The Radical Center
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The Radical Center

The Anti-Gay Witch Hunt of Bill Moyers

Most people remember Bill Moyers from his finger-wagging days on PBS. But before he become the lecturer-in-chief at PBS he was a hatchet man for the one of the most corrupt presidents in the history of the United States: Lyndon B. Johnson.

As LBJ’s hit man, Mr Moyers was anything but clean. But that was to be expected. You can’t wallow with pigs and not get dirty. Mr Moyers wallowed with some of the biggest pigs in the world’s largest pigsty, Washington DC.

Some of Moyer’s ghosts from the past started reeling out of the closet when the Washington Post ran an article on investigations of the late Jack Valenti that had been conducted by the FBI to determine if Valenti was gay. LBJ originally opposed the investigation of his friend, but soon relented and allowed it. Nothing turned up. But the Post article revealed some facts about how the Johnson White House did deal with its “gay scandal” in the form of Walter Jenkins.

Jenkins was a close friend of Johnson and a top aide to the president. Not long before the 1964 election Jenkins was arrested by the DC vice squad for having sex with another man. Jenkins had met the man at a local YMCA with a notorious reputation for such things. He and the man had retired to what would normally have been a private area but the police had drilled a peephole into the wall so they could watch.

The White House went into panic mode. Their main concern was if Goldwater used the arrest in the campaign it could be deadly for the Democrats. The president ranted: “They’re [the Goldwater campaign] going to play this security angle big. They’re going to say, ‘Here’s a man that sat in the highest councils. Who else might he have something to do with? What secrets might he give away?’” The paranoia of the White House was astounding. They were convinced Goldwater and Republicans had somehow created this situation. Johnson theorized the waiters at a party Jenkins had attended earlier the night of the arrest must have been Republican agents who drugged Jenkins to make him act this way.

LBJ assumed that Goldwater was as vicious as he was himself. But Goldwater wasn’t that kind of man. LBJ projected onto Goldwater his own character traits. Goldwater knew Jenkins. They had known each other when Jenkins worked in the Senate and Goldwater had been Jenkins commanding officer in the Capitol Hill Air Reserve Squadron. Goldwater never considered using Jenkins’s troubles to his own political benefit, a decency that was incomprehensible to LBJ, the consummate politician.

Johnson, on the other hand, was quite willing to mistreat his old friend, trying to distance himself as much as possible. When Vice President Humphrey said he planned to tell the press of Jenkins’s religious beliefs and large family “Johnson shot back with a start that the only thing the public needed to know about Walter Jenkins was that he was but one public servant out of three million.”

Johnson ordered Abe Fortas to secure Jenkins’ resignation from office, even though his own friends and advisors urged him to wait until all the facts were determined. Johnson then wanted a secret political poll done to see if his political career had been damaged. Against her husband’s orders, Lady Bird Johnson issued a public statement of compassion for Jenkins, which was echoed by some. Ramsey Clark said of the incident: “I had a profound disappointment in the president. His immediate decision was to completely insulate himself from the issue, to protect the power of his political and presidential position. Nothing should be extended from that to help Walter.”

Al Weisel, of Out magazine noted, “Despite the advice of many in his campaign, Goldwater would not make an issue of Jenkins’ arrest. The split in his camp — between the libertarian Goldwater, who would many years later come out in favor of gay rights, and the conservative moralists, who would evolve into today’s Christian Right — was the genesis of a rupture that haunts the Republican party to this day…” Goldwater wrote of the incident some years later: “Winning isn’t everything. Some things, like loyalty to friends or lasting principles, are more important.” The friend he referred to was Walter Jenkins.

Jenkins was hospitalized and when he saw some of the press reports he threatened to call a press conference. Under orders from Johnson, the hospital had Jenkins sedated and removed the phone from his room to prevent him from speaking to anyone. Visitors were banned from seeing Jenkins. Johnson’s thirst for power always came first.

Goldwater knew he was going to lose the 1964 campaign. He told top advisers that he would probably lose it big. But when advised to do things that went against his own principles Goldwater steadfastly refused. As he put it. “I’m going to lose my way.”

The Washington Post revealed their investigation of the Valenti incident showed that Bill Moyers sought out information from the FBI on whether other White House staff members might be gay. Moyers told the paper “his memory is unclear after so many years but that he may have simply been looking for details first brought to the president by [J. Edgar] Hoover.” But the Post notes that a memo showed President Johnson and an aide “discussed a request from Moyers, then a special assistant to the president, that the FBI investigate two other administration figures who were ‘suspected as having homosexual tendencies.’”

This implied Moyers was far more active than his faulty memory indicated. In fact, Moyers was actually far more active than he admits. Moyers had worked closely with the FBI and Hoover during his time with Johnson. And Moyers “oversaw the FBI’s wiretapping of Martin Luther King” as well. When then Deputy Attorney General Laurence Silberman was asked to review secret files that belonged to Hoover, in 1975, he discovered among the files “a letter drafted by Moyers requesting an FBI investigation of suspected gays on Goldwater’s campaign staff.” Apparently Moyers was preparing a pre-emptive strike, if possible, based on the paranoid belief Goldwater would act the way Johnson would if he were in Goldwater’s position.

The Wall Street Journal wrote:

Amid “bits of dirt on figures such as Martin Luther King,” Judge Silberman found a 1964 memo from Mr. Moyers directing Hoover’s agents to investigate Barry Goldwater’s campaign staff for evidence of homosexual activity. A few weeks before, an LBJ aide named Walter Jenkins had been arrested in a men’s bathroom, and Mr. Silberman wrote that Mr. Moyers and his boss evidently wanted leverage in the event Goldwater tried to use the liaison against them. (He didn’t, as it happened.)

Silberman actually wrote about the incident in 2005.

Only a few weeks before the 1964 election, a powerful presidential assistant, Walter Jenkins, was arrested in a men’s room in Washington. Evidently, the president was concerned that Barry Goldwater would use that against him in the election. Another assistant, 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?” And then he rang off. I thought to myself that a number of the Watergate figures, some of whom the department was prosecuting, were very young, too.

Glenn Garvin, at the Miami Herald, wrote Moyers “spent the first decade of his adult life as one of Lyndon Johnson’s dirtiest henchmen” and Moyers gave “the FBI the okay to spread dirt stories about Martin Luther King’s sex life”

Jack Shafer, at Slate, pointed out that Moyers “immediate project” is “a book about the year he worked for Lyndon B. Johnson” but wondered how this book could be trusted if Moyers says his memory is so bad that he can’t answer questions about his own role in an antigay witch-hunt.

Shafer notes tape recordings of a conversation between Johnson and Cartha DeLoach, Assistant Director of the FBI, revealed how deeply Moyers was involved in the investigation of Valenti. The conversation went like this:

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.

Moyers called Shafer’s column “old news.” Oddly the “old news” was something he was hazy about just a few days earlier when he wrote to the Washington Post. In his rebuttal, Moyers attempted to lay all the blame for his active role in the witch-hunt on Hoover, and more oddly on Goldwater. Moyers says that in the 1960s “the mere accusation [of homosexuality] was sufficient to end a career. Several years earlier, as I worked one afternoon at the Senate Office Building, I heard a crack of a gunshot one floor above as a United States senator committed suicide over his son’s outing. I have never forgotten that sound.”

Moyers was referring to the suicide of Senator Lester Hunt of Wyoming. While it is true that in July 1953 Hunt’s twenty-year-old son was arrested for soliciting a male undercover police officer, that was one year earlier, though apparently Senator Styles Bridges of New Hampshire tried to use the incident to force Hunt to resign from office. Hunt did announce he would not seek re-election. Alan Drury used the incident as the central plot of his novel Advise and Consent.

Moyers wrote: “Sen. Goldwater and his allies in the press seized on Walter’s arrest as a sign of Washington’s ‘moral degeneration.’ In that climate of suspicion and accusation, Hoover came to the Oval Office personally to tell the president that Jenkins might have been set up by Goldwater operatives. LBJ instructed him to see if he cold find out which of Goldwater’s team might have been responsible. Afterward, Johnson instructed me to inform our FBI liaison that he wanted a report as soon as possible.”

Days earlier Moyers claimed his memory was fuzzy but in his rebuttal he suddenly remembered lots of things. Yet, what Moyers remembers flies in the face of all the accounts on the incident that have been published. The press record shows Goldwater didn’t seize on the issue at all, but adamantly refused to use it. Moyers turned his accusations against Goldwater, contrary to all evidence, into proof of his own moral superiority: “Despite the fact that a conveniently placed leak from us could have put Goldwater and the Republicans on the defensive, there were no leaks — to the press or to anyone outside the very small circle entrusted by the president to handle these matters.”

Shaffer is astounded that Moyers called the Post story “old news” since it provided “documentary evidence that Moyers had the FBI investigate the sexual orientation of administration figures.” That seems to be true. Moyers was requesting these investigations — not responding to them — and the FBI files, as Silberman wrote about, indicated Moyers wanted a similar investigation of Goldwater’s staff for partisan political purposes.

Moyers claimed he wrote about the incident in Newsweek in 1975 but Shaffer says the column is “a classic case of damage control, coming as it did days after a congressional hearing in which a Justice Department official testified that Moyers, acting at LBJ’s behest had asked the FBI to investigate Goldwater campaign aides.”

What astounds me, is that in his defense Moyers states how dangerous it was to expose someone as homosexual in those days. Moyers cited the Hunt incident as evidence of this. How does this help his case? If he knew this was so dangerous to individuals then why did he ask the FBI to investigate other Johnson officials? Also, why ask for investigations of Goldwater staff for the same matter? If we take Moyers word as truthful, his actions don’t make sense.

But, there is one explanation that does make sense. Moyers asked the FBI to investigate Johnson staffers because the Johnson White House wanted to win re-election. Johnson was shocked the Jenkins incident happened and scuttled his friend immediately to distance himself from the incident. Worried further such incidents could sully Johnson’s re-election campaign, the president and Moyers were acting to root out any gays they could fine for purely partisan reasons — to win a second term in the presidency.

Johnson, more than any other president, used the FBI for purely partisan purposes and Moyers was involved. Johnson’s team assumed Goldwater would use the Jenkins arrest for his campaign — they projected on Goldwater how they would act if in his position. So again, for partisan reasons, Moyers went to the FBI asking them to dig up dirt on Goldwater’s aides, which they hoped to use in retaliation, if necessary. Perhaps they thought, if they accumulated such evidence in time, they could use it to blackmail Goldwater into silence. What Johnson and Moyers didn’t realize was Goldwater had far more decency and integrity than either of them. He never intended to use the Jenkins incident. And, as far as I know, never spoke about the incident, on the record even once during the entire campaign.

Certainly Moyers positioned himself as the moral conscience of the Left, something which makes his actions, and his attempt to cover them up, very troubling to his fellow ideologues. He believed then, as he still does, that the force of government can be used to remould society in a beneficial way. Seeking power means, as Stalin put it, breaking a few eggs. Hayek warned of this in his Road to Serfdom “Where there is one common over-ridding end, there is no room for any general morals or rules… where a few specific ends dominate the whole of society, it is inevitable that occasionally cruelty may become a duty; that acts which revolt all our feeling… should be treated as mere matters of expediency…” Hayek said that the collectivists always see a “greater goal” which justifies such cruelty “because the common end of society can know no limits in any rights or values of any individual.”

The greater good that was being pursued so ruthlessly by Johnson, and by Moyers, justified their treatment of Jenkins. It also justified the witch-hunt that Moyers was encouraging. It was the individualistic Goldwater who refused to participate because such a thing, against a friend, was just plain wrong. For Goldwater, a political campaign did not justify using his friend Jenkins in such a manner. For Johnson, a political campaign did justify his abandonment of an old friend.

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A blog for the Moorfield Storey Institute: a liberaltarian think tank.

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James Peron

James Peron

James Peron is the president of the Moorfield Storey Institute, was the founding editor of Esteem a LGBT publication in South Africa under apartheid.

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