Bill Moyers, Gay-Baiter

By James Kirchick

Originally published on Advocate.com February 25 2009 12:00 AM ET

Being a homosexual in
America in 1964 was not easy, and one of the more difficult
places to be one was Washington, D.C. While the nation's
capital has long since become the setting for some of the most
important gay rights battles (and home to a vibrant gay scene),
it was also the site of routine antigay witch hunts. At the
time, gays were officially barred from working in government
and their livelihood depended on the secreting of their
sexuality. Indeed, the mere suspicion of homosexuality could
get a person fired, and the consequences of losing one's job
due to what was then known as a "morals charge" were
long-lasting.

It's in this context
that recent revelations about Bill Moyers are so disturbing.
Before he became the self-righteous scold of the liberal
television commentariat, Moyers served as a special assistant
to Democratic president Lyndon Johnson. This was at the height
of J. Edgar Hoover's reign over the Federal Bureau of
Investigation, during which time the FBI
director spied on a vast array of public and private
citizens in order to gather information for potential
blackmail.

According to documents
obtained last week by
TheWashington Post

through a Freedom of Information Act request, one of these
individuals was former Johnson aide Jack Valenti, later head of
the Motion Picture Association of America. Hoover, according to
the
Post

, was "consumed" by the question of whether Valenti was
gay, and deployed his agents to investigate the man's sex
life.

They turned up
nothing.

Valenti, however, was
not the only White House official to be investigated by the FBI
for suspected homosexuality. In late 1964, just weeks before
the presidential election, senior White House adviser Walter
Jenkins was arrested in a YMCA men's room for performing oral
sex on another man. Under extreme mental duress, Jenkins
checked into a hospital and resigned his position. Moyers
wasted no time in trying to discover how much more potential
trouble the Johnson administration might have with gays in its
midst, and went out of his way to ask Hoover's FBI to
investigate two other administration officials "suspected as
having homosexual tendencies," according to the recently
released documents.

In an e-mail response
to an article written by Slate's Jack Shafer, Moyers complains
about Hoover, but does not bother to address the matter of his
ordering the FBI to snoop on his colleagues.

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These revelations once
again remind us that empathy for the dignity of gay people does
not always fall along partisan political lines. Whereas Barry
Goldwater, one of the crucial figures in the birth of the
conservative movement, could have easily exploited the Jenkins
scandal in the presidential campaign, he refused to discuss it.
In his memoir Goldwater wrote, "It was a sad time for Jenkins
and his family. Winning isn't everything. Some things, like
loyalty to friends, or lasting principle, are more
important."

Goldwater, today
remembered by most liberals as a fire-breathing Neanderthal,
later became an outspoken opponent of the ban on gays in the
military.

Contrast Goldwater's
behavior to that of Moyers, who abused his power in office to
hunt down and expose the gays in his midst. (Here it should be
noted that rooting out gays in government wasn't the only dirty
task Moyers conducted while working in the Johnson White House.
He also oversaw the FBI's wiretapping of Martin Luther King and
successfully prevented the civil rights activist from
challenging Mississippi's all-white delegation to the
Democratic National Convention in 1964. "You know you have
only to call on us when a similar situation arises," he
encouraged the FBI agent in charge of the domestic
espionage.)

To be sure, Moyers's
behavior at the time took place within a social milieu far more
repressive than today's. It wasn't until 1973, after all, that
the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from
its list of disorders. Gays were banned from working in the
federal civil service until 1975. And gays were barred from
having security clearances, amazingly, until 1995. That Moyers
engaged in Nixonian dirty tricks with the aim of embarrassing
and ruining the careers of gay people, while despicable, was
something that many officials in his position probably would
have done, given the mores of the era.

But what makes Moyers's
contemptible behavior relevant is that even to this day he has
yet to acknowledge wrongdoing, never mind apologize. That
Moyers has since become a supporter of gay rights is
irrelevant. None of that erases the fact that he used his power
as a senior White House official to pry into the private lives
of his own colleagues.

Today, he has the gall
to excoriate other public figures and lecture the rest of us on
virtue. After leaving government, Moyers became a journalist
and subsequently produced PBS documentaries excoriating Richard
Nixon over Watergate and Ronald Reagan over Iran-Contra. In the
early 1990s, his star was so high and his reputation so
pristine that he publicly considered running for president. His
sanctimony rivals that of the pope.

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Given his own history
of snooping into the private lives of American citizens with
the intent to publicly humiliate them, Moyers's latter-day
sermonizing on the evils of the Bush administration and
conservatives in general rings more than a little hollow. And
the fact that he has been getting rich off the public trough
for decades -- earning millions of dollars in production deals
from his documentaries and television programs aired on Public
Broadcasting -- makes a full explanation of his activities in
government service all the more necessary.

Moyers didn't just seek
dirt on his own colleagues but his political enemies as well.
In 1975, then-deputy attorney general Laurence Silberman was
tasked with the job of reviewing a raft of secret files once
belonging to J. Edgar Hoover. Amid "nasty bits of information
on various political figures," Silberman found a letter
drafted by Moyers requesting an FBI investigation of suspected
gays on Goldwater's campaign staff. When the press reported on
this document, Silberman received an angry phone call from
Moyers, who alleged that the report was a CIA forgery. When
Silberman offered to conduct an investigation so as to
exonerate Moyers, the former presidential aide demurred. "I
was very young," Moyers confessed to Silberman. "How will I
explain this to my children?"

It's a good question.
And one that we're still waiting for Bill Moyers to answer.