Being gay was the gravest sin in Washington

On the morning of November 23, 1963, after swearing in an impromptu ceremony on Air Force One, President Lyndon B. Johnson called Bob Waldron to sympathize with the enormous burden that had just been imposed on him.

Waldron, 36, a native of Arp, Texas, a city of less than 1,000 people, about 125 miles east of where Johnson’s predecessor John F. Kennedy had just been assassinated, was an administrative assistant to Homer Thornberry, Johnson’s heir. to the seat of the Tenth Congressional District in Texas. Waldron moved to Washington in 1955. By 1959, although technically still employed by Thornberry, he had essentially become a member of the Johnson Senate, one of several people allied and benefactors in his decades “lent” to the then leader of the majority. in the Senate. -long-term political rise. Johnson initially hired Waldron because of his quick recording skills, but it soon became something much more important: a combination of assistant, travel companion, and personal confidant. Waldron’s role has gradually expanded to include the “body man,” a term for the versatile person so characteristic of Washington – where some in power believe that trivial tasks, such as putting on contact lenses and choosing a daily wardrobe, are under their control. dignity. Eventually, Waldron became a regular in Johnson’s entourage outside the office when he once attended a dinner at Johnson’s home, in his own estimation, 14 nights in a row.

But just as Waldron wanted to fulfill his lifelong ambition to work for the President of the United States, forces outside his control were preparing to ensure that he was prevented from doing so. For almost half a century, there has been no more serious sin in the black book of American politics than homosexuality. From World War II to the end of the Cold War, thousands of same-sex men and women were either fired from government service or denied employment altogether solely because of their sexual orientation.

At the same time, some of the most important prerequisites for success in the country’s capital – the ability to work long hours with low pay in the civil service, willingness to travel in the moment, prioritizing a career over family – are easier to achieve without a family. of which Washington was a particularly attractive place for gays, especially gays. The city has long attracted the archetypal “best boy in the world,” an expression by author Andrew Tobias for a certain type of gay young man who diligently directs the hardships caused by his secret into academic endeavors, many of which have killed their way. to Washington because of his special appetite for skills born of mystery.

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Bob Waldron was one of those. He was not a senior Johnson adviser, and his name appears only once in the master’s, multifaceted biography of 36th President Robert Car. And yet for a few years for Johnson he was something very close to a surrogate son. Had Waldron not been burdened with the same secret that prevented the dreams of many other young men and women in American politics and that eventually meant the downfall of his own, he might have achieved power and prestige on his own. Waldron’s experience, captured in now-repealed government records and fully described here for the first time, reveals how much these same-sex Americans sacrificed – and how even someone who was steadfastly loyal to one of the country’s most skilled politicians was vulnerable to destruction.

By the fall of 1963, Johnson had decided to bring Waldron into his executive branch staff. As vice president, Johnson had a limited number of seats he could fill, less than when he was the majority leader in the Senate. To overcome this hurdle, he decided to put Waldron on the payroll of the National Aeronautics and Space Council, a body set up by President Dwight Eisenhower in 1958 to coordinate government efforts in space exploration, which President Kennedy named Johnson as chairman at the beginning of his administration. On October 31, Waldron completed a formal job application.

As every gay man should be in American politics, Waldron kept his secret. However, he did not go to great lengths to disguise or suppress his personality traits (some whimsy, slight femininity, interest in art) that were stereotypically attributed to his sexual orientation. “You have to be blind and deaf not to know Bob is gay,” one friend of Bill Wiley told me. According to Johnson’s older daughter Lynde Bird, Waldron did not admit his homosexuality while working for her father, nor did her father ever discuss the subject in her presence. Waldron “never said, ‘I’m gay,'” she told me. “I just wouldn’t ask anyone about it in those days.”

To work for the space agency, Waldron had to do a background check. Over the next few weeks, CSC investigators interviewed his current and former neighbors, landlords, employers, co-workers, friends and acquaintances, almost all of whom gave glowing ratings. “By the time I knew Bob, I had never seen or heard of anything that would raise any questions for me about his character, habits, or moral behavior,” reported the man who rented a basement apartment to Waldron.

However, hints of something abnormal were mixed with these exciting testimonies. “He is very interested in the collection of antiques and he is very interested in beautiful antiques,” said the former landlord. “I felt like I was a pretty weird, weird man,” remarked a schoolteacher who once lived down the street from Waldron. A former roommate in Austin “considered him a funny bird because he didn’t care about girls.” Several people interviewed commented on the sophistication of Waldron’s clothing (and especially the tightness of his pants). After all, of the more than 100 individuals the CSC interviewed for its investigation, about half “commented on his feminist traits and a number of alleged homosexual tendencies”.

This circumstantial evidence would have finally been corroborated when the investigator sat down and interviewed Wendal Lee Phillips, assistant vice president of Capital National Bank in Austin. Phillips told the CSC and later the FBI that he first met Waldron in late 1958 when Phillips entered Homer Thornberry County’s Austin office to postpone a letter inviting a representative to speak before the city’s lower economy. chamber. Waldron worked there that week and after they talked, the two friends became friends. In this regard, they remained in contact by mail and telephone, and Waldron remained at the Phillips House for two six-week periods in 1961 and 1962, while Congress was on break.

One evening during his last visit, Phillips recalled, he shared a double bed with Waldron when he “squeezed me a little more than usual and his hands remained so as to arouse my suspicions”. However, nothing unfortunate happened, so Phillips “more or less rejected it as an accident”.

The following May, Phillips spent a week at the Waldron Home in Washington, D.C., after serving as a Naval Reserve in Norfolk, Virginia. Waldron’s “friends impressed me as weird,” Phillips recalled, “that they liked cultural events and seemed obsessed with redecorating their houses; they just weren’t very masculine. “As they had in Austin last year, Waldron and Phillips shared a double bed. The first two nights passed without incident. But then Waldron passed. Phillips thought his friend might be dreaming; hoped so.

“Bob, do you know what you’re doing?” he asked.

Waldron immediately withdrew his hand. According to Phillips, Waldron became discouraged and admitted that he had “had this problem for as long as he could remember.” It was something “beyond his control”, “physical illness” and “a weakness he had to live with”. Waldron told Phillips that he had “always been more attracted to men than women” and “never wanted to get married.” While it was acceptable for the hairdresser to be gay, Waldron allowed it to be “a disgrace to a man working in business or government.” He admitted that he was “mortally worried” that this episode would not only ruin their friendship but jeopardize his career, and promised Phillips he would never take a different approach. Phillips seemed to take the matter without difficulty, as evidenced by his decision to stay at Waldron’s home and sleep in Waldron’s bed until the end of the week.

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As he recounted these experiences to a government investigator, Phillips overwhelmed them with a premonition he didn’t seem to feel when they happened. “Robert Waldron is a good friend of mine, but I believe national security is ahead of personal friendship,” he explained. “I am an officer of the local military reserve and I am aware of the importance of maintaining a strong national security. Robert Waldron showed homosexual inclinations towards me. Nevertheless, Phillips was more in favor of the question of whether Waldron’s sexual deviance affected his suitability for employment. “I believe he is a very loyal American citizen, and although he has homosexual tendencies, based on his past responsible government work and other personal qualities, I would still recommend him for a position that includes national security.”

When the CSC completed its investigation in early December, Lyndon Johnson was just weeks away from his unexpected presidency. Waldron was, according to a friend during this period, “rarely out of Johnson’s sight.” Two days after the assassination of Kennedy, he attended Sunday morning services at St. Mark’s Church with the new president and first lady when a Secret Service agent brought Johnson the shocking news that Lee Harvey Oswald had been shot in Dallas. Waldron traveled with Johnson in a presidential limousine to Kennedy’s funeral at Arlington National Cemetery, and the first two weeks of the new administration helped Juanita Roberts, Johnson’s chief secretary, set up shop in the White House. But while he helped Johnson take on the responsibilities of the leader of the free world, a group of men within a few blocks away compiled a report that would throw his life into a mess.

During a background check, Space Council Executive Secretary Edward Welsh told Johnson’s longtime aide Walter Jenkins that the CSC had discovered that Waldron was involved in “homosexual activities.” So it was impossible to hire Waldron to join the White House staff. Jenkins told Welsh that he would pass the news on to the president, and Waldron’s job application was officially rejected in January 1964. Waldron was further barred from entering the White House, making him “very depressed,” according to a friend.

Waldron did not share the results of his background check with many people, nor did Johnson. “Nobody told me Bob couldn’t work at the White House because he’s gay,” Lynda Bird recalled. Waldron joined the rude crowd of men and women who were either fired or denied it at all because of their sexual orientation. The “Lavender Fear,” a purge of gays and lesbians from the federal government that began in the early 1950s, continued into the next decade; Just months after Waldron was left the White House, the State Department said it fired 63 people last year because of “security risks,” 45 of them because of homosexuality.

Once a welcome presence in Washington’s most exclusive salons and at the height of American political power, Waldron was now a persona non grata. That May, Waldron, in an envelope marked Personal – Confidential, sent a letter to the man to whom he had confided his most intimate and consequential secret.

… I’ve often heard the phrase “a man doesn’t need enemies with friends like yours”. But until last December, I didn’t know the true meaning of that term. I’m sure you know very well what I mean, as you’ve managed to sow a seed that would eventually completely destroy me – professionally and financially; prevent me from achieving a single goal for which I have worked so hard; and cause me to lose my commission. Then, to be more and more complete, your efforts will prevent me from holding any important position in the state administration or any position in any company directly affiliated with the federal government, not to mention the final effects on my family. …

If you ever face a similar problem with one of your children, I hope you will have compassion and understanding and realize that this is a fairly common problem – and that needs the love and understanding of loved ones to overcome it. Your betrayal, as in my case, will only drive the child to the last stage, as he will have nowhere to go …

Please know that you have nothing to fear from me and I assure you that I will not contact you in the future. If you ever contact me about you again, you can be sure that I can only give a good report.

Ironically, the man responsible for carrying out Waldron’s dismissal, Walter Jenkins, himself became the subject of a gay scandal when he was arrested three weeks before the 1964 election for soliciting another man to have sex in the YMCA basement bathroom around the corner. from the White House. Jenkins became news on the front page and the subject of a joke on the campaign trail. (In any case, the LBJ read posters at rallies for Johnson’s Republican opponent, Senator Barry Goldwater.) In the next FBI investigation into Jenkins, Waldron’s name reappeared and threatened to harm the Johnson administration with a new homosexual scandal. Johnson persuaded FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover to cover it up, and Bob Waldron’s tragedy has remained largely a mystery so far.

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The tragic downfalls of Johnson’s aides came amid historic achievements for other minority groups that have also suffered the burden of discrimination. Earlier that year, Johnson used all the power of his being — rhetorical, political, emotional, and physical — to pass the 1964 Civil Rights Act, an important law that prohibits discrimination based on race, religion, gender, and national origin. Just a few months later, in connection with an investigation by the Senate Subcommittee on Homeland Security, which called more than 100 witnesses and produced about 20,000 pages of testimonies, a senior State Department official said “homosexuality is the most disruptive security issue” he faces. agency. An era of remarkable legal and moral progress for some American citizens has remained a time of despair for gays and lesbians.

Waldron, rejected by his government, left the city but eventually returned to Washington and became one of its chief interior decorators. His clients included a diplomatic register full of ambassadors, the Organization of American States, Johnson’s after leaving the White House, and many other prominent Washington and famous institutions – perhaps a tribute to his ingenuity and perseverance, but also a warning story for all gays with political ambitions. . In 1995, at the age of 68, Waldron died of AIDS, another agent of the destruction of gays.

In his anxious letter to Phillips in 1964, Waldron explained that homosexuals, when identified, were “marked by our society – which does not allow returns.” Even at the height of the Cold War, it was safer to be a communist than a homosexual. A communist could end the party. The gay man was dirty forever.

Two weeks after the 1964 election, Johnson, enjoying his historic overwhelming victory, discussed Waldron’s fate with Deke DeLoach, deputy deputy director of the FBI and liaison to the White House office. The Department of Justice was deciding whether to prosecute Waldron for answering “no” to the question “Did you have or do you have homosexual tendencies?” on his application to join the reserve airfield, on a matter on which Johnson had taken no position. Although Johnson believed that his former aide, travel companion, bodyguard, stenographer, and surrogate son should be left alone, what happened to Bob Waldron ultimately did not affect the president. Because he was “gone and forgotten,” Johnson said. “No one would pay attention to him.”

This article is a summary of James Kirchick’s upcoming book Secret City: The Hidden History of Gay Washington.

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