Even when I was a kid, I knew the FBI had done some bad things. My parents told me.
We lived in Texas, in an area that was then bright blue, although I think that was before “blue” and “red” were even used to designate Democrats and Republicans. Mine was one of the few Republican families in our school district, and my parents were very well-informed. (Even though my dad was a cool jazz musician, the first date he ever took my mom on was to a meeting of the Young Republicans. Isn’t that just the best?) Thanks to my dad, I got to read a lot about government and politics at an early age, and my favorite book was George Orwell’s masterpiece “1984.” I still think it is genius –- and when I see where technology is going and how easy it is to control minds, it scares the hell out of me.
Anyway, I’m sure my classmates didn’t get the kind of grounding in politics that I did, as virtually all their parents were true-blue Democrats whose ancestors had been Democrats since the Civil War. I’m sure their dads didn’t tell them stories about the legendary President Lyndon Baines Johnson, who was always known here in Texas simply by the initials “LBJ.” But I heard the stories. And when I grew up, I read more about him and saw that, yep, they were true. I doubt that anyone in American politics has been more ruthless than old LBJ.
The reason I bring this up is that I happened to hear Darrell Issa, in an appearance Monday on OUTNUMBERED, mention in passing that the FBI had bugged Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater’s campaign plane in 1964. The discussion rolled on, but I was frozen in place. What?? I never knew that! Isn’t that just the kind of thing that got Nixon in so much trouble?
So I asked Google, “Did the FBI bug Goldwater’s plane?” and lots of articles came up. How did I, of all people, never hear about this? It seems to be common knowledge now that not only did the FBI bug the Arizona senator’s campaign plane, but they did it on an order from LBJ himself.
It seems that even though LBJ was predicted to win in a landslide over the conservative Goldwater (which he did, unfortunately), he wanted an incredible landslide to give him a mandate from voters to implement his “Great Society” programs and go down in history as one of the greatest presidents of all time. (As it turned out, he went down in history for escalating the Vietnam War and wasting a trillion dollars. I digress.) So this was no time for LBJ to follow rules that were meant for others. It was the time to do...whatever was necessary.
As described by conservative historian Lee Edwards, “It was a political scandal of unprecedented proportions: the deliberate, systematic and illegal misuse of the FBI and CIA by the White House in a presidential campaign. The massive black-bag operations, bordering on the unconstitutional and therefore calling for impeachment, were personally approved by the President. They included planting a CIA spy in his opponent’s campaign committee, wiretaps on his opponent’s top political aides, illegal FBI checks, and the bugging of his opponent’s campaign plane.”
He calls these political “activities” an even graver offense than Watergate. And a lot of this sounds very much like what we’ve learned the FBI was doing to candidate Donald Trump in 2016. They just managed to make it look like there was a valid reason to do it: Russian “collusion.”
As Edwards tells it, this kind of surveillance was supposed to be done only on someone classified as a “domestic enemy” –- certainly not a political opponent. E. Howard Hunt, a decade after his conviction for his part in the Watergate break-in, testified to a congressional committee that LBJ had ordered him to spy on Goldwater’s campaign headquarters. The information was to go to an aide named Chester L. Cooper.
CIA Director William Colby said that Cooper received advance texts of Goldwater’s speeches through a woman, a secretary. From this “intelligence,” Cooper would prepare campaign material for LBJ. Apparently, their spying came in quite handy, as they were able to undercut Sen. Goldwater numerous times, knowing in advance the initiatives he was going to propose. LBJ speechwriter John Roche wondered at the time where they were getting the texts of those speeches. He was told, “Don’t ask.”
It became so obvious to Goldwater’s team that this was happening that they suspected the phones at their headquarters were bugged. They even started making important calls from a nearby phone booth (which I imagine was bugged as well!). Of course, they couldn’t exactly go outside to talk while traveling on their campaign plane, and that’s where the most confidential meetings took place.
In an interview in 1971, J. Edgar Hoover revealed that he had bugged Goldwater’s plane on orders from the Oval Office. Why? “You do what the President of the United States orders you to do,” he said. Hoover’s second-in-command, William C. Sullivan, also confirmed the spying operation.
LBJ got his landslide, winning 61.5 percent of the popular vote and even outdoing FDR’s record victory in 1936. Goldwater-style conservatism was reviled and considered dead-dead-dead. LBJ managed to install his massive federal programs, but his political fortunes were reversed in short order by the Vietnam War. In 1968, he was so unpopular he didn’t even run again, while Goldwater was re-elected as senator from his home state. Goldwater’s conservative ideals were vindicated when Ronald Reagan became President in 1980.
But in 1964, LBJ was on top. He almost certainly would have won without the spying –- he also took campaign commercials to a new low and was, I hear, especially popular among dead voters in certain districts –- but spying on his opponent’s campaign was one way he kept himself ahead of the game.
But wait, there’s more! I found a New York Times archival story from December 4, 1975, that details acts carried out “for political purposes” by the FBI at the behest of all six Presidents from Franklin Roosevelt to Richard Nixon. They wiretapped news reporters and people whose policies conflicted with their own, conducted physical surveillance (followed people) and supplied “secret dossiers.” We learn that LBJ had the FBI bug the hotel rooms of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., on three different occasions. (“This surveillance involved trespass,” each of the memoranda said.) All this was in a 16-page report compiled by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.
The story goes into fascinating detail about the surveillance. However, it doesn’t make the point that almost all of them were ordered by Democrat Presidents, so I will. There’s just one instance in which President Eisenhower asks J. Edgar Hoover to brief him on racial tension in 1956; Hoover responds with secret reports on various governors and members of Congress opposing integration. I get the impression that Eisenhower hadn’t asked for this, that Hoover had taken the initiative himself.
And then there’s Nixon. We know about him.
Here’s a quote from the story that sounds just like something written this week: “In connection with ‘political abuse’ of the FBI and its political activities, the committee report said, the FBI intelligence system developed to a point where no one inside or outside the bureau was willing or able to tell the difference between legitimate national security or law enforcement information and purely political intelligence.” Indeed.
So if anyone wonders if the intelligence community is capable of the kind of abuse of power that took place in 2016, wonder no more. It has a long, proud history of that. Though many of the upper-echelon people have left or were fired, there are bound to be others remaining who would have been happy to bug Goldwater’s plane in 1964.