Bill Moyers' memory: why you can't trust it.

Media criticism.
March 12 2009 4:30 PM

Bill Moyers' Memory

Why you can't trust it.

Bill Moyers. Click image to expand.
Bill Moyers 

Last month in a letter to Slate, former Johnson administration official Bill Moyers dismissed my recent column that criticized him for—among other things—instructing the FBI to investigate Barry Goldwater's staff. The Goldwater stuff was "very old news," he wrote, pointing to a Newsweek column he wrote about it in 1975.

Dodging criticism by citing his March 10, 1975, Newsweek column ("LBJ and the FBI") is a standard Moyers move. When a 1991 New Republic feature dinged him about Goldwater, Moyers pointed to the Newsweek piece. He referenced it again that year when a Washington Post Q&A touched on Goldwater. A recent letter to the Wall Street Journal also relies on his been-there, dealt-with-it-in-Newsweek defense. When a Washington Post investigation exposed Moyers' role in investigating the sexual orientation of Johnson staffers last month, he once again blamed Hoover, although he now confessed an unclear memory of the era.

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What does Moyers say in the Newsweek column? The context in which the column appeared bears mentioning: Congressional hearings were revealing abuses of power at the FBI. According to the New York Times news story (Feb. 28, 1975, paid), Justice Department officials confirmed that Moyers had "asked the bureau to gather data on campaign aides to Senator Barry Goldwater, the Republican Presidential candidate … on behalf of President Johnson a few weeks before Election Day. …"

The 1975 column blames the Goldwater probe on FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover; Moyers writes that Johnson burst into his office one day proclaiming, "Hoover was just here. And he says some of Goldwater's people may have trapped Walter—set him up."

Walter was Walter Jenkins, Johnson's long-serving and most trusted aide. News of Jenkins' arrest for having sex with another man had just broken, and with the 1964 presidential election just a few weeks off, the Johnson administration was panicking at the thought that the scandal might cost them the White House.

Moyers' Newsweek column continues:

J. Edgar Hoover had come to see [Johnson] and, according to the President's account, brought the news that one or more employees of the Republican National Committee, formerly associated with Senator Goldwater, might have engineered the entrapment of Walter Jenkins. The tip, Hoover suggested, had come from the district police.

As Moyers tells the story, Johnson said he had instructed Hoover to find the Jenkins-framing Goldwaterites. Johnson then ordered Moyers to tell Cartha D. "Deke" DeLoach—FBI liaison to the White House—to get busy on the same assignment. Moyers supplies no dates for this action-filled conversation with Johnson.

The problem with Moyers' assertion—that Hoover told Johnson that Goldwater and the Republicans may have set Jenkins up—is that, outside of Moyers' telling, I can't locate it anywhere in the historical record. Nor can KC Johnson, a professor of history at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center. Johnson, author of the forthcoming All the Way With LBJ: The 1964 Presidential Election, has spent hundreds and hundreds of hours scouring archives, listening to and transcribing Johnson's secret White House tapes, and studying other sources for his book.

Could FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover have told Johnson such a thing off-microphone? Hoover collected and leaked so much damning information on political foes over his long career and victimized so many innocent people that it isn't a stretch to imagine such words coming out of his mouth or to imagine Johnson and Moyers his victims. But even the darkest villain is guiltless once in a while. This, I believe, is one of those times.

If you go to the transcripts of the secret tape operation President Johnson established in the White House, you find him positing a "frame" from the get-go. Here Johnson is on the afternoon of Oct. 14, 1964, speaking to "Kitchen Cabinet" member Abe Fortas, just after learning of the Jenkins arrest. (All transcriptions unless otherwise noted are from Reaching for Glory: Lyndon Johnson's Secret White House Tapes, 1964-1965, by Michael Beschloss.)

"Do you reckon this was a frame deal?" says Johnson.

Fortas says no, that Jenkins had been arrested on a similar charge in 1959. According to the later FBI report, the 1959 arrest and the 1964 arrest were made in the same men's room at the YMCA near the White House.

Throughout the evening and into the early morning, Johnson explores his setup theory with anyone who will listen. He asks DeLoach from the FBI if Jenkins could have been framed. "It's entirely possible," DeLoach says. Advisers Edwin Weisl Sr. and Tommy "The Cork" Corcoran intuit a conspiracy, too, but adviser Clark Clifford dashes the idea. Clifford explains to Johnson the difficulty of setting up somebody who is paying an impromptu visit to a public restroom.

In a phone conversation that started at 1:13 a.m. on Oct. 15, Johnson asks Fortas about Jenkins' sex partner, Andy Choka: "… Any possibility this guy might be an agent of anybody?" Fortas responds, "… You mean, of a foreign agent? … Oh, no." Johnson again urges Fortas, who has interviewed Jenkins, to consider the possibility that Jenkins had been framed. The two continue:

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