in the glare of publicity with the microphones on? Is it possible for politicians or public servants to succeed, without an irreducible minimum of bullying, bluffing and blackmail? Can you ask public servants to regulate business and banking, if they plan to ask firms in the industries they regulate for jobs after a few years in government service? Can you attract brilliant and ambitious people to public service, if they are poorly paid, overly hemmed in and not allowed chances at personal glory? Can you favor a strong and capable civilian government, without favoring strong and capable government career officials?

America doesn’t need any more J. Edgar Hoovers. But it could use fewer revolving-door lobbyists at the highest levels of government and more dedicated and effective G-Men and G-Women.

Michael Lind is the author of Land of Promise: An Economic History of the United States and co-founder of the New America Foundation.

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