Friday, September 15, 2006

Book Review: Public Enemies

Bryan Burrough's Public Enemies does more than tell the story of the criminals who made headlines in the early 1930s. He sees 1933-34 as the crucible that gave us the modern FBI. He spends more time following the cops than he does the robbers. He is explicitly on the side of the law and happily debunks the many myths that cling to people like John Dillinger, Clyde Barrow, or the Barker gang.

Nonetheless Burrough does not sugarcoat the mistakes that Hoover and the FBI made in those years.

Publicly, Hoover touted his new crime-fighting organization staffed by collge educated, scientifically trained agents. But during the war on crime, he relied heavily on his "cowboys" to crack the toughest cases. There were experienced lawmen, many of them ex-Texas Rangers.

While the FBI used the war against the "public enemies" as a pretext for expanding the federal role in law enforcement, the Roosevelt administration saw the expansion as good in and of itself. The new FBI would validate the centralizing tendencies of the New Deal. As a consequence, the government inflated the importance of these criminals in order to justify their plans.

The FBI would repeat this tactic many times in its history. The target might be communist subversives, militias, or serial killers. The Bureau signed on as their de facto press agent as it hyped the new unparalleled menace. New dangers required new federal money and police powers.

Burrough notes that FBI action was not the only way to deal with the problems posed by the "automobile bandits." Bonnie and Clyde, after all, were run down by local law enforcement.

The PR machine Hoover established makes it easy for the Bureau to cover up mistakes. This started from the very beginning. After FBI agents killed 'Ma' Barker in a shootout in Florida, Hoover claimed that she was a vicious criminal who had been the brains behind the Barker-Karpis gang. Burrough makes it quite clear that this was pure bunk and was nothing more than CYA. Of course, the press fell for it hook line and sinker.

One interesting facet of this story is the extent to which the "Midwestern gangsters" like Dillinger and Nelson depended on big city organized crime and corruption. Chicago and St. Paul were their regular hideouts. The were protected (for a fee) which is why they lasted as long as they did.

The FBI was incredibly naïve about this part of the problem. The Capone syndicate used the Bureau to eliminate rivals in Chicago. The East Chicago, Indiana police may have orchestrated the killing of Dillinger to squelch an investigation into the aid they had given to Public Enemy Number One.

The East Chicago investigation brought out the worst in Hoover. Dillinger was the Bureau's greatest coup. When Matt Leach of the Indiana State Police persisted in his investigation, the FBI dug up dirt on his private life to discredit him. In this we see the beginning of the Hoover excesses that are part of his legacy to the FBI.

Matt Leach was one of the first local law enforcers who discovered that the FBI did not play well with others. In many of the big cases, the Hoover PR machine ignored the contributions of other agencies in order to enhance the image of the FBI. That, too, is part of the Hoover legacy.

Public Enemies is a great read. Unlike many true crime books it is also solid history. Burrough does a great job separating fact from fiction in his heavily footnoted work.

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