J. Edgar Hoover and the WASPocracy

The WASP aristocracy Joseph Epstein wants us to be nostalgic for never had the nerve to take on the FBI.

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 in 1964 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, a piece which Harold has deftly demolished. 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.”


Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

35 thoughts on “J. Edgar Hoover and the WASPocracy”

    1. Clean and attractive, and change is good; got to give the designers in the crowd a chance to show us something new and different. One quibble on first knee-jerk viewing: the spacing between and within comments is too wide. A little tighter format would facilitate following threads, and that is more valuable in my view than graphically generous borders.

      1. Seconded on the excess white space. And thanks to the designers for providing formatting info when we comment! Now, what does the “G” icon stand for? Can it be changed to “RBC” or “SF” or a blazing sun representing the glory of truth and wisdom?

  1. The WASP-ocracy didn’t so much lose power as it rotted from within. The Yale Commons has several walls covered with the names of Yale alums who died in various wars. WWI & WWII pose a long list; Korea was significant. There was almost nothing for Vietnam.

    1. WW1 and WW2 involved nation-wide calls to enlist, where all youth were asked to do so or be branded cowards. Korea – still plenty of left-over ww2 folks.
      But by Vietnam, it was just the cold war; no nationwide calls to enlist, and no grand battles against the foes of democracy, just jungle / village patrols.
      It was obviously not worth going to – yet it didn’t stop the leaders from committing poor schlubs caught up in the draft to the fight. So less about rot and more about exposure of hypocrisy.
      And likewise, no general call for service after 9-11. Rummy wanted to only fight with the ‘army they had’. Easier politically…a general call to arms would have invited more scrutiny from the right.

  2. Wow, finally! A post about something other than Christie. And a new layout. Change is good.

  3. Mark: The Nero Wolfe television series with Maury Chaykin did an excellent job of turning The Doorbell Rang into a movie-length treatment. Produced by Arts and Entertainment Channel, it’s probably on line for a few bucks.

    1. Yes. That’s what makes his screed so sickening. He has fully internalized the WASPocractic contempt for Jews who are “merely clever” and “lack character.”

      1. Your commentary is dripping with latent racism, it’s amazing that you have gotten a pass on it. Perhaps it’s ok in your world to hate WASPs, perhaps you won’t see any consequences, however you are, simply, a bigot.
        Your “screed” is every bit as contemptuous as you would have us believe Epsteins was, the difference he is smart enough not to treat WASPs (or Jews) as monolithic in their actions or beliefs. Your broad brush, colored with resentment, is bigotry.

    1. I’m with John on this. When presented with a choice of HTML or plain text for my emails, I always pick text. The dazzle of presentation means nothing to me. I simply want to read the information, facts and opinions.

      I do not begrudge others their artsy preferences, but since every supermarket can offer me that choice for my weekly bargains advertising, I think the option ought to be pretty much universal.

  4. The WASP establishment deserves credit for peacefully handing power over to the current Jewish elite. Will the contemporary establishment do likewise and turn over the reins to Asians and other immigrant communities? It’s too soon to tell, but for the time being, it’s not happening. Given Asian academic achievement they are very poorly represented in elite circles in finance, the press, politics, academia, entertainment, etc. If these doors were opened to Asian professionals, we would likely see them become quickly dominated by Chinese and Indian people, the same way science and engineering already are.

      1. References suggest the influence of Ron Unz’s articles at The American Conservative. Noted just for context, because of the surprise implied in the response.

  5. I read The FBI Nobody Knows *before* I read The Doorbell Rang, so sometime in the mid-to-late 1960s. It was a part of what changed my attitudes (and politics), a change that started with Michael Harrington’s The Other America, and Included M.L. King’s Letter from the Birmingham Jail, Bernard Fall’s Hell in a Very Small Place, and a few other books that remain with me to this day.

    Fred Cook was not a graceful writer, but his book was stunning. It’s still available from used book sellers (as here: http://www.abebooks.com/servlet/SearchResults?sts=t&tn=the+fbi+nobody+knows) if you want to read it.

  6. The designer in me seconds the requests for less whitespace. The wide margins and narrow columns mean much more scrolling than the old layout. (I actually very much liked the look and feel of the old version, which was fast, clean and uncluttered without being wasteful of space – though I appreciate that back-end concerns are probably what is motivating the changes.)

      1. For some reason modern web design guides have become fixated on the idea that sans serif fonts are “cleaner” and therefore better – for some definition of ‘better’. The FAA did a study of display fonts for cockpit instrumentation and found no basis for the claim that sans serif is easier to read on screen, but that too seems to have become conventional wisdom.


        Personally I would tighten up the leading and inter-paragraph spacing, but I know that goes against current guidelines.

          1. I prefer serifs myself, but as a reality-based serif lover honesty compels me to report that the FAA study found the balance of serif/sans serif preference was just about 50/50. So it is a preference issue; just no evidence that sans serif is “better”.


          2. The FAA study did find that, but my recollection is that the overall body of literature on this supports a mild preference for the sans-serif in large text/headings, serif for block text approach that most designers favor. I am not super invested one way or another in that. My complaint is a bit more bitchy, namely that I hate this typeface. Also, the main column is a touch narrow for my liking. Overall though, this is not a bad redesign.

        1. I think the obsession with sans serif fonts began back before anti-aliasing was really a common thing; it’s easy to see how chunky pixelated displays would render sans serif fonts better, but now thanks to Steve Jobs and his typographical obsession higher-quality rendering of text has pretty much become the norm.

        2. When I taught legal writing 15 years ago, the prevailing literature was that serif font was easier to read: more clues about what the letters were. So some rule as mentioned above – serif for block of text, san serif for headings – might be OK.

          I presume all the white space and wide right margins are to accommodate those who read this on phones and tablets.

          Site does not seem to be optimized for Explorer 8 (not surprisingly) so logos etc don’t show up. I shouldn’t be reading at the office anyway, and at home I have a more up-to-date browser…

    1. With 67-year-old eyes, I intensely dislike the baseless fashion for grey fonts, used in the redesign for blockquotes. I much preferred the old deep blue for these, at the same weight as the body text black. This beef holds particularly when the basic typeface is lighter, as here.

      I’m actually having some visual difficulty in writing this, on a far from state-of-the-art but generally still serviceable netbook.

      I’m commenting publicly rather than in-house to see if my problem is shared by readers.

      1. Mother Nature may have favored my barely younger eyes a little better, but I would classify the readability of the new design as fair at best.

      2. James,

        If you want blue blockquotes, I’ve got a workaround for you: links show up in blue so you can just use anchor tags and leave the href link out to achieve the effect:

        <blockquote><a>quoted text<lt;/a></blockquote> should do it (hope this works!).

        quoted text

        1. Unfortunately, I have no workaround for the lack of preview and/or edit functionality.

          One more try:

          <blockquote><a>quoted text</a></blockquote>

  7. Mark,

    A wonderful set of reflections and memories. But doesn’t the then WASP-dominated Supreme Court get any credit for the downfall of Jim Crow? I have just been watching the Eyes on the Prize series, as it happens. As it tells the story, the Montgomery bus boycott was triggered by the Brown decision, and some of the speeches by leaders like King (they even have a recording of his first speech in church, the night the boycott was decided on) refer to the decision. I know, they didn’t do a great job of implementing Brown, but still.

    1. You’re right.
      And of course I have no prejudice against WASPs. Why, some of my best friends …

  8. good post, but i got a laugh from what u say about bill davidon. when i heard about that media raid, he was the first person i thought of.

Comments are closed.