A Case Study: Lyndon Johnson’s Predilection for Controlling Journalists and News Organizations
A reader of my blogs, Chad A. Mills, recently called my attention to a newspaper article from late June, 1962 which referenced his uncle, Harold Elder, who was then working as a bank teller at First National Bank of Pecos, Texas and had provided testimony about certain bank records on the Billie Sol Estes case.
As Mr. Mills pointed out, it was “kind of bizarre” that, according to the article, he also testified about detailed telephone records regarding Estes’s calls to Ralph Yarborough and a number of Washington officials of the Department of Agriculture.
In addition to that point, I noticed that the article mentioned “38 calls to Yarborough” in the sub-heading and nothing about the known calls to Cliff Carter – which I had described in my “Mastermind” book – even within the body of the article. Intrigued by yet another of the anomalies related to the newspaper coverage of Lyndon Johnson’s protégé Billie Sol Estes, I decided to further investigate that article. A search in the archives of the New York Times yielded a similar article printed in their June 24, 1962 edition, shown below, and the captions I have added will be explained below.
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In other respects, the articles are nearly identical, but the key differences are:
- The reference to Vice President Lyndon Johnson included in the original is missing in the rewrite;
- The reference to LBJ aide Cliff Carter in the original is missing in the rewrite;
- The witness identified as an assistant state attorney general, William Poole, in the original article has been deleted in the rewrite;
- The testimony attributed to Mr. Poole in the original article has been erroneously attributed to Mr. Elder in the revision, thus explaining the “bizarre” point noted above.
The fact that the changes rendered the revised article incomplete, disjointed and “bizarre” suggests they were done hastily and by someone merely following the orders of a superior, a person who did so without regard to the original points being made; evidently not the original reporter or editor. It can be presumed that the order came from Lyndon B. Johnson himself, considering other incidents in his long history of condescending treatment of others, especially journalists as summarized below.
Whoever actually made those revisions undoubtedly (and accurately) expected that they would calm down the person who demanded them and that no one else would even notice it. And for nearly six decades that was true; if not for the bank teller’s nephew catching the “bizarreness” of what it said about his testimony, it would have never been noticed, much less become the subject of this blog.
Other Instances of Lyndon Johnson’s Attitudes Toward Journalists
LBJ’s Favorite “Tool” for Demeaning Reporters (inter alia) was his “Johnson”
Among the methods Lyndon used to demean reporters (and men who worked for him, other politicians and anyone else whom he chose for such treatment), was to call their attention to his manhood, probably knowing that most other men would not “measure up” in that particular aspect. As a result, Johnson’s name became commonly used as a term for large penises, apparently as a result of how reporters were subjected to his demonstrations of his larger than average penis which he had referred to as “jumbo” to his friends as a young man.
Once, in an apparent attempt to dodge a question he didn’t want to answer, at a press conference at the Johnson ranch, he offered to compare the length of his penis with that of any of the male journalists present: “I’ll match mine against any of yours,” he said.
On another occasion in a similar situation and in a moment of exasperation with persistent reporters who wanted him to explain why the United States was at war with Vietnam, he opened his pants, withdrew his penis, and shouted, “This is why!”
On still another occasion, again during a press conference at the ranch, Johnson pulled his penis out of his pants and proceeded to urinate; he turned sideways in front of the reporters so that they
would have a good view of his genitals.
Evidently, he thought exposing himself would be sufficient to appease his audience and end that line of questioning; they were so stunned that they walked away and forgot the original question.
Johnson also enjoyed taunting reporters, businessmen, and politicians into joining him for a session of skinny-dipping in the White House pool to demonstrate who was superior, if he felt they may have bested him in terms of intelligence, college alma mater, wealth, looks, political savvy, connections, or any other aspect. It was, apparently, his favored way of restoring himself as being the ultimately superior person among the males of his species; for females, his methods were similar and the reports of his dalliances are legend.
LBJ’s Most Savage Attack on a Journalist: The Vilification of Morley Safer
(Excerpted from the March 25, 2019 essay “Lyndon B. Johnson and Bill Moyers Helped Reinvent a Literary Genre: The Power of Myth.” Also refer to the March 7, 2020 essay “The Feud Between Bill Moyers and Morley Safer – Whom to Believe?” for more details about this story.)
One example of an attempt by President Johnson and Bill Moyers to reframe real history, while vilifying an honest reporter occurred in 1965, when they called the president of CBS, Frank Stanton, to complain about a broadcast report by the late CBS reporter Morley Safer in an attempt to get Safer fired.
The report was an accurate account of the torching of the village of Cam Ne, destroying one hundred fifty houses, and Safer’s report noted that no Vietnamese soldiers had been Captured or killed and the only fatality was that of a ten-year-old boy. He also reported that the four prisoners taken were all men in their late sixties or early seventies, and that the five wounded were all older women.
Yet this honest reportage of an actual event set off a thunderous chain-reaction in the White House that was never reported until Morley Safer wrote about it in his memoirs twenty-five years afterwards, in 1990. President Johnson had become so furious with that report that, after calling Stanton the day following that report, he then summoned him to the White House so he could continue haranguing him about it.
Safer wrote in his memoirs that Johnson, with Moyers present to support him with “facts,” then threatened that, “unless CBS got rid of me [Safer] and ‘cleaned up its act,’ the White House would ‘go public’ with information about Safer’s [alleged, but non-existent] ‘Communist ties’. Johnson claimed that he and Moyers ‘had the goods’ on me as a result of an investigation launched by the FBI, the CIA, and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.” This was an incredibly brazen and reckless assault on a television journalist whose only error was to assume that the public’s right to know the truth of what had occurred in one of the early combat operations in Vietnam was an appropriate subject; he never considered that doing so might be such an embarrassment to the president and commander-in-chief that would put his broadcasting career in jeopardy.
According to Safer’s account, Johnson – aided and abetted by Bill Moyers – spread the fallacious attack to all parts of the Executive branch, even to ambassadors such as Graham Martin, the last American ambassador to South Vietnam, that Safer “was a KGB agent.”
Decades later, as he wrote his 1990 memoirs, Safer stated that, as a result of Johnson’s and Moyer’s deceits, “To this day [Dean] Rusk believes the entire Cam Ne story was staged. He says that I convinced a Marine Corps unit to bring in some Vietnamese refugees to an abandoned village that the marines used for training exercises, that I then asked the marines to torch the village, and that, being susceptible, well-meaning young Americans, they obliged.”
Moreover, he wrote that Rusk stated that it was “common knowledge at the White House” that Safer had ties directly to the Soviet Union’s intelligence apparatus (i.e. the KGB) and that he had a particularly bad reputation as a “questionable character.” Finally, his characterization of Moyers’ involvement with the bugging of Martin Luther King Jr.’s private life and numerous other instances of Johnson’s and J. Edgar Hoover’s illegal acts was summarized as being “ … not only a good soldier but a gleeful retainer feeding the appetites of Lyndon Johnson … Moyers, the sometimes overly pious public defender of liberal virtue, the First Amendment, and the rights of minorities, playing the role of Iago.”
*Iago is a character in Shakespeare’s play Othello and was “one of Shakespeare’s most sinister villains, often considered such because of the unique trust that Othello places in him, which he betrays while maintaining his reputation of honesty and dedication.” —Wikipedia.
That the two of them would literally make up such heinous lies about Morley Safer, one of the most incorruptible, likeable and credible broadcast journalists in the history of television news broadcasting, for the purpose of attempting to destroy his career, is one more piece of evidence that must be factored into the story we are assembling. It was all done because
Safer had accurately reported a story about the wanton destruction of an entire Vietnamese village – an act that Johnson, paradoxically, had been exhorting his highest-level military officials to do, along with his constant refrain, to “Kill More Viet Cong!” – and that real truths could not stand, so lies had to be invented to replace the truth.
It was a pattern that was used over and over again in the Johnson White House throughout his defiled presidency, though only a few instances of it were ever reported, due to exactly this kind of feared reaction by most other journalists. In this specific case, the truth according to Morley Safer took over twenty years to be revealed, and by then, it – like so many similar vignettes we have discovered and repeated here – became just another piece of ancient history, disconnected from all the rest and treated as just another anecdote of a bygone time by a disinterested public.
Though a lot of the darker stories were kept secret throughout his reign, in fact, by 1965, press reporters who were assigned to cover the White House had become so accustomed to Johnson’s propensity for speaking words that had no basis in fact, that they created a new term to describe it: “Credibility gap” was coined to describe the intrinsic worthlessness of President Johnson’s words.
Lyndon B. Johnson was distrusted by practically everyone who really knew him even before he had acquired the magical and near-universal imprimatur of public respect that is automatically conferred to whomever holds the office of the president of the United States. That trust only lasts until the new president destroys his own credibility through incompetence or having a tin ear to what the public really wants.
Some people who knew him for decades had called him “Lying Lyndon” or “Bullshit Johnson;” to them, he was a former high school bully and college leader of his own secret society that eventually ruled the campus. As documented in my “Mastermind” book, his own grandmother, realizing his lack of moral compass and empathy for others, declared that he would end up in prison; others claimed that if he were not in the White House he would be in an insane asylum.
His followers in those early years were not much different than the sycophantic aides he used and abused in later years; the only real difference was their age and the pay scales they were able to secure in exchange for continually “swallowing their scruples.”
 Caro, Robert, The Path to Power, p. 155
 Mooney, Booth, LBJ: an Irreverent Chronicle, p. 73
 Dallek, Robert, Flawed Giant, p. 491
 Kessler, Ronald, In the President’s Secret Service, pp. 18-19
 Safer, Morley, Flashbacks: On Returning to Vietnam, pp. 94-96