When Bill Moyers left his show Now With Bill Moyers at the end of 2004, he told the Associated Press that his immediate project would be a book about the year he worked for Lyndon B. Johnson. Upon returning to PBS in the spring of 2007 to relaunch Bill Moyers Journal, he informed the AP that the book was progressing.
Progressing, yes, but not progressing sufficiently that Moyers could say anything definitive about his White House years when the Washington Post asked him last week to comment on its discovery that he had directed the FBI to investigate Johnson administration figures who were “suspected as having homosexual tendencies.” He confessed to the Post via e-mail of having scant memories of the incidents of four decades ago but volunteered that the inquiries could have been in response to allegations brought to Johnson by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover.
To assist Moyers in researching his Johnson book, I spent the better part of Saturday afternoon at the library exploring what Moyers knew about the gay-hunting in the Johnson administration and when he knew it. What I learned, plus what I already reported in a previous column (“The Intolerable Smugness of Bill Moyers“), should help reinvigorate his memory.
As the Post reported, the active search for Johnson administration homosexuals got going just a month before the 1964 presidential election after police arrested top Johnson aide Walter Jenkins as he was performing oral sex on a retired Army sergeant in a YMCA men’s room near the White House.
Johnson tried to suppress the news of the arrest and asked his underlings to see if it couldn’t be proved that Jenkins had been framed by Republicans. Both strategies failed, which we know in detail thanks to the 2001 book Reaching for Glory: Lyndon Johnson’s Secret White House Tapes, 1964-1965, edited and annotated by historian Michael Beschloss. The secretly taped conversation can be keyword searched on Amazon.
Johnson and his people worried that Sen. Barry Goldwater, R-Ariz., the Republican candidate for president, would capitalize on the Jenkins arrest to win the election. According to Robert Dallek’s Lyndon B. Johnson: Portrait of a President, Goldwater declined to take political advantage of the arrest. Dallek writes, “When reporters on his campaign plane pressed him for a comment, he would only speak ‘off the record.’ ‘What a way to win an election,’ he said, ‘Communists and cocksuckers.’ “
Cartha “Deke” DeLoach, assistant director of the FBI and Hoover’s liaison to Johnson, handled the administration’s mop-up of the Jenkins affair and took instructions directly from the president on how to proceed. On Oct. 27, they had this conversation:
DeLoach: Mr. President. … I know how busy you are, but this is so humorous, I felt like I just had to tell you. We got a rumor that—in fact, Bill Moyers knew about it and asked me to check it out—that [a member of the Johnson staff] was involved in a homosexual incident down in Houston, Texas.LBJ: I believe anything now, so check them all out. DeLoach: We checked it out very thoroughly, but we found out that his reputation down there was exactly to the contrary!LBJ: [Laughs and snorts] Well, he’s a man about town, I’ll tell you that. Don’t check too hard on those things, because you might get some confirmations!DeLoach: Yes, sir.LBJ: [Name deleted] is a very active fellow. I’ve found that out.
The ellipsis, notations, and deletions are in the original. In light of the Post findings, I think we can surmise that the name deleted was that of Jack Valenti. We learn of the FBI’s investigation of Valenti from Johnson’s own lips in a post-election telephone conversation (Nov. 4) he has with Moyers and presidential aide McGeorge Bundy.
Moyers: If you’ll take a couple of days and fly down to the Dorado Beach [Hotel] in Puerto Rico, you can be my guest.LBJ: [laughs] … Jack Valenti … is going off as somebody’s guest at Palm Springs. … How do you think Jack’s FBI is working out? … Don’t you know what Hoover said? That he had no problems in that direction. Emphasized that direction. Bundy: In the other direction.LBJ: We call him a little stud!
Again, punctuation from the original. Beschloss adds in a note that “Jack’s FBI” is a reference to the “FBI investigation LBJ ordered on all top staff and Cabinet members after the Jenkins episode.” Indeed, in response to Johnson’s criticisms that a just-discovered prior arrest of Jenkins proved that the White House staff hadn’t been adequately checked by the FBI as he had demanded, Deke DeLoach told the president on Oct. 14, “I’ll check to make certain that everybody on your staff has had that check.” So, contrary to Moyers’ bit of dissembling to the Post, the administration’s investigations were not initiated by Johnson after hearing from Hoover.
What we do know from the tapes was that Hoover thought he had flawless gaydar. Beschloss writes that Hoover believed, based on a report from liberal columnist Drew Pearson, that the Republicans were about to drop a “bombshell” on a Johnson administration official on Oct. 31, a bit of intelligence that he had passed along to Johnson. On the morning of Oct. 31, Johnson telephoned Hoover for new gossip, and the conversation ambled toward a Navy employee.
LBJ: … They raised the question of the way he combed his hair and the way he did something else, but they had no act of his. …Hoover: It’s just … that his mannerisms … were suspicious.LBJ: Yeah, he worked for me for four or five years, but he wasn’t even suspicious to me. I guess you are going to have to teach me something about this stuff. … I swear I can’t recognize them. I don’t know anything about them.Hoover: It’s a thing that you can’t tell sometimes. Just like in the case of the poor fellow Jenkins. … There are some people who walk kind of funny. That you might kind of think a little bit off or maybe queer. But there was no indication of that in the Jenkins case.
(Again, all punctuation in the original.) Beschloss writes in a note that Johnson was having fun at Hoover’s expense: “LBJ knew full well the rumors that Hoover was a secret homosexual.”
To fully refresh Moyers’ memory, I direct his attention to a 2005 Journal op-ed by Laurence H. Silberman (cited in a Saturday Wall Street Journal editorial). Silberman, who was acting attorney general in 1975, read Hoover’s secret files before testifying before Congress. He writes:
… Bill Moyers, was tasked to direct Hoover to do an investigation of Goldwater’s staff to find similar evidence of homosexual activity. Mr. Moyers’ memo to the FBI was in one of the files.When the press reported this, I received a call in my office from Mr. Moyers. Several of my assistants were with me. He was outraged; he claimed that this was another example of the Bureau salting its files with phony CIA memos. I was taken aback. I offered to conduct an investigation, which if his contention was correct, would lead me to publicly exonerate him. There was a pause on the line and then he said, “I was very young. How will I explain this to my children?”
How will Moyers explain it to his children? By setting aside a chapter in his big, forthcoming Lyndon Johnson book.
In 1964 when Walter Jenkins got busted, homosexuals were considered security risks because, the reasoning went, they could be blackmailed easily. Of course, they could be blackmailed only because of social and professional views on homosexuality. For instance, until 1973 the American Psychiatric Association regarded homosexuality as a mental disorder. So my beef with Moyers isn’t what he did in the mid-1960s but his refusal to acknowledge in a straightforward manner what he did. Send additional Moyers news to email@example.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name in “The Fray,” Slate’s readers’ forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)
Track my errors: This hand-built RSS feed will ring every time Slateruns a “Press Box” correction. For e-mail notification of errors in this specific column, type the words Moyers Two in the subject head of an e-mail message, and send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.