Thursday, February 19, 2009

Bill Moyers and the Sex Police

Today's Washington Post reports that the FBI once investigated the sexual orientation of Jack Valenti, the former aide to President Johnson who later spent decades as head of the Motion Picture Association of America.

According to documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover ordered a probe into Mr. Valenti's sexual preferences in 1964, shortly after he joined the Johnson White House. The inquiry was prompted by rumors of a relationship between Valenti and a commercial photographer in Houston.

While President Johnson initially tried to block the investigation, the Post says he relented under pressure from Hoover. Agents never found any information to corroborate the rumor. Valenti had married Lyndon Johnson's personal secretary in 1962; they raised three children and remained together until his death in 2005.

There is, of course, a certain irony in all of this. Hoover's sexual orientation has long been a matter of speculation; he never married and was often in the company of Clyde Tolson, his longtime aide at the bureau. Mr. Hoover's reported peccadilloes have been gist for psychologists, historians and the gossip mill since his death in 1972.

Valenti wasn't the only person whose sex life came under scrutiny. Hoover was apparently fascinated with the personal preferences of the rich and powerful. Inquiries about their sexual habits have turned up in a number of FBI files that have been declassified in recent years. That doesn't excuse the practice, but it is a reminder that the 1960s were a different time, when the mere suggestion that someone was gay was enough to destroy them.

But perhaps the most interesting element of the Post account comes in paragraph six, which reveals that FBI agents weren't the only individuals digging into the sex lives of administration officials. Turns out that Bill Moyers, the LBJ aide who became a liberal journalistic icon, was also on the case. Records obtained by the paper show that Mr. Moyers was gathering information on the sexual habits of White House staffers.

Contacted by the Post about his role in the sexual investigation, Moyers offered only a vague reply, saying that his memory is "unclear" after so many years. In an e-mail to reporter Joe Stephens, Moyers suggested that he may have been looking for "details of allegations first brought to Johnson's attention by Hoover."

That parsed reply reminds us of something else: Bill Moyers is one of the biggest hypocrites in the history of American politics. What the Post fails to mention is the Mr. Moyers was up to his neck in political dirt-digging back in 1964. As recounted by the Church Committee in the mid-1970s, Moyers was the White House aide that ordered FBI "name checks" on 15 members of Barry Goldwater's staff, looking for evidence of homosexual activity.

According to the committee's final report, Moyers "publicly recounted" his role in the name check request, and the account was confirmed by FBI files. But others have suggested that Moyers subsequently tried to change his story. In a 2005 op-ed for The Wall Street Journal, Federal Judge Lawrence Silberman, who served as acting Attorney General for President Ford, recounts a "revisionist" phone call he received from Mr. Moyers, after the committee released its findings:

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.

Readers will note that Bill Moyers requested dirt on Goldwater's aides about the same time that Jack Valenti's sex life became a matter for FBI inquiry. Coincidence? Well, the Washington Post story on the Valenti investigation reveals that Mr. Moyers also asked the bureau to investigate "two other administration officials suspected as having homosexual tendencies."

Was the future PBS commentator merely trying to protect the White House, or did he see an opportunity to go after Valenti, who established himself as Johnson's closest aide after the JFK assassination? When President Kennedy visited Dallas in November 1963, Valenti wasn't even a member of the administration; he was a Houston ad man, hired to handle the press during the Texas trip. But Valenti was one of the first people Johnson called after JFK died, and appears prominently in the famous "swearing in" photo on Air Force One. He even lived in the White House for two months after moving to Washington.

***

ADDENDUM: In fairness, it's worth remembering that the Johnson White House had its own reasons for an internal probe. During the 1964 campaign, one of the president's senior aides had been arrested for allegedly having sex with another man at the Washington YMCA. The GOP was reportedly looking into the matter, hoping to use it as a campaign issue. Worried about that possibility, Mr. Johnson had obvious political motivations for checking on other staff members.

But as the Church committee detailed, Bill Moyers was more than a minor participant in these matters. The order to "name check" Goldwater staffers came from him, at the direction of the president. Far from merely verifying rumors dug up by the FBI, it was Moyers who sent the bureau after political opponents. Forty years later, it's enough to make you wonder about the original source of the Valenti rumors, and why memories suddenly grown fuzzy.

For the record, the Valenti probe began after a man called an FBI official in New York, and asked them to investigate the White House aide as a "sexual pervert." The man's name has been redacted from the files provided to the Post.

Similar thoughts from Peter Wehner at Commentary Magazine.

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