THE PLANK FEBRUARY 24, 2009
It's been fun, though not in a funny ha-ha way, to watch Jack Shafer unpack the story of gay-hunting in the Johnson White House over at Slate, and in particular the role that Bill Moyers may have played in directing it.
The heart of the story is the 1964 arrest of White House aide Walter Jenkins for having oral sex in a downtown D.C. YMCA. This was a big story at the time--much bigger than, say, Larry Craig today. (I remember, as a kid in the 1980s, both my grandfathers telling off-color jokes about Jenkins and, for example, the car he drove--a "pervertible." Hey, they were government functionaries, not comedians.) Not only was it a big deal because homosexuality was considered a national security risk, but the Jenkins arrest came at the height of the Johnson-Goldwater presidential race, and everyone expected it to become an immediate campaign issue.
Two details, though, escaped Jack's articles. The first is that while he notes Goldwater chose not to make an issue of Jenkins in the campaign, it wasn't because--or not only because--Goldwater was above such things. A little research by the Johnson staff discovered that by an amazing coincidence, Goldwater had been Jenkins' commanding officer in the Air Force Reserves, and had repeatedly given him a clean bill of health. If Goldwater let loose, Johnson would engage in a little mutually assured destruction.
The other detail comes to me from an interview a few years ago with Ramsey Clark, who worked in the Justice Department and later became Johnson's attorney general. According to Clark, Johnson refused to visit Jenkins in the mental hospital where he had been taken after his arrest, for fear of political contamination (and, given Johnson's raging homophobia, all sorts of other contamination as well). This despite the fact that Jenkins was not only an employee but a close family friend, a favorite of Lady Bird's and one of the men who followed Johnson from Texas when he went to Congress.
But while Johnson stayed away, another close friend was all too happy to stop by: J. Edgar Hoover. The FBI director, according to Clark, had been a regular guest at the Johnson family dinner table, where he had befriended Jenkins. Whether they were more than friends is beside the point: At a time when everyone in the White House was scrambling to prove their heterosexuality, Hoover took an unnecessary risk, out of friendship. Hoover was still a bastard, but if the story is true, it makes him a more complicated figure than we like to imagine.