Young J. Edgar: Hoover, the Red Scare, and the Assault on Civil Liberties. By Kenneth D. Ackerman. Da Capo. $17.50.
Ghosts at the Table: Riverboat Gamblers, Texas Rounders, Internet Gamers, and the Living Legends Who Made Poker What It is Today. By Des Wilson. Da Capo. $26.
Those interested in the story behind the headlines – way behind them – will find Kenneth D. Ackerman’s biography of J. Edgar Hoover’s rise to law-enforcement prominence fascinating. Those who barely know who Hoover was or who consider his era long past (born in 1895, he died in 1972) will likely find less of interest in Young J. Edgar, despite the author’s attempt to connect the Red Scare of 1919-1920 (and the attendant loss of civil liberties) with today’s Islamic terrorism (and the unacceptable, to some, abridgment of civil rights that has resulted). Ackerman, a Washington, D.C., lawyer, sees Hoover’s actions after bombs exploded in nine American cities in 1919 – a time of social unrest and union agitation – as a key to Hoover’s personality and later career. “Edgar began to see his anti-Red mission as more than a job. It was fast becoming his life’s crusade. He refused to let anything distract him, either at home or at work. …He saw his country at war with radicals, a pernicious enemy capable of unspeakable evil.” The parallels with the United States after the vicious al Qaeda attacks of September 11, 2001, are quite clear even in the early pages of Ackerman’s book, although in fact those parallels are more than a little strained. Ackerman comes back to them continually, though, as he chronicles Hoover’s rise and provides a fair amount of celebrity-legal-circles information along the way: “Felix Frankfurter was happy to listen to [Oliver Wendell] Holmes and put politics aside that Christmas season. He had happier things on his mind. On December 20, 1919, he married Marion Denman, the daughter of a Congregational minister from Longmeadow, Massachusetts.” On and on the book goes, exploring the Red Scare and its excesses, the tying together of inflammatory pamphlets with Communist Party leaders, and the infighting within Woodrow Wilson’s Cabinet. Ackerman sprinkles his book with period photos, cartoons of the times and notes on contemporary entertainment: “Crowds flocked to see Helen Keller, billed as ‘The Famous Blind, Deaf, and Formerly Dumb Girl,’ appearing onstage with her teacher, Anne Sullivan, in a musical cabaret called Vanity Fair.” This scene-setting is consistently well done – although sometimes overdone in the amount of detail – and Ackerman’s understanding of the labor conflicts and societal pressures in the early days of Hoover’s career clearly runs deep. Indeed, Hoover himself seems to drift to the periphery of events from time to time, being yanked back by Ackerman at appropriate moments. The book certainly explores a seminal period in Hoover’s career, for those strongly interested in it; and certainly it is true that that period involved “one of the most difficult questions a democracy can face: how to balance civil liberties with public safety.” The direct parallels with today are strained, however, making Ackerman’s book of more interest to political historians than to those struggling to answer today’s questions about terrorism and how to respond to it.
The questions are less lofty and the stakes far different in Ghosts at the Table, but this too is a book about where events stand in the United States today and how that relates to where they stood in the past. Des Wilson, a British journalist and poker aficionado, takes an across-the-pond look at the roots of the current American fascination with poker, and finds them in the nation’s Western expansion of the 1800s. Wilson spices his narrative with interviews with poker legends and not-so-legendary players in their own settings – told in a pseudo-folksy way that, stylistically, doesn’t quite work: “While Slim has been chatting away, it has got real hot under the Texas sun, and he’s sweating and suddenly he appears to gasp for breath. I give him my bottle of water and he gratefully gulps some down. Then he points to the skeleton of a heifer – just white bones lying in the dust.” The atmosphere readers of this book are likely to want, though, is of smoke-filled rooms and high-stakes games; and literary style is unlikely to be a determinant of whether someone likes the book or not. Wilson certainly delivers a cast of colorful characters. There is Benny Bilson of Dallas, who “was involved in every racket in town and, over twenty-three years, rose to be the undisputed crime boss of Dallas, the Al Capone of the city, police and judges in his pocket, killers ready to deal with any ‘problem.’” And there’s Puggy Pearson, “the extrovert gambler from Nashville, Tennessee,” who was involved in the fixing of the World Series of Poker in 1972. And Donnacha O’Dea, “a polished aristocrat compared with some of those who had come up from rougher backgrounds, a cool and relatively cautious player by Irish standards, but the first European competitor the Americans came to fear.” The ups and downs of these and many other players are intriguing, and the discussions of poker’s largely less-than-reputable roots and its metamorphosis into a big-time, big-money game (whose traditional form is now threatened by the rise of Internet gambling), will be fascinating to poker players and viewers of the game on TV. Ghosts at the Table knows its audience – a limited one, to be sure, but one that will find much of Wilson’s explication thoroughly captivating. You can bet on it.