Kicking A Man While He's Down: LBJ vs. Romney, A Historical Perspective

    Character is something that’s not always easy to define, but making the attempt does bring to mind what the late Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously said about pornography, “I know it when I see it.”

Well, when you look into the eyes of Mitt Romney, you just know that a weak character resides beneath that smug exterior. I already suspected it after watching his mad dash to the right when his positions did not sit well with the coveted GOP base, and received confirmation this week when I read his response to news that Senator Larry E. Craig (R-Idaho), who served as co-liaison between the Senate and the Romney presidential campaign, had pleaded guilty earlier to a disorderly conduct charge growing out of his arrest by an undercover vice cop in the men’s room at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport in June. The Romney people issued a statement immediately after news broke on August 27th of Craig’s June arrest and his early August guilty plea: “Senator Craig has stepped down from his role with the campaign. He did not want to be a distraction, and we accept his decision.” So, the formerly good Senator, a reliable cultural conservative to help polish the Mitt’s cultural conservative credentials after his more liberal incarnation as Bay State governor, suddenly is relegated, rather unceremoniously, to a distraction.

Romney personally went even further than his campaign’s fairly clinical separation from the disgraced senator.  In his first reported public comments on the matter, the presidential candidate appeared on CNBC’s “Kudlow & Company” program and thoroughly trashed his erstwhile supporter. Accusing Craig of displaying “not up to the level of respect and dignity” expected of a senator, Romney explained that one cannot simply “just forgive and forget” such conduct. “We’ve seen disappointment in the White House, we’ve seen it in the Senate, we’ve seen it in Congress. And frankly, it’s disgusting.”

It’s not clear whether another of today’s presidential wannabes would have handled a similar situation much differently from Romney, although hope does spring eternal that there is place for gumption, compassion, and loyalty in presidential politics. There’s at least one prior precedent that comes to mind indicating that not all aspirants for election or re-election to the White House are devoid of the traditional virtues.

In October 1964, just three weeks before the presidential election, Walter Jenkins, a personal friend and high-level adviser to President Lyndon B. Johnson, was arrested for having gay sex in a men’s room at a Washington D.C. YMCA. Johnson, who had inherited the White House after the traumatic assassination of President John F. Kennedy, was running for his first full and elected term against Republican challenger Barry Goldwater. The full story is told by Al Weisel in the December, 1999 issue of Out magazine.

When the story of Jenkins’ arrest hit the papers, he had a severe nervous breakdown, prompting presidential aide (and later Supreme Court Justice) Abe Fortas to call a physician, who admitted the distraught Jenkins to the psychiatric ward of the George Washington University Hospital, under a 24-hour suicide watch. The public announcement was made by Johnson’s press secretary, George Reedy who, Weisel wrote in Out, was “weeping as he made the announcement.” (This alone separates the Johnson White House from modern times. Can you imagine a presidential press secretary today shedding tears of sympathy for a disgraced White House staffer?)

For me, the shocking aspect of the story was not that a closeted pol got caught leading a double life (what else is new under the sun?). Rather, it was the compassion President Johnson and his wife, Lady Bird Johnson, showed to their disgraced confidante and, it must be added, long-time personal friend of the president and first lady.

Lady Bird Johnson, in a gesture that reveals both her courage and her tolerance, told the press that she would stand by her and her husband’s friend Jenkins, as Jesus would have wanted. She reportedly urged the President to make a similar “gesture of support” as well. LBJ considered following her advice, writes Weisel, but eventually decided not to defend Jenkins because “we just can't win it.” “The average farmer just can't understand your knowing it and approving it or condoning it,” he lamented. However, Johnson did nothing to inflict further pain on Jenkins and took care not to seek points with the electorate by bashing the distraught staffer.

I was a first year law school student in October 1964, and I can remember to this day watching the news reports on television. President Johnson left the White House in order to pay a personal visit to Jenkins at the hospital. A television news reporter stopped Johnson in order to ask whether he had come to the hospital to fire Jenkins. I cannot remember Johnson’s precise words nearly 43 years later, but I remember the general tone and tenor of Johnson’s response as he spit out his words, with signs of visible contempt toward the reporter: I’m here to visit an ill friend.

Jenkins quietly resigned a few weeks later, and Johnson split his work among colleagues. LBJ later regretted not defending his friend more vociferously. Joseph Califano, who was undersecretary of defense for both John F. Kennedy and Johnson, told Weisel: "I heard Johnson say often that when he left the White House there were two things he was going to do: He was going to start smoking again, and he was going to throw his arms around Walter Jenkins and hug him. And he did it. He started smoking on the plane on the way back, and he met Walter Jenkins at the airport in Texas." Jenkins and Johnson rekindled their friendship as retirees in rural Texas, the same place where they formed a close bond as young legislative aides in the late 1930s.

What would Jesus say? One wonders. We know what Lady Bird said, and what Lyndon did to keep from making his friend’s pain worse. And we know, too, that Barry Goldwater rejected advice from his campaign staffers to exploit Jenkins’ troubles for the candidate’s political advantage in an electoral race where Goldwater was running substantially behind Johnson. And we know what Mitt said. If character is an important test for the presidency, one hopes that Romney gets eliminated from the electoral contest early and decisively, as the voters realize just how short he falls when compared to some of the men and women that have come before him.

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