The LBJ Aide Who Learned Where Gay People Stood

On November 23, 1963, the morning after he swore the oath of office in an impromptu ceremony aboard Air Force One, President Lyndon B. Johnson called Bob Waldron to commiserate about the colossal burden that had just been placed upon his shoulders.

A native of Arp, Texas, a town of fewer than 1,000 inhabitants some 125 miles east of the city where Johnson’s predecessor, John F. Kennedy, had just been assassinated, Waldron, 36, was an administrative assistant for Representative Homer Thornberry, Johnson’s heir to the Tenth Congressional District seat in Texas. Waldron had moved to Washington in 1955. By 1959, though technically still in Thornberry’s employ, he had essentially become a member of Johnson’s Senate staff, one of several people whom allies and benefactors “loaned” to the then–Senate majority leader during his decades-long political rise. Johnson had initially recruited Waldron for his quick note-taking skills, but he soon became something much more significant: a combination of aide, travel companion, and personal confidant. Waldron’s role gradually expanded to “body man,” that term for an all-purpose gofer so particular to Washington—where some in positions of authority view menial tasks such as inserting contact lenses and picking their daily wardrobe as beneath their dignity. In time, Waldron became a fixture in Johnson’s retinue outside the office, once attending dinner at the Johnson home, by his own estimate, 14 nights in a row.

This article is excerpted from Kirchick’s forthcoming book.

But just as Waldron was about to fulfill a lifelong ambition to work for the president of the United States, forces beyond his control were preparing to ensure that he would be prevented from doing so. For nearly half a century, no graver sin existed in the black book of American politics than homosexuality. From World War II until the end of the Cold War, untold thousands of gay men and women were either purged 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 nation’s capital—the ability to work long hours on a low government salary, a willingness to travel at a moment’s notice, prioritizing career over family—are more easily attained by those without a family to support, a set of circumstances that made Washington an especially attractive place for gay people, gay men in particular. The city has long attracted the archetypical “best little boy in the world,” the author Andrew Tobias’s term for a certain type of gay young man who diligently channels the adversity engendered by his secret into academic pursuits, so many of whom have made their way to Washington because of its peculiar appetite for the skills that secret bred.

Bob Waldron was one such man. He was not a senior adviser to Johnson, and his name appears just once in Robert Caro’s magisterial, multivolume biography of the 36th president. And yet, for several years, he was for Johnson something very close to a substitute son. Had Waldron not been burdened with the same secret that thwarted the dreams of so many other young men and women in American politics, and that eventually spelled the ruin of his own, he might have achieved power and prominence in his own right. Waldron’s experience, captured in now-declassified government records and told in full here for the first time, reveals just how much these gay Americans sacrificed—and how even someone unwaveringly loyal to one of the country’s most skillful politicians was vulnerable to destruction.

By the fall of 1963, Johnson had decided to bring Waldron onto his executive-branch staff. As vice president, Johnson had a limited number of positions he could fill, fewer than when he was Senate majority leader. To work around this obstacle, he decided to place Waldron on the payroll of the National Aeronautics and Space Council, the body that President Dwight Eisenhower created in 1958 to coordinate government efforts on space exploration, and of which President Kennedy had appointed Johnson chairman at the outset of his administration. On October 31, Waldron filled out a formal job application.

As any gay man in American politics had to be, Waldron was protective of his secret. But he had not gone to extraordinary lengths to mask or suppress his personality traits (a certain fastidiousness, a slight effeminacy, an interest in the arts) stereotypically assigned to his sexual orientation. “You’d have to be a blind person and deaf not to realize Bob was gay,” one friend, Bill Wiley, told me. According to Johnson’s older daughter, Lynda Bird, Waldron did not acknowledge his homosexuality while working for her father, nor did her father ever discuss the subject in her presence. Waldron “never said, ‘I am a homosexual,’” she told me. “In those days, you would just never ask anybody about that.”

To work at the space agency, Waldron was required to undergo a background check. For the next several weeks, Civil Service Commission (CSC) investigators interviewed his current and former neighbors, landlords, employers, co-workers, friends, and acquaintances, nearly all of whom provided glowing assessments. “In the time I have known Bob, I have never seen or heard of a thing which would raise any questions in my mind concerning his character, habits, or moral conduct,” reported a man who had rented Waldron a basement apartment.

Mixed in with these fulsome testimonials, however, were intimations of something aberrant. “He is very much interested in antique collection and is very interested in beautiful antique objects,” one former landlord observed. “He struck me as being a rather odd, queer sort of fellow,” remarked a schoolteacher who once lived down the street from Waldron. A former roommate in Austin “considered him to be a funny bird in that he did not care anything about girls.” Several of the people interviewed commented on the sophistication of Waldron’s clothes (and, in particular, the tightness of his pants). Ultimately, of the more than 100 individuals whom the CSC interviewed for its investigation, about half “commented on his effeminate characteristics and many suspected homosexual tendencies.”

This circumstantial evidence would finally be confirmed when an investigator sat down to interview Wendal Lee Phillips, an assistant vice president of the Capital National Bank in Austin. Phillips told the CSC and, later, the FBI, that he had first met Waldron in late 1958, when Phillips popped into Homer Thornberry’s Austin district office to drop off a letter inviting the representative to speak before the city’s junior chamber of commerce. Waldron happened to be working there that week, and after making small talk, the two men became friendly. They kept in touch by mail and over the phone, and Waldron stayed at Phillips’s house for two six-week periods in 1961 and 1962 while Congress was in recess.

One evening during the latter visit, Phillips recalled, he was sharing a double bed with Waldron when he “crowded me a little more closely than usual and his hands stayed in such a manner as to arouse my suspicions.” Yet nothing untoward happened, and so Phillips “more or less dismissed it as an accident.”

The following May, after completing Naval Reserve duty in Norfolk, Virginia, Phillips spent a week at Waldron’s home in Washington. Waldron’s “friends impressed me as being strange,” Phillips recalled, in that “they liked cultural events, and seemed obsessed with re-decorating their houses; they were just not very masculine.” As they had in Austin the previous year, Waldron and Phillips shared a double bed. The first two nights transpired without incident. But then Waldron made a pass. Phillips thought his friend might be dreaming; indeed, he hoped this was the case.

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

“Yes,” Waldron replied.

“I had hoped you didn’t.”

Waldron instantly withdrew his hand. According to Phillips, Waldron grew despondent, and confessed that he “had had this problem for as long as he could remember.” It was something “out of his control,” “a physical ailment,” and “an affliction that he had to live with.” Waldron told Phillips that he had “always been attracted more by men than by women” and “had no desire ever to marry.” Although it was acceptable for a hairdresser to be homosexual, Waldron allowed, “for a man in business or government work, it was a disgrace.” He confessed that he was “worried to death” that the episode would not only ruin their friendship but threaten his career, and he promised Phillips he would never make another approach. Phillips seemed to take the matter in stride, as evidenced by his decision to stay at Waldron’s home, and sleep in Waldron’s bed, for the rest of the week.

In recounting these experiences to the government investigator, though, Phillips imbued them with a foreboding he had not seemed to feel when they occurred. “Robert Waldron is a good friend of mine, but I believe that national security comes before personal friendship,” he explained. “I am an officer in the local military reserve and realize the importance of maintaining strong national security. Robert Waldron has demonstrated homosexual tendencies toward me.” Still, regarding the question of whether Waldron’s sexual deviance affected his suitability for employment, Phillips was more sympathetic. “I believe that he is very much a loyal American citizen, and even though he has homosexual tendencies, I would still recommend him for a position involving national security on the basis of his past responsible government work and other personal characteristics.”

As the CSC wound down its investigation in early December, Lyndon Johnson was barely a few weeks into his unexpected presidency. Waldron was, according to a friend, “seldom out of Johnson’s sight” in this period. Two days after the Kennedy assassination, he was attending 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 the presidential limousine to Kennedy’s burial at Arlington National Cemetery, and for the first two weeks of the new administration, he assisted Juanita Roberts, Johnson’s principal secretary, in setting up shop at the White House. But while he was helping Johnson assume the responsibilities of leader of the free world, a group of men in a building a few blocks away were compiling a report that would throw his life into disarray.

In the course of conducting its background check, Space Council Executive Secretary Edward Welsh told the longtime Johnson aide Walter Jenkins, the CSC discovered that Waldron had participated in “homosexual activities.” Hiring Waldron to join the White House staff, therefore, was impossible. Jenkins told Welsh that he would relay this news to the president, and Waldron’s job application was formally rejected in January 1964. Waldron was further banned from the White House grounds, a development that left him, in the words of a friend, “very depressed.”

Waldron did not share the results of his background check with many people, nor, apparently, did Johnson. “Nobody ever said to me ‘Bob can’t work at the White House, because he’s gay,’” Lynda Bird recalled. Waldron joined the faceless masses of men and women either dismissed from their job or denied one in the first place because of their sexual orientation. The “Lavender Scare,” the purge of gays and lesbians from the federal government that had begun in the early 1950s, was still grinding on well into the following decade; just a few months after Waldron was jettisoned from the White House, the State Department announced that it had fired 63 people as “security risks” the previous year, 45 of them on account of homosexuality.

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

Dear Lee,

… I had often heard the expression “one doesn’t need enemies with friends like yours.” But I never knew the true meaning of that expression until last December. I am sure you well know what I mean, as you succeeded in planting the seed that would eventually completely destroy me—professionally and financially; keep me from attaining the one goal for which I had so diligently worked; and cause me to lose my commission. Then to make it more complete, your efforts will prevent me from holding any Civil Service position of any significance or any position with any firm directly connected with the Federal government, to say nothing of the final effects on my family …

Should you ever become faced with a similar problem in one of your children, I do hope you will have compassion and understanding and realize that it is quite a common problem—and one that needs the love and understanding of those close to overcome it. Your betrayal, as in my case, will merely drive the child right into the final stages as he will have no other place to go …

Please know that you have absolutely nothing to fear from me and I assure you that I will not contact you in the future. Should I ever again be contacted about you, you may rest assured that I can only give a good report.

Sincerely,

Bob Waldron

Ironically, the man responsible for carrying out Waldron’s dismissal, Walter Jenkins, himself became the subject of a gay scandal when, three weeks before the 1964 election, he was arrested for soliciting another man for sex in the basement bathroom of the YMCA around the corner from the White House. Jenkins became a front-page news story and the butt of jokes on the campaign trail. (Either way with LBJ read the placards at rallies for Johnson’s Republican opponent, Senator Barry Goldwater.) In the ensuing FBI investigation into Jenkins, Waldron’s name resurfaced, threatening to tar the Johnson administration with another homosexual scandal. Johnson convinced FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover to cover it up, and the tragedy of Bob Waldron remained largely a secret, until now.

The tragic downfalls of the Johnson aides occurred against a backdrop of historic achievement for other minority groups also suffering the brunt of discrimination. Earlier that year, Johnson had employed the full force of his being—rhetorical, political, emotional, and physical—in passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a momentous piece of legislation outlawing discrimination on the basis of race, religion, sex, and national origin. Just a few months later, in connection with a Senate Internal Security Subcommittee investigation that called more than 100 witnesses and generated some 20,000 pages of testimony, a senior State Department official asserted that “homosexuality is the most disturbing security problem” the agency faced. An era of tremendous legal and moral progress for some American citizens remained a time of despair for gay and lesbian ones.

Rejected by his government, Waldron left town but would eventually return to Washington, becoming one of its premier interior decorators. He counted among his clients a diplomatic register full of ambassadors, the Organization of American States, the Johnsons after they left the White House, and numerous other prominent Washingtonians and storied institutions—a tribute to his ingenuity and perseverance, perhaps, but also a cautionary tale for any gay person with political ambition. In 1995, at age 68, Waldron died of AIDS, another agent of destruction against gay men.

In his anguished 1964 letter to Phillips, Waldron explained that, once identified, homosexuals were “marked by our society—which does not permit a return.” Even at the height of the Cold War, it was safer to be a Communist than a homosexual. A Communist could break with the party. A homosexual was forever tainted.

Two weeks after the 1964 election, savoring his historic landslide victory, Johnson discussed Waldron’s fate with Deke DeLoach, the deputy associate director of the FBI and the bureau’s liaison to the White House. The Justice Department was deciding whether to prosecute Waldron for having answered “no” to the question “Have you had or have you now homosexual tendencies?” on his application to join the Air Force Reserve, a matter about which Johnson took no position. Although Johnson believed that his erstwhile aide, travel companion, body man, stenographer, and substitute son should be left alone, what happened to Bob Waldron was ultimately of no consequence to the president. For he was “gone and forgotten,” Johnson said. “Nobody would pay any attention to him.”


This article is excerpted from James Kirchick’s forthcoming book, Secret City: The Hidden History of Gay Washington.

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https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2022/05/gay-washington-bob-waldron-lyndon-johnson/630170/

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