Sometimes, the Cover-up Works: What the Tapes Show LBJ Did in 1964Historians/History
“The cover-up was always worse than the crime.” One of the hoariest of journalistic clichés, the sentiment is regularly offered by arbiters Washington conventional wisdom, such as National Journal’s Ron Fournier (here, on the Secret Service prostitution scandal), or reporters seemingly on a tight deadline (as in this Roger Goodell piece in the Washington Post).
First of all, the cover-up is not “always” worse than the crime. The best example is Watergate itself: as Woodward and Bernstein noted in 2012, such an “idea minimizes the scale and reach of Nixon’s criminal actions.”
And sometimes the cover-up succeeds—as conversations from 50 years ago this past week reveal.
In the 1964 campaign, even as Lyndon Johnson’s election seemed inevitable, the President worried about the possibility of an upset. He (and to a lesser extent his advisors) detected two potential problems. First: even as polls showed him well ahead, Johnson feared a hidden backlash vote of anti-civil rights white voters. As a result, the polls couldn’t be trusted, since even a large Johnson lead could mask a significant percentage of voters who were lying about their ultimate choice. In late summer and early fall, Johnson pressed for more and more fundraising to fund more advertisements, which could be used to counter any late-campaign swoon.
Second: John Williams, a Republican senator from Delaware, had expanded an investigation (begun before Kennedy’s assassination) about pay-to-play allegations involving former Johnson aide Bobby Baker to look into ethical questions about Johnson’s finances and fundraising. “Now, it’s a question of who’s going to destroy who,” Johnson privately scowled in early September 1964. The President started calling in favors from labor and civil rights groups to boost the fundraising and grassroots capacity of Williams’s weak Democratic challenger, Elbert Carvel, who the senator had already defeated once before—in the otherwise strong Democratic year of 1958.
Still, in early October, Johnson’s polling margin over Republican nominee Barry Goldwater approached 30 percentage points. Then, on October 7, Johnson’s chief White House aide Walter Jenkins was arrested, on a morals charge, in the men’s room of a YMCA in Washington. News of the arrest broke six days later, when the President was campaigning in New York City. (There’s some debate among Johnson scholars as to whether Johnson knew about the arrest before news became public, but there’s no written or audio evidence that he did.) After a discussion with Abe Fortas and Clark Clifford, Johnson agreed that Jenkins would need to resign his position; the former aide remained hospitalized until after the election, thus ensuring that no contact with the media would occur.
The arrest, of course, occurred at a time when homosexual conduct was not only illegal in nearly every state (Illinois was the only exception), but also was perceived as a security risk. Engaging in quick damage control, Johnson ordered the FBI to launch a full investigation to determine whether Jenkins had in any way compromised national security. The FBI planned to interview other White House aides and search his office the following morning, October 14.
Shortly after Johnson authorized the FBI investigation, he realized he had another problem: the safe in Jenkins’s office contained information involving (at best) unethical fundraising activity involving the trading of campaign donations for consideration of appointments to the board of trustees of the newly-created Kennedy Cultural Center. (In this effort, Jenkins was teaming with philanthropist and longtime LBJ supporter Mary Lasker.) Given Williams’s extensive network of sources—the Delaware senator’s nickname was “Honest John Williams”—it seemed likely that if the FBI obtained Jenkins’s documents, the news would make its way to Williams and thence to the Senate floor.
So Johnson called up Abe Fortas, an old advisor, instructing him to check with Jenkins about where Jenkins had filed the Lasker material, and then go to Jenkins’s White House office and remove the documents. The future Supreme Court justice—after some prodding from the President—eventually agreed to do so.
President Johnson: Abe, Mary Lasker and these folks—the various people—
Fortas: Yes, sir.
President Johnson: —of that type have been seeing him every day or two for the last few days, and you ought to talk to him and talk to Mildred so that what his situation is goes over to you.
Fortas: So that what?
President Johnson: What he has goes over to you.
Fortas: All right, sir. I’ll take care of it.
President Johnson: Do you follow me? Do you follow me?
Fortas: Yes, sir.
President Johnson: Mary Lasker and some of ‘em—different, a good many folks have been talking to him. Clark has; tell Clark about it, so that you can go talk to Mildred about it.
Fortas: Clark and I will handle it; yes, sir.
President Johnson: [Pauses.] I think that you ought to—will you be seeing him at all?
Fortas: I can. I have access to him.
President Johnson:I think you ought to see him and ask him where he has these materials, so that you can be positive of that right away.
Fortas: Where he has the what?
President Johnson: This Mary stuff—Mary Lasker stuff.
Fortas: Yeah. I’ll see him and find out where that is and get it.
President Johnson: Yeah.
Fortas: All right.
President Johnson: Because it’s—I’ll be using this next week in television and everything.
Fortas: I see.
President Johnson: You better do that, though, right away.
Fortas: I’ll do that right away.
President Johnson: OK.
An hour later, the President checked back with Fortas, wanting to know if he had obtained the Lasker material.
President Johnson: Did you take care of that thing that I told you to? [Pauses.] Have you been by Walter’s office?
Abe Fortas: Yes, sir.
President Johnson: Did you get that material?
Fortas: It’s all taken care of. I don’t have the material, but it’s all in order.
President Johnson: Well . . .
Fortas: I know where it is, and everything about it.
President Johnson: Well, I sure hope that you can get it over to your place.
Fortas: All right, sir—
President Johnson: I think that’s important.
Fortas: I’ll do that.
President Johnson: Eddie’s [Weisl] here with me, and he has been in there several times. Said lots of names involved, and lots of other things.
Fortas: Yes, sir.
President Johnson: I think you ought to go by this evening. Pack up your papers and your briefcase; get Mildred [Steagall] to meet you there.
Fortas: All right, sir. I’ll do that.
This matter is discussed in my book—in this clip, with Jenkins’s secretary, Mildred Steagall, and Abe Fortas, confirms Johnson’s instructions that Fortas get to the office and remove the damaging material before the FBI arrived.
Mildred Steagall: Deke [DeLoach] is on his way over.
President Johnson: Well, you see that Abe gets all your material . . .
Steagall: Yes. Everything?
President Johnson: Yeah.
Steagall: All right, sir. Anything you want to tell him, because he’s right here.
President Johnson: Because I’m fearful that as Deke’s boys go to following through, that they might be coming over there [to Jenkins’ office] looking for confidential papers, and other things. And I wanted to be sure that you had been there.
Abe Fortas: Here?
President Johnson: Yeah.
Fortas: At the office.
President Johnson: Yeah. Yeah.
Fortas: I’m already here.
President Johnson: I wanted to be sure that you got in there and got all that material—
Fortas: Yes, sir. I’ll do that.
Fortas did as requested and retrieved the documents, which were never seen again. The Jenkins scandal quickly (and surprisingly) passed, in large part due to international crises in the USSR and China in the following few days, which focused the media’s attention. Would Johnson have won even if the Jenkins documents had come out before the election? Probably. But because this cover-up worked, he never had to answer the question.
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