The Biggest Scoundrels
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Published in: January-February 2022 issue.


J. Edgar Hoover, Joseph McCarthy,
Roy Cohn, and the Politics of Insinuation

by Christopher Elias
Univ. of Chicago. 288 pages, $35.


“SURVEILLANCE STATE masculinity” is Christopher Elias’ term for the toxic brew of national security hyper-vigilance and a new concept of masculinity that “saddled men with endless anxiety” that emerged in the “Red Scare” decade, the 1950s. Elias’ Gossip Men is a deeply researched sociological examination of this uniquely American phenomenon as told through the intertwined lives of three men: J. Edgar Hoover, Joseph McCarthy, and Roy Cohn. In Elias’ telling, the story of surveillance state masculinity found its defining moment in the Army-McCarthy hearings, a sordid televised drama of accusation and counter-accusation that grew out of Sen. McCarthy’s charges that Communists had infiltrated the U.S. government and the media. Cohn was his henchman, Hoover an ally at the FBI.

            The writing is crisp and intelligent, but readers looking for dramatic storytelling—or, certainly, for gossip—will not find much in Gossip Men. A professor of history at the American University of Cairo, Elias has written a sociological thesis, dense with information, extensively footnoted, and carefully hewing to the facts. If it lacks a little in narrative panache, it makes up for it in scholarly rigor. And the personalities at the heart of the story are certainly vivid enough to show through the academic veneer.

            Elias’ major project is to show how gossip and innuendo, and specifically how popular gossip magazines and scandal sheets like Confidential and The Inquirer, played an outsize role in enabling McCarthy and his cronies to influence public opinion.

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Mark Moran is a writer who lives and works in Washington, D.C., and writes professionally about medicine, science, and health.


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