J. Edgar Hoover and the WASPocracy

Good riddance to bad rubbish.

I’m chortling over the revelation that the mastermind of the group that burglarized the FBI office in Media, PA in 1971, stealing the documents that revealed the existence of COINTELPRO, was the late William Davidon, a Haverford professor of mathematical physics. I wasn’t close to Davidon, and I’m a little surprised that he had the capacity to organize and lead such an operation. I recall that there was some attempt to implicate him in supposed plot to kidnap Henry Kissinger, and at the time I thought it much more likely that Kissinger would have been involved in a plot to kidnap Davidon.

To celebrate, I’m re-reading Rex Stout’s The Doorbell Rang, in which Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin take on the FBI. Published in 1965, the book has as one of its plot elements the publication of Fred J. Cook’s The FBI Nobody Knows. I haven’t read the Cook volume, and the Rex Stout story doesn’t really prepare you for the notion that the Bureau might try to blackmail Martin Luther King into suicide or encourage the Mafia to assassinate Dick Gregory, but Hoover’s basic lawlessness, and his habit of keeping files on politicians, were an open secret until the Media documents finally persuaded Katherine Graham of the Washington Post to make FBI skulduggery discussable in political circles. (The New York Times, by contrast, refused to publish.)

All of this made me think again of Joseph Epstein’s anti-meritocratic (and more-than-implicitly anti-Semitic) panegyric on the WASP aristocracy that lost power in the 1960s. Yes, there were advantages to having a real, self-respecting, and devoutly patriotic Establishment rather than a kakistocracy of Kochs and Murdochs. When it was necessary for the defense of the Republic, that Establishment proved capable of dealing with a MacArthur, a McCarthy, and at last a Nixon. But – even ignoring the appalling record it compiled in places such as Iran, the Congo, the Dominican Republic, and Vietnam – the WASPocracy could never work up the collective spine to take on J. Edgar. And when the time came at last to undo the violence-backed caste system of the South, the Establishment yielded only under pressure from distinctly non-WASP sources: overwhelmingly African-American and Jewish, and associated with the labor movement rather than with the owners of capital.

Yes, there was something to be said for the Kennans, the Achesons, and the Bundys who won the Cold War. But the summary judgement on the WASP ruling class has to be “Good riddance to bad rubbish.”

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Mark Kleiman

Mark Kleiman is a professor of public policy at the New York University Marron Institute.