LBJ's Top Aide Caught in the YMCA Men's Room
When Lyndon B. Johnson's top aide, Walter Jenkins, was arrested for giving oral sex to a stranger in a YMCA bathroom in October, 1964, the scandal hit Johnson hard. How hard?
"A great deal of the president's difficulties can be traced to the fact that Walter had to leave," said Johnson's White House Press Secretary, George Reedy. "All of history might have been different if it hadn't been for that episode."
Jenkins was a powerful, and by all accounts, well-loved figure in Johnson's administration. This love would come to help him deal with, and recover from, the scandal that would end his days in DC. But, in a day when being a known homosexual meant you couldn't get security clearance from Uncle Sam, Jenkins' arrest was a nail in the coffin.
President Johnson acted quickly to insulate himself from the scandal. He sought Jenkins' resignation even while the trusted aide was groggy from the sedatives given to him at George Washington University Hospital, where he was under 24-hour suicide watch.
Despite the salaciousness of the scandal, many DC insiders showed support for Jenkins even while the press broke the damaging story. Most notably, first lady Lady Bird Johnson wrote a letter published by several newspapers.
"My heart is aching today for someone who has reached the end point of exhaustion in dedicated service to his country," Lady Bird wrote of Jenkins.
FBI DIrector J. Edgar Hoover had flowers delivered to Jenkins' hospital room. And presidential rival Barry Goldwater refused to attack Johnson for Jenkins' arrest.
"It was a sad time for Jenkins' wife and children, and I was not about to add to their private sorrow," Goldwater later wrote in his autobiography. "Winning isn't everything. Some things, like loyalty to friends or lasting principle, are more important."
Jenkins and his wife, Marjorie, stayed together until a separation in the early 1970s, though the two never divorced. Of Jenkins' time in DC, journalist Bill Moyers wrote in Newsweek in 1975:
"When they come to canonize political aides, [Jenkins] will be the first summoned, for no man ever negotiated the shark-infested waters of the Potomac with more decency or charity or came out on the other side with his integrity less shaken. If Lyndon Johnson owed everything to one human being other than Lady Bird, he owed it to Walter Jenkins."
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