New tapes show LBJ struggled with aide's sex scandal
'We've got to protect' presidency, Johnson argued
WASHINGTON (AllPolitics, Sept. 18) -- In October 1964, just weeks before he faced re-election, President Lyndon B. Johnson was told that his close friend and most trusted aide, Walter Jenkins, had been arrested on a sex charge, caught with another man in a YMCA.
Newly released tapes of LBJ's phone calls show the president wrestled with how best to defuse the potential scandal -- and even had a difference of opinion with his wife over what to do.
After learning of the arrests, Johnson sought the advice of confidant Clark Clifford, who suggested that they wait to see how the story would play in the next day's newspapers. The president was cool to that suggestion, saying that "whatever the treatment is, we know the facts. The facts are that he's got to get out of the White House."
"I think that the presidency is something that we've got to protect, and you can't protect it by procrastinating," Johnson said.
On the morning after LBJ talked to Clifford, Lady Bird Johnson called her husband, who was on the campaign trail. She wanted to offer Jenkins a job with one of their family's Texas television stations, but the president said no.
"I don't think that's right," Mrs. Johnson said. "When questioned, and I will be questioned, I'm going to say that this is incredible for a man that I have known all these years, a devout Catholic, a father of six children, a happily married husband."
She urged the president to make a "gesture of support" and characterized Jenkins' behavior as "a small period of nervous breakdown."
The president expressed some sympathy for making a gesture of support but said he didn't want to appear to be defending Jenkins "because we just can't win it."
"The average farmer just can't understand your knowing it and approving it or condoning it," the president said. But Lady Bird went ahead and made her statement to the press.
In other phone calls, the president suggests that there was evidence that Jenkins was set up by Republicans who hired a bartender to lure him into the YMCA after a cocktail party.
Five days after the scandal broke, the Rev. Billy Graham called Johnson to offer his support.
"You know, when Jesus dealt with people with moral problems, like dear Walter had, he always dealt tenderly," Graham said. "I just hope if you have any contact with him, you'll give him my love and understanding."
Jenkins resigned as soon as his arrest was made public. After a few days in a Washington hospital, he went home to Texas and never returned to the White House.