Saturday, March 28, 2009

Walter Jenkins: you can hang out with all the boys



Walter Jenkins (right) with successor Bill Moyers and a button that came out after the scandal. Images from txtell.lib.utexas.edu and npr.org

Long before Larry Craig's fateful encounter in a restroom stall at a the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, an aide to President Lyndon B. Johnson was caught up in a similar scandal.

Walter Wilson Jenkins was born in the tiny town of Jolly, Texas, in 1918. Graduating high school at the age of 15, he went on to the University of Texas in Austin. When he was 21, he met Lyndon Johnson, then a Democratic congressman, who offered him a job due to his superior shorthand skills. From then on, Jenkins was in the employ of Johnson, except for service in the Army during World War II and his own run for Congress in 1951. After he was discharged from the military, Jenkins married and eventually had six children.

After Johnson became President following John F. Kennedy's assassination, Jenkins joined him in the White House as his top adviser. Often putting in 16-hour days, Jenkins worked from a tiny office and ceded a more ostentatious space to his secretaries. Johnson once referred to him as his "vice president in charge of everything."

On October 7, 1964, Jenkins attended a party celebrating the opening of the new Washington, D.C. offices of Newsweek. After a few drinks, Jenkins walked a few blocks to a YMCA located not far from the White House. In the men's room at the club, he met Hungarian immigrant and timekeeper named Andy Choka, whose age in primary sources ran the span between 60 and 62. The two entered a pay toilet stall, where Jenkins began performing oral sex on the older man. The basement restroom, known as a location for illicit homosexual encounters, was under observation by two police officers in an adjacent shower room. Both Jenkins and Choka were arrested.

After paying a $50 collateral that allowed him to forgo any sort of formal charge, Jenkins was released. The incident was leaked to the press by an anonymous source, and the Washington Evening Star called Jenkins' office seeking comment a week after his arrest. The call prompted Jenkins to visit Abe Fortas, a lawyer and friend and future Johnson appointee for the Supreme Court, to let him in on the incident. Though Fortas and Johnson adviser Clark Clifford were successful in getting local newspapers to suppress the story out of deference to Jenkins' family, it still went out the same night over the United Press International wire.

Getting a jump on a popular euphemism for celebrity hospitalization by some 40 years, Jenkins was said to be admitted for treatment for exhaustion and hypertension. The details of the arrest likely got out, although squeamish newspapers related little more than that Jenkins had gotten a "morals charge" related to "indecent gestures." It was also revealed that he had been arrested five years earlier on a similar charge, described as "disorderly conduct, pervert," in the same location. Johnson asked for and received Jenkins' resignation.

In phone calls between Johnson and Fortas and other officials, the President worried about the effect the scandal might have on the upcoming election against Barry Goldwater. "It seems to me that the Presidency is at stake," LBJ said. Events worked in the President's favor, however. Within days, the scandal was pushed out of the spotlight by bigger international events, including the ouster of Nikita Khrushchev as Premier of the Soviet Union and the successful test of a Chinese nuclear weapon. The Republican national chairman accused Johnson of attempting to cover up the two incidents. Goldwater, however, refused to use the scandal against Johnson in his campaign; he had been the commander of Jenkins' Air Force reserve unit and personally known the man. When the election came, Johnson soundly defeated Goldwater.

Despite the lurid charge, Jenkins was met with a fair amount of sympathy. Even J. Edgar Hoover, director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, sent flowers and a get well card to Jenkins' hospital room. Lady Bird Johnson said, "My heart is aching for someone who has reached the end point of exhaustion in dedicated service to his country." LBJ and others continued to rely on the exhaustion belief, or the theory that Jenkins had been framed, and Jenkins himself was said to have blamed alcohol consumed at the party and fatigue for the liaison. Fortas told the President that he thought it was "just a case of a fellow going off his rocker long enough to get involved in that kind of thing."

Both Democrats and Republicans worried that Jenkins' bathroom escapade may have jeopardized national security. He had a security clearance for top-secret Air Force and Defense Department information, as well as the top-secret "Q" clearance for the Atomic Energy Commission. In a lengthy article on the scandal, Time reported that "it is axiomatic that sexual deviates are susceptible to blackmail," and posited that Jenkins may have compromised nuclear secrets. Right-wing conspiracy theorists thought the incident bolstered the idea of New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison that homosexuals had been behind JFK's assassination as a way to get into higher positions of governmental power. It has been proposed that the Johnson Administration's move to characterize the arrest as an isolated incident instead of homosexuality on Jenkins' part may have been an attempt to counter these fears.

In what today seems a downright farcical use of intelligence resources, Johnson ordered 50 to 100 FBI agents to see if national security had been affected by the YMCA tryst. The Central Intelligence Agency also investigated whether foreign blackmail occurred. In a matter of weeks, the FBI had interviewed 500 people on every aspect of Jenkins' life and determined that no national secrets had been compromised and that Jenkins had not been framed. It was also confirmed that Jenkins had lobbied to reinstate an Air Force major who had been forced to resign his commission after making lurid phone calls to the wife of an enlisted man. Some months after the whole affair, Hoover denounced a "vulgar" letter bearing his signature and addressed to Jenkins as a forgery from a Soviet smear campaign.

Jenkins returned to Texas after the scandal. He never came out of the closet. Though he and his wife never divorced due to their Catholic religion, they separated in 1972. Jenkins worked as a certified public accountant and management consultant. He and LBJ remained friends, and Jenkins was a welcome guest at the ex-President's ranch. In 1985, Jenkins died after suffering a stroke.

Sources: "Johnson Aide Quits After Morals Arrest" in the St. Petersburg Times on Oct. 15 1964, "Jenkins Case Stirs Probe" in the St. Petersburg Times on Oct. 16 1964, "The Senior Staff Man" in Time on Oct. 23 1964, "The Jenkins Report" in Time on Oct. 30 1964, "Hoover Says Reds Behind Smear Letter" in the St. Petersburg Times on Jan. 15 1966, "LBJ's Gay Sex Scandal" in Out in December 1999, Reaching for Glory: Lyndon Johnson's Secret White House Tapes by Michael R. Beschloss, The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government by David K. Johnson, Sexual Blackmail: A Modern History by Angus McLaren

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