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Bill Moyers,

Bill Moyers,


Before he became the self-righteous scold of the liberal television commentariat, Moyers served as a special assistant to Lyndon Johnson, during which time he ordered investigations to expose gays.

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.

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.

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.

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