Tuesday, March 17, 2009

More on the Moyers memory lapse.

Previously we reported on left-wing icon Bill Moyers and how he helped try to stir an anti-gay witch-hunt when working for President Lyndon Johnson. Moyers tried to claim that FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover was behind the investigation.

Basically what happened was that a top Johnson confidant and aide, Walter Jenkins, was arrested for having sex with another man. The Johnson White House went paranoid. Johnson assumed that because he would use such an arrest to his own political advantage that his opponent, Barry Goldwater, would do the same. Goldwater was something Johnson wasn’t, a gentleman. He had no intention of using the arrest to bolster his campaign, even though it would clearly have helped him.

Johnson went ballistic and had two strategies to deal with the problem. One was to try and blame the Republicans for the incident. He tried to argue that the waiters at a party attended by Jenkins, prior to the arrest, were secret Republican agents who somehow drugged Jenkins and persuaded him to go have sex with another man. Secondly he wanted the FBI to investigate possible homosexuals working for Goldwater so that they could be exposed to embarrass the Republicans—as you can see Johnson was quite ruthless. It was Bill Moyers who took Johnson’s request for an investigation to the FBI.

Today, Moyers portrays himself as something of a left-wing icon, and this bit of history doesn’t sit well with that image. So Moyers has claimed that the FBI actually came to Johnson and claimed it was a Republican plot and that the FBI claimed that there were gay people working for Goldwater. Moyers says he merely investigated what was happening, not that he helped institute that investigation at Johnson’s request.

Jack Shaffer, at Slate, has continued to investigate this matter. His current column pretty well shows that there is no evidence to back up Moyerss side of the story. All the evidence points to the investigations beginning at the White House and being taken to the FBI, not the other way around.

In his defense Moyers spoke of how he was moved by the suicide of a US Senator who feared his gay son would be outed. This was to show that Moyers could not then harbor antigay feelings. Moyers wrote: “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.”

In the original report on this I identified the senator in question as Lester Hunt of Wyoming. I also noted that it was true that Hunt’s 20-year-old son had been arrested for homosexuality. But I also noted that was one year earlier and hardly seems to be the cause of Hunt’s suicide. I wondered if Moyers' memory was a bit too convenient regarding the Hunt suicide. I did confirm that Moyers' could have been working in the House, for Johnson, during that period. And without more information I left it at that.

But Shafer notes a problem. Where Moyers spoke of his remembering the afternoon when Hunt shot himself he is clearly wrong. His staff discovered Hunt’s body at 8:55 a.m., and records showed he entered the building at 8:30. Moyers spoke of the afternoon of Hunt’s death and said he clearly heard the gun shot. Shafer notes that the Washington Post reported, at the time, that the Senate “building was virtually deserted at that early hour and no on heard the shot which pierced Hunt’s right temple and smashed through his brain.”

Shafer also makes the point that I made earlier: “Hunt’s son was arrested on a charge of soliciting prostitution on June 9, 1953, and was convicted on Oct. 6, 1953, paying a $100 fine” This was long before the suicide. Moyers claims Hunt killed himself out of fear that his son would be outed. Yet Shafer notes: “The eight-paragraph Oct. 7 Washington Post story about the case effectively outed Hunt’s son in Washington. News wire stories printed in several Wyoming papers and elsewhere did the same. Yet Hunt did not kill himself for another eight months.” Why would Hunt kill himself over fear that people might discover his son was gay when, in fact, the media had already reported that fact months earlier?

Moyers has since changed his story regarding the suicide. The “afternoon” of the suicide is now remembered as the morning. Moyers says: “In that summer of 1954 in Washington I went to the office every Saturday and Sunday at 7:30 a.m. to work on LBJ’s correspondence. Sometimes Booth Mooney, an old hand from Texas came in, but most days I was alone. That particular day I heard what I heard, including the scurrying feet on the marble stairs, and I listened to the chatter among the officers who arrived on the scene.”

While the new memory is convenient it still has some internal flaws. As Moyers recounts it there was a shot, which was heard through the building, and an unspecified number of people went “scurrying” to the location of the sound. The Washington Post report says no one heard anything and no one went scurrying to the location of the shooting for that reason. Instead, staff members discovered Hunt after the fact.

Hunt left a note but apparently it really explained nothing. And it appears that the story that had to do with a threat to out Hunt’s son seems to have originated with left-wing columnist Drew Pearson. But to make his case Pearson seems to misstate the facts.

Pearson regularly used his column to attack political opponents of the Left. And this column was no different. He claimed that Republican Sen. Herman Walker “sent word to Hunt that if he would not run for re-election, his son, arrested on a morals charge, would not be prosecuted.” Yet Hunt’s son had been prosecuted and found guilty in October 1953. Pearson claims Hunt had told him of this in December. By December Hunt’s son had already paid his fine and the incident was in the papers. How do you blackmail someone over something that had already been reported in the press? Pearson claims he didn’t report these threats because he didn’t want to expose the Senator to problems by mentioning his son’s arrest. But again that arrest had already been reported in the press.

Pearson claims that Hunt told him in Dec. 1953 “that no matter how much he wanted to protect his son, he would not be blackmailed out of public office. Pearson’s story then becomes more bizarre. He claims the head of D.C.’s vice squad, Roy Blick, was called to the offices of a Republican Senator and ordered to resign. Pearson wrote: “They [two Republican Senators] went on to explain that that was what happened when a police officer failed to prosecute, as in the Hunt’s boy’s case.” But Shafer says that the Hunt boy had pled guilty two months earlier. Pearson’s story doesn’t make sense.

Pearson says that as a result of this meeting Hunt’s son “was brought to trial. Orders were given to the U.S. Attorney’s office to push the prosecution.” All this, says Hunt took place in December after Hunt allegedly rejected the blackmailing offer. But then you have the inconvenient fact that the newspapers, two months earlier, had already reported that the Senator’s son had been convicted. Generally a blackmail threat, to not prosecute someone who had already been prosecuted, falls on deaf ears.

Moyers' story is the same as Pearson’s story. But neither story fits the facts very well. Hunt’s suicide remains a mystery. But we know that it couldn’t be because he feared his son’s situation would become public knowledge, since that had already happened almost a year earlier. Hunt was in failing health, with kidney problems. And he was under some investigations. Perhaps all these issues together pushed him over the brink. I doubt we will ever know. But the story that Moyers gives doesn’t make sense. However, thanks to Shafer, we now know the likely source for Moyers' claims: Drew Pearson. Unfortunately Pearson’s story has more holes in it than Moyers' original story.

It is possible that Moyers misremembers. Memory is a tricky thing. It has been shown that hearing a story, after the fact, can cause someone to have memories of witnessing the event being recounted even though they did not. Moyers' memories of the event probably come from Pearson's column and others recounting claims of the Senator's suicide. Of course, even if Moyers had been in the Senate, and had heard what the press reported no one heard, that doesn't exonerate him for his role in trying to out gay staffers for Goldwater.

Photo: Senator Lester Hunt.