Bill Moyers Responds to Media Probe of His ’Homo Hunting’ Past

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Thursday February 26, 2009

When a news article looking back at how the FBI had investigated the love life of the oh-so-straight Jack Valenti broke in the Washington Post on Feb. 19, one intriguing fact that emerged was that respected writer and commentator Bill Moyers had participated in what now looks like a witch hunt to root out gay White House staffers, acting at the behest of then-FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover and Johnson himself, who had been pressed by Hoover.

Valenti was also a Johnson aide, and later on became the longtime head of the MPAA, the body that assigns (arbitrarily, its critics have charged) ratings to motion pictures. Valenti also enjoyed a reputation as a ladies' man, but a rumor of homosexuality was kick-started by a report that he liked to swim in the nude.

A Feb. 23 Slate article by Jack Shafer recapped the back story: fearing an October surprise in the form of election opponent Barry Goldwater exploiting the arrest of Johnson aide Walter Jenkins, who was taken in for engaging in oral sex with a retired Army officer in a YMCA restroom mere weeks before 1964's presidential election, Johnson evidently gave the go-ahead for an investigation into the private lives of White House staffers.

Shafer reported that Goldwater was not eager to use the arrest to his advantage, telling reporters off the record, "What a way to win an election. Communists and cocksuckers."

Moreover, Moyers, who served as Johson's press secretary, was also dispatched to investigate Goldwater's people.

Shafer quoted from an article by Laurence H. Sulberman from 2005, in which Silberman recounted that, "Bill Moyers, was tasked to direct Hoover to do an investigation of Goldwater's staff to find similar evidence of homosexual activity.

"Mr. Moyers' memo to the FBI was in one of the files," Silberman's article continued.

"When the press reported this, I received a call in my office from Mr. Moyers," the Silberman article went on.

"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," the article added.

"There was a pause on the line and then he said, 'I was very young. How will I explain this to my children?'"

Wrote Schafer in the Slate article, "How will Moyers explain it to his children? By setting aside a chapter in his big, forthcoming Lyndon Johnson book."

An earlier article by Schafer titled "The Intolerable Smugness of Bill Moyers" garnered a response from Moyers.

Moyers, who had his own programs on PBS, worked in the news department of the CBS network for some years, and for a time was associated with NBC new programs, has gained a reputation as a critic of the media. For nineteen years he has served as the president of the Schumann Center for Media and Democracy.

Moyers wrote Slate to say, "In his intemperate attack on my 'intolerable smugness,' 'thuggery,' and 'White House homo hunts' published on Feb. 20, Jack Shafer breathlessly reported very old news as new, and in a wholly irresponsible way that distorted the record beyond recognition."

The earlier article incorporated previously published texts from other sources claiming that in addition to looking for gays in Johnson's administration and among Goldwater's camp, Moyers "planted" questions among reporters at White House press conferences, and had a role in the administration's spying upon civilians--including Martin Luther King, Jr.

Moyers' responde lambasted Shafer for not contacting Moyers directly and stated, "Had he done so, he would have found a much more complex--and interesting--story than the one he found so easy to judge."

Moyers then offered his own take on the matter, writing, "Recall, first of all, what a bizarre situation we in the Johnson White House had on our hands back in 1964.

"FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover was sending us a constant stream of unsupported allegations from 'anonymous informants' about people in the administration (and others) rumored to be gay.

"In those days, this was no small matter," Moyers continued.

"The mere accusation 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 United States senator committed suicide over his son's outing.

"I have never forgotten that sound."

Added Moyers, "We all had gay friends and colleagues at the time, but we operated under an unspoken, mutual agreement to keep it to ourselves."

The Jenkins arrest precipitated a crisis for Johnson, Moyers recollected, and Hoover speculated that the arrest may have been a frame-up planned by Republican operatives.

Moyers went on to say that he had investigated Goldwater's people on that basis, but found no evidence to support that theory.

Wrote Moyers, "More 'tips' from the FBI followed."

Moyers continued to say that the Hoover's interest and insistence made the climate among the Johnson administration "delicate."

"Here was the director of the FBI, who at the time was lionized by the public, the press, and both political parties, informing the president of potentially explosive allegations from 'anonymous informants' concerning members of his staff and administration."

Continued Moyers, "If we ignored them, we were leaving ourselves open to blackmail or possibly reprisals from Hoover himself, or both."

Moyers added, "We certainly could not afford another incident like the one with Walter. And so, yes, we did ask the FBI to follow up on a handful of these reports."

Saying that his job was to see that Johnson's directives were carried out in a timely, but just, manner, Moyers went on to say, "No harm came to a single person from any of these allegations. Nobody lost a job, and not a single name was leaked to the press."

Added Moyers, "Did we handle the situation perfectly? I'll let history be the judge of that one, but our actions certainly do not conform to the nasty caricature with its attendant insinuations that Shafer seeks to paint."

Shafer replied to Moyers' letter, writing, "Did Moyers request FBI investigations of members of the administration who were thought to have homosexual tendencies, or did he not?"

Added Shafer, "When [the author of the Washington Post article] Stephens asked Moyers point-blank about his role, Moyers sent an e-mail confessing to an unclear memory of those years.

"Moyers' impression, as Stephens puts it, was 'that he may have been simply looking for details of allegations first brought to the president by Hoover.'"

Schafer went on to write, "Stephens' article, however, unambiguously cites an FBI memo stating that Moyers requested FBI investigations of two suspected administration homosexuals.

"Until Moyers says or proves otherwise, I'll assume that he did request the investigations. All the rest of his letter is a nondenial denial."

Shafer told EDGE, "How does he know that his investigations hurt nobody?"

Added Shafer, "Who would hold it against him if he just said, 'I was just as unenlightened in 1964 as the APA. Then I came around.'

"Where would be the shame in that?"

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.