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.

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:

LBJ: Yeah, but I thought maybe you might be talking to him and you might find out [if it] looks like there is any claim of any frame-up.

Fortas: When I talked to [Jenkins], what he's told me indicates that … he just … started out for a walk and then ended up over there, which would negative—really negative—the idea of a plant.

LBJ: … Nobody suggested to him to go over there [to the YMCA]?

Fortas: That's right. He went all alone.

LBJ: Where from?

Fortas: From the Newsweek cocktail party.

According to Beschloss' book, Johnson told DeLoach of his setup theories on Oct. 20, saying that Republican operatives might have persuaded the waiters at the Newsweek party to get Jenkins drunk—presumably to frame him. (Beschloss footnotes this account to a memo from DeLoach to Hoover in FBI files.) That same day, LBJ bent the ears of newspaper publisher John S. Knight and labor leader Joseph D. Keenan with his GOP conspiracy theory. (Audio clips courtesy KC Johnson.)

The FBI interviewed more than 500 people for its Oct. 22 findings, known as the "Jenkins Report." The report uncovered no evidence of entrapment. (See the FBI summary behind the New York Times paid wall and the contemporaneous Time magazine story.)

Hoover and Johnson talk about the report in a recorded Oct. 23 conversation. One would think that if Hoover actually took the lead in informing Johnson about the Goldwater rumors, the topic would have come up here. But it doesn't. Instead, Johnson commends Hoover for doing a good job.

Even though the FBI report ruled out entrapment and he had praised the report, Johnson refused to surrender. In an Oct. 27 conversation, he badgers DeLoach about Choka.

LBJ: I never was convinced that you-all completed what you ought to complete on this Choka. … Is there nothing else we ought to do?

DeLoach: No, sir. … I don't think [Choka] was part of any frame-up. … I think frankly that this man was just hanging around in the same place, hoping to pick up someone.

Johnson then suggests that the FBI run the names of top Republicans—such as John Grenier and Dean Burch—past Choka to see if he recognizes them, presumably to demonstrate that Choka was part of a Republican frame job. DeLoach neither accepts nor rejects the assignment. But minutes later he volunteers that the FBI had gotten a rumor that another member of the Johnson staff was homosexual, saying, "Bill Moyers knew about it and asked me to check it out."

In an Oct. 31 recording, Hoover and Johnson do discuss an alleged GOP plot against Jenkins. After talking about a rumor that a high official—perhaps a Cabinet member—might be exposed as homosexual before the election, Hoover and Johnson turn to a second topic: Hoover has investigated a rumor passed along by syndicated newspaper columnist Drew Pearson that the Republican National Committee participated in the framing of Jenkins.

Hoover couldn't be more dismissive of the Pearson tip. "We got an affidavit from that [Pearson] source saying it was absolutely untrue; it was just said as a gag. Got that yesterday," Hoover says (transcript by KC Johnson).

Note that this isn't the alleged GOP plot Moyers writes about in Newsweek. In that rendition, district police are cited as Hoover's source.

Who was Drew Pearson? In Drew Pearson: An Unauthorized Biography, Oliver Pilat writes, "His columns almost invariably showed Johnson in a favorable light, being opposed or thwarted by stupid advisers or adverse events. The public flattery employed to influence the President was often glaring. Johnson, in turn, could not resist trying to manage the news" in Pearson's column. In a Sept. 5 conversation preserved in the White House tapes, Johnson promises Pearson that his aides will leak him damaging information about the Goldwater-Miller ticket. Pearson's Sept. 13 column, written by associate Jack Anderson, contains the leak.

Johnson took his Jenkins-was-framed theory with him into retirement. Doris Kearns Goodwin, who assisted Johnson in the writing of his memoirs, quotes Johnson on the subject of the scandal in her 1976 book Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream. Johnson says:

I couldn't have been more shocked about Walter Jenkins if I'd heard that Lady Bird had killed the Pope. It just wasn't possible. And then I started piecing things together. The Republicans believed that the question of morality was their trump card. This was their only chance at winning; anyone who got in the way wound up as corpses. Well, the night of October 7, the night of the arrest, I had been invited to a party given by Newsweek which had been owned by Phil Graham, my good friend, who had told Kennedy to make me Vice President. I couldn't go, so I asked Walter to go in my place. Now the waiters at the party were from the Republican National Committee and I know Walter had one drink and started on another and doesn't remember anything after that. So that must be the explanation.

Note that in this retelling, Johnson doesn't say the director of the FBI informed him of the GOP "plot." Goodwin continues, "Whether Johnson actually believed his own statement here is questionable, but his overreaction to the question of homosexuality and his fantasy of conspiracy testify to the disturbance he must have felt."

Johnson's staff understood his problems with the truth. "You know, one of the things about Lyndon Johnson that you always have to be careful about—whatever Johnson tells you at any given moment he thinks is the truth," said George E. Reedy, Moyers' predecessor as Johnson press secretary, in an interview with the oral history project at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library. "In his own mind I don't think the man ever told a whopper in his whole life," Reedy says.

If Johnson really said what Moyers claims he said about a GOP plot, didn't Moyers ever slow down for a minute and wonder if this was just more Johnson blarney?

To be charitable to Moyers, it's conceivable that Hoover told Johnson about a Republican plot and that Johnson told Moyers to start the investigation. It's conceivable that Moyers and Johnson were the only ones to know that Hoover (via district police) was the origin of the hypothesis and that Johnson, a legendary motormouth, never mentioned Hoover's role to anybody else. It's also conceivable that Johnson lied to Moyers about the Hoover "tip" and that Moyers has been spreading Johnson's lie for decades. Or it could be that Moyers has consistently misremembered the story since 1975.

Whatever the case, we have additional reasons not to rely on Moyers' memory. In his letters to Slate and the Wall Street Journal, Moyers shares an anecdote to convey how destructive homosexuality rumors were in the old Washington. He writes:

The mere accusation [of homosexuality back then] was sufficient to end a career. Several years earlier, as I worked one afternoon at the Senate office building, I heard the crack of a gunshot one floor above as a U.S. senator committed suicide over his son's outing. I have never forgotten that sound.

The suicide was Sen. Lester C. Hunt, D-Wyo., but Moyers botches the story. Hunt arrived on the third floor of what is now the Russell Senate Office Building at 8:30 on the morning of June 19, 1954, not the afternoon. Hunt's staff discovered him in his office at about 8:55 a.m., shot in the temple by the .22 caliber rifle he had brought to work that morning. Hunt died three and a half hours later, and his death was ruled a suicide.

According to the Washington Post account published the next day, "[t]he building was virtually deserted at that early hour and no one heard the shot which pierced Hunt's right temple and smashed through his brain." The New York Times (paid), the Washington Star, and the Associated Pressnews stories about the suicide do not contradict the Post on this point.

If Moyers' vivid memory of the suicide is correct, he heard something that the Capitol Police did not hear and that no other ear-witness reported to the Capitol Police, according to the June 20 Star story. It states:

Apparently an effort was made to conceal the shooting. Capt. Broderick [of the Capitol Police] said when the Senator's office called for an ambulance, police were told that Senator Hunt had suffered a heart attack. Capt. Broderick said he learned from a newsman that it was a shooting.

Historian Rick Ewig's 1983 article "McCarthy Era Politics: The Ordeal of Senator Lester Hunt" remains the most complete account of the senator's story. In it, Ewig collects and assesses the considerable evidence that senator friends of Sen. Joseph McCarthy, R-Wis., drove Hunt to withdraw from his re-election campaign and kill himself 11 days later. Hunt's foes allegedly threatened that if he did not quit the race, news of his son's case would appear in every Wyoming mailbox.

Moyers contends that Hunt killed himself over the "outing" of his son, but that's not exactly true. 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. 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.

Hunt left several notes behind, "but none of these gives any explanation which sheds light on the real reason or reasons" for his suicide, Ewig writes. "While no one can ultimately be certain of the precise reasons for Hunt's suicide, clearly he was under personal and political pressure."

Moyers criticized my first piece on him because I did not contact him for his side of the story. This time, I asked Moyers if any citations from the public record exist to show Hoover's role in initiating the Goldwater investigations. And I also asked him to explain his faulty recollection of the Hunt suicide.

Yesterday afternoon, his assistant sent this response:

[Bill Moyers] is not able to assist in your research as he has his hands full with his own work, including going through his extensive files from those days which he has only recently begun to examine. He doesn't intend to finish his book until he has checked memories of events half a century ago against his notes and documents, but he'll see that you get a copy when it's done.

A half-day later, presumably when Moyers' hands were less full with the book he's writing about the Johnson years, he composed an e-mail addressing only the Hunt suicide, which his assistant forwarded. I present it in its entirety:

Diane gave me your message late yesterday and I thought about it overnight. I hear you've declared war on me—I'd call it more of an obsession—so nothing I say is going to influence you. But you should know that 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. That next day LBJ had the scuttlebutt on what was rumored to be behind the death—where he got it, I don't know, but he and a clique of Senators huddled over it. I rented a room that summer from an old hand in Washington—a senior legislative assistant to LBJ's predecessor as majority leader—and he confided in me what he was hearing around the Hill. None of that speculation was made public for a long time, and even more time passed before the real story came out. But within days of the tragedy, I wrote a long letter about the events to my brother in New Orleans, which was returned to me after his own death. In it there's no reference to the time of day all this happened but the impression on me was indelible—and still is today, 55 years later. I've forgotten some things in the meantime and learned more. But what happened then was a defining experience for me and played over and again in my mind. Make of it what you will.

That Moyers is hard at work on a book about the Johnson years is great news. He hasn't always wanted to revisit the era. In 1982, he told People magazine he had spurned lucrative offers from publishers to write an LBJ book out of deference to his old boss. "That would make me a thief of his confidence," Moyers said. "Johnson spent hours and hours with me in unguarded moments. He could not have done so had he ever thought I would write what he was saying."

Will Moyers find evidence for his long-held belief that he and Johnson were J. Edgar Hoover's victims? I hope he understands that correcting the record will require references to the record.

****

Drew Pearson wrote a column (PDF) the day after Hunt's death alleging a blackmail scheme against the senator. Claiming the now-dead Hunt as his source, Pearson wrote that Sen. Herman Welker, R-Idaho, working through intermediaries, had told Hunt that his son would not be prosecuted if Hunt would abandon re-election. Hunt refused, the column states, and his son was convicted. Hunt announced for re-election in April 1954 but withdrew from the race in June, citing illness, but then he killed himself.

In his column, Pearson writes:

It was no secret that he had been having kidney trouble for some time. But I am sure that on top of this, Lester Hunt, a much more sensitive soul than his colleagues realized, just could not bear the thought of having his son's misfortunes become the subject of whispers in his re-election campaign.

Columnist Marquis Childs wrote a similar piece, but Welker denied Pearson's charges in a syndicated column by Holmes Alexander.

Here's what Pearson wrote in his diaries the day Hunt killed himself:

Senator Hunt of Wyoming committed suicide early this morning. I am not sure whether it had to do with the threat Senator McCarthy made yesterday that he was going to investigate a Democratic Senator who had fixed a case, or whether it was Hunt's concern over his son's homosexual problems.

There's something peculiar going on here. Why would Hunt have given in to his purported blackmailers by agreeing to leave the Senate—but also kill himself? Why would Pearson, who was sympathetic to Hunt and his son, deliberately give greater publicity to the son's case—essentially fulfilling the dark side of the blackmailer's threat? Does anybody have an alternate take on this? The Hunt suicide has been written up in Lewis J. Gould's The Most Exclusive Club: A History of the Modern United States Senate, David K. Johnson's The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government, and in Thomas Mallon's novel Fellow Travelers. Send e-mail to slate.pressbox@gmail.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

Look, Ma, I'm Twittering!

Track my errors: This hand-built RSS feed will ring every time Slate runs a "Press Box" correction. For e-mail notification of errors in this specific column, type the word memory in the subject head of an e-mail message, and send it to slate.pressbox@gmail.com.

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