LBJ and the Bobby Baker Scandal
Johnson’s initial approach to squelching the Baker scandal was to encourage Senate allies—such as Richard Russell, or, as in this early January clip, George Smathers—to pressure the ineffectual Rules Committee chairman, Everett Jordan, into shutting down the committee inquiry.
President Johnson: Now, can’t you talk to him [Everett Jordan] Why in the living hell does he let [Nebraska senator Carl] Curtis run him? Why? I thought you were going to talk to Dick Russell, and go talk to Curtis, and make [Minority Leader Everett] Dirksen and them behave?
George Smathers: I’ve talked to him—Jordan has assured me over and over again—
President Johnson: He’s not strong enough, though, unless—
Smathers: That’s exactly right—
President Johnson: Unless someone goes and tell him.
President Johnson: Well, they had this damn fool insurance man [Don Reynolds] in, and they had him in a secret session, and [he said] Bobby [Baker] gave me a record player.
President Johnson: And Bobby got the record player from the insurance man. I didn’t know a damn thing about it—never heard of it till this happened.
Smathers: That’s right.
President Johnson: But I paid $88,000 worth of premiums, and, by God, they could afford to give me a Cadillac if they wanted to, and there would be not a goddamn thing wrong with it. I paid them 88,000 [dollars] in premiums over a period of ‘55 to ‘64.
President Johnson: On damn near half-million dollars worth of insurance. And they’re the only company that writes it, and I assume people buy it from their friends. Nothing wrong with it. There’s not a damn thing wrong. But now, so . . .
President Johnson: Walter Jenkins explained it all in his statement; this son-of-a-bitch Curtis comes along and says, well, he wouldn’t take any statements not sworn to.
When the Smathers/Russell gambit failed, Johnson took matters into his own hands, in a late January press conference statement that only succeeded in inflaming the issue—as he recognized in this late-night January 27 excerpt with several of his advisors.
President Johnson:Anything we say is going to be misinterpreted, misconstrued, and the least we say, the better.
Abe Fortas: Mm-hmm.
President Johnson: And I’d just give anything in the world if I could retract my statement the other day.
President Johnson: And I thought it was the right statement, I thought I got by with it fine. I walked in the room, and stood there and talked to Helen Thomas. She said, “Are you going out to Liz Carpenter’s party?” And I said yes . . . and then the sons-of-bitches had me running out of the room. I was loping!
President Johnson: And I just think anything you give ‘em, there’s trouble. The main thing you’ve got to do is use your power on ‘em, and hope you got the votes. I wish you and Clark Clifford would spend your time on these six senators [the Democrats on the Rules Committee], instead of on statements.
President Johnson: I just tell you, the smartest man I’ve met in this White House is [Ted] Sorensen.
President Johnson: He told me tonight he just thought I was a big, fat, cigar-puffin’, pot-bellied numbskull by following the advice to get out here in front of the press. That’s all they want you to do.
President Johnson: He said, “I told you that the other day, and I want to tell you that again.”
President Johnson: Now, maybe we got a hole; maybe we need to fill that hole. But I think we ought to fill it with those six votes up there.
President Johnson: And maybe sit down with [Rules Committee Counsel] McLendon to work out a statement, and work it out carefully. But I sure don’t think tonight’s any night to put it out; I honestly don’t.
As Johnson explained to Larry O’Brien in late April, he feared the political effects of the corruption issue.
President Johnson: My judgment is that they’re going to holler corruption on us to death. Between now, it’s going to be Korea and Corruption and something else [a reference to the 1952 GOP slogan].
And they’re going to do everything they can. If they can find one congressman—a Democratic congressman—whose brother was a day laborer in a place, they’re going to tie it in.
President Johnson: I’m afraid of this corruption issue.
Larry O’Brien: Yeah.
President Johnson: I just don’t want ‘em to say we’re letting contracts . . .
President Johnson: And I know that one or two of the Republicans are telling the contributors that they’re going into this. So I’d just like to kind of lay low on it.
President Johnson: From now till November if I could.
By mid-May, Johnson again tried to shut down the inquiry, this time through pressure from Majority Whip Hubert Humphrey.
President Johnson: This is just between me and you and God, now; don’t tell a human.
Hubert Humphrey: No.
President Johnson: But Dick Russell just called me and said that the leadership was treating Everett Jordan outrageous, and that he was ready to throw in the towel, and that . . . [Everett] Dirksen ought to be told that if he wants to go into campaign contributions, why, we can look into a lot of campaign contributions. We can authorize the FBI to go into all the Republican ones that have ever been made.
President Johnson: And we’ll do it with the administration if he wants to do that—that we’ve got nothing to hide, that Bobby Baker hasn’t got any campaign contributions.
Then he said, “Will you call Mike [Mansfield] and Hubert?”
I said, “I can’t tell you who I’ll call, because I don’t want to call anybody that I can’t talk to. But I’ll call somebody. And I don’t want ‘em to say the White House is directing this thing.”
President Johnson: He said, “Well, they want to call a bunch of new witnesses, and [Carl] Curtis is going to offer an amendment that any senator could call a witness”—which would be outrageous—”instead of a majority, and they want to do that so they can call Walter Jenkins, and call a bunch of other people.
President Johnson: Of course, I wouldn’t let Walter Jenkins go; I’d just defy ‘em. But there oughtn’t to be put on that spot, and make that a campaign issue for the rest of the year.
It’s deader than hell now; if they’d leave it dead. Every poll they took—they took one, I noticed, in Salem, New Jersey yesterday, and one percent have ever heard of it. The rest of ‘em don’t pay any attention.
President Johnson: This is too important; this is more important than anything. We can’t have them taking over just because they’ve got a few demagogues there.
Humphrey: Yes, sir.
President Johnson: OK.
When the issue suddenly revived with John Williams’ September 1 allegations (suggesting a conspiracy between Baker and former DNC finance chairman Matt McCloskey, as alleged by former Baker confidante Don Reynolds), the President prepared to fight dirty.
President Johnson: [with Fortas assenting throughout] My judgment—it’s going to be very . . . They can’t run it on all three networks all night and all morning without it blowing up. Now, I just believe it will be, and I think it’s a question of who’s going to survive.
Whether [Matt] McCloskey survives. I think if McCloskey takes the position he did make a political contribution, why, he’s had it.
And I think the question is whether the party’s had it or not. Because he has been the national finance chairman of the Democratic Party in the United States. I think that’s number one.
I think number two, he is the Democratic Party in Pennsylvania, which is a very key state, and this gets back into a [Samuel] Insull deal, or Teapot Dome deal, in the state of Pennsylvania. Nobody will be—[Governor Bill] Scranton will be getting into it, and they’ll be destroying the Democratic Party there.
Now, it’s a question of who’s going to destroy who.
My judgment is that Bobby [Baker] has got some bad marks on him, so has McCloskey—but the two of them can probably show that this is not much of a, this fellow doesn’t have much character.
Abe Fortas: Right.
President Johnson: And I think they can go back, and make ‘em subpoena the records, and see what kind of a guy he is. And say, “Now what is his purpose in doing this? What is his motive? Is he just a good, clean citizen, or he is a fellow that’s been abducting little 13-year-old girls?”
President Johnson: And this is what they’re tied up with.