Bill Moyers: Ghosts from the past. Lessons for libertarians
Bill Moyers is seeing ghosts these days: the ghosts of his own past. Most people remember 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, that other presidential blight to come from the state of Texas.
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.
What started the ghosts reeling out of the closet for Moyers was a Washington Post article on investigations of the late Jack Valenti being conducted by the FBI to determine if he was gay. Johnson had 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 that had 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 that 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 that they had somehow created this situation. Johnson theorized that 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.
Apparently 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 his 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 state of compassion for Jenkins, which echoed by some in the media. 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 him. 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 that their investigation of the Valenti incident showed that Bill Moyers had 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 that 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 that 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, out the paranoid belief that 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.Glenn Garvin, at the Miami Herald, wrote that Moyers “spent the first decade of his adult life as one of Lyndon Johnson’s dirtiest henchmen” and that Moyers gave “the FBI the okay to spread dirt stories about Martin Luther King’s sex life”
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.
Jack Shafer, at Slate, points 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 that tape recordings of a conversation between Johnson and Cartha DeLoach, Assistant Director of the FBI, revealed just 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 responded to Shafer’s column calling it “old news”. Oddly this “old news” was something he was hazy about just a few days earlier when he wrote to the Washington Post. In his rebuttal, Moyers attempts 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 is 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 this 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. And the press record shows that Goldwater didn’t seize on the issue at all, but adamantly refused to use it. Moyers then turns his accusation 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 is calling 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 that Moyers wanted a similar investigation of Goldwater’s staff for partisan political purposes.
Moyers also claimed that 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 that the Jenkins incident happened and scuttled his friend immediately to distance himself from the incident. Worried that 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 that 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 that 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, he never spoke about the incident, on the record even once during the entire campaign.
Certainly Moyers has 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.
Of course, this is not the first time that an icon of the political Left used his political power to create an antigay witch-hunt – though you would be hard pressed to know it from most Left-wing histories of world events. Certainly almost all the communist regimes treated homosexuals quite atrociously. But the first major anti-gay witch-hunt in America was engineered by Franklin Roosevelt, as Assistant Secretary of the Navy. As Benjamin Brenkart wrote, in 2003:
… when publicity about the navy's anti-gay crusade threatened the careers of senior officials like Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt, the government manipulated the military justice system to spare these individuals while undermining their critics, such as John R. Rathom, publisher of The Providence Journal.
Oddly, the then attorney general, Mitchell Palmer, was himself engaged in an anti-Red witch-hunt which he found more important.
By May 1919, Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer refused Roosevelt's request to have the Justice Department begin a thorough investigation of Newport's Naval Training Station and the YMCA. Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer was more concerned with his anti-Communist crusade than sexual perversion in Newport, Rhode Island. To overcome this resistance, Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered a secret, undercover investigation to uproot the conditions of vice and depravity that he suspected in Newport. The secret investigations, their funding sources, and their personnel were concealed in an undercover Navy department entitled Section A, Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Navy. Directly after the inception of this commission, FDR met with Erastus Hudson and Ervin Arnold to define the mission and work out the logistics of this operation. After that, FDR's confidential orders were signed into effect.Left-collectivists, like Right-collectivists, are equally likely to engage in witch sniffing campaigns. Individualists, either of the Left or the Right, are more likely to resist such measures. Goldwater’s actions in the Jenkins incident is a clear example of that. Equally many people forget Ronald Reagan's courageous opposition to the infamous anti-gay measure, Proposition 6.
David Mixner, who was active in the No on 6 campaign recently wrote:
Despite all our good work, everyone involved had taken the Proposition from 75% in favor of firing homosexual school teachers down to only 55%. We were having a helluva a time gaining that last 6%. We knew we needed something big to push us over the top and we needed it soon since we were in the last weeks of the campaign. There is no doubt in my mind that the man who put us over the top was California Governor Ronald Reagan. His opposition to Proposition 6 killed it for sure.Mixner wrote about his dealings with Reagan in his autobiography. A former staff member of Reagan’s called the No on Prop 6 officials and told them he could arrange a meeting with a Reagan staffer. That staffer told the No campaign that he, in turn, could arrange a meeting with the future president. And while it is long, I prefer to quote the entire passage since it illustrates my point.
When the time came he warned us that we we'd have only a few minutes to make our case. He urged that we stick to libertarian principles. He reminded us that there were many on Reagan's staff opposed to the meeting and it was the Governor himself that made the final determination to see us. The staffer felt that Nancy Reagan, who had many gay friends, would play a part in his decision on the initiative. Rarely have I been more on tenterhooks.On both the Left and the Right there are collectivists and individualists. Both Left and Right collectivists are the enemy of freedom. But Left individualists and Right individualists have been too alienated from one another to put forth a united front against these forces. Libertarians, if they properly understand their own philosophy and its history, could well serve as the bridge to bring these two sides together. If that doesn’t happen, the Bush years, combined with the Obama years, will be the high water mark of tyranny in America.
Peter and I were escorted into a bright office with windows overlooking West Los Angeles. Reagan rose from his desk, gave us his famous smile, extended his hand, and said, "How nice of you boys to come over to chat with me about this issue." He made us feel more at home than most Democrats did. He directed us to chairs and offered us soda. It was hard to believe that this smiling gentle man was the same person who had sent in three thousand bayoneted National Guardsmen to 'protect' People's Park in Berkeley.
He opened the discussion, "I understand you boys have a case you want to make to me," he said.
"Governor, you know about the initiative that would allow any school child to file a complaint against any teacher that he thought was homosexual." I began. "This initiative would create anarchy in the classroom. Any child who received a failing grade or was disciplined by a teacher could accuse that teacher of being a homosexual. Teachers will become afraid of giving low grades or maintaining order in their classrooms."
We could see a surprised look come over Reagan's face. I think he expected to hear a human rights argument. "I never thought about that. It really could happen, couldn't it?"
"Governor, the kids control the classroom." Peter said, "Teachers are terrified of their students. It will be chaos."
"You mean, any accusation by a student must be heard by the school board?"
I knew we were making progress. "Exactly," I answered. "The law requires a public hearing before the local school board to decide if there are grounds for the charges or not. Each school district's school board meetings will become a circus."
Reagan smiled at us. "This might be a good day for you boys. Don't think we can allow something like that to happen here in California."
Clearly our argument was having an impact. He asked a number of questions about the wording of the initiative. He seemed to be well informed, and he spent a lot of time discussing the details. While he officially refused to tell us that he would oppose it, we left the meeting with very little doubt. He stood up, shook our hands, patted us on the back, and said, "Thanks, boys, for coming to see me. You are fine young lads. Your parents must be proud."
When we came out of the office, Reagan's staff corned us and made it very clear that if word leaked about the meeting and if we didn't keep silent about the Governor's apparent support, our efforts could be derailed. We were on cloud nine when we got back to headquarters but we kept our mouths shut. We held numerous private phone conversations with the Reagan staff on wording and background information. At last, in a mid-September newspaper column, future president Ronald Reagan called for the defeat of Proposition 6, citing 'the mischief' it could cause between students and teachers in the classroom. The column became front page news all over California and the polls showed a strong shift against the initiative.
Photos: 1) Bill Moyers; 2) Bill Moyers (L) with Walter Jenkins; 3) Goldwater campaign poster; 4) FDR as Assistant Secretary of Navy; 5) Ronald Reagan