There was a minor kerfuffle in the media a few days ago when Luci Baines Johnson and Lynda Bird Johnson Robb, daughters of President Lyndon Baines Johnson, told Katie Couric that their father would support same-sex marriage rights if he were alive today. It’s important to remember that LBJ's daughters were stating contextually that if their father was alive today he would favor gay rights – in other words, they believe he would have evolved with the times. How, some asked, could his daughters speak on his behalf when he’s been dead for 40 years? Johnson was the President who used his considerable powers of persuasion – including invoking the memory of his slain predecessor, arm twisting, intimidating, and even threatening Congresspeople - to get the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed. Johnson also knew he was potentially jeopardizing the Democratic Party’s decades long position as America’s majority party, and commented to an aide “we’ve just lost the South for a generation” after he signed the bill. LBJ was hardly free of prejudice himself, but as he himself stated, racism was a “crippling legacy” that would hamper America’s greatness in the long term. Johnson’s work for Civil Rights was an admirable stand on principle which has unfortunately been overshadowed by his decisions in Vietnam.
All Presidents - indeed, all human beings - are products of their generation. Likewise, those who lead people are often willing to overlook inconvenient facts in order to achieve their overarching goals. This is as true with the issue of sexual orientation as elsewhere. Benjamin Franklin alluded to rumors about Baron von Steuben’s private life being the cause of his fleeing Germany, but that didn’t stop General George Washington from hiring von Steuben to train the Continental Army into a fighting force that could defeat the British. And nobody raised a ruckus when Steuben was accompanied by a young man who was generally assumed to be his lover.
Let’s review the actions of our modern Presidents with regard to the issue of homosexuality – and engage in informed speculation as to how they would approach the LGBT issues today.
Back to LBJ: Walter Jenkins was a top aide to him from 1939 until 1964. Just weeks before the 1964 election, Jenkins – who was married – was arrested for public sexual conduct with another man in a Washingon, DC, YMCA men’s room. As the press got wind of the incident, they dug deeper and learned it wasn’t the first time Jenkins had been busted on such a charge. It seems highly unlikely Johnson – who maintained close ties with J. Edgar Hoover (another closeted homosexual) – was not aware of the earlier arrest. Yet he later stated "I couldn't have been more shocked about Walter Jenkins if I'd heard that Lady Bird had tried to kill the Pope." As the story went public, Johnson was forced to accept Jenkins’s resignation. But after he left the Presidency, Jenkins was a welcome guest in the Johnson house for the rest of his life.
This campaign button is an example of how desperate the Republicans were in 1964.
Similar to LBJ, Franklin Roosevelt tried to suppress knowledge of an incident in which his assistant Secretary of State, Sumner Welles, made a pass at an African-American male porter while on route to Speaker of the House William Bankhead’s funeral in 1940. The story simmered until 1943 when Welles rival in the State Department, William Bullitt, passed the information to a Republican Senator – forcing FDR to let Welles go. When FDR learned that Bullitt was the source of the leak, he fired him and told Bullitt he should "go to Hell" for trying destroy an able man who made an error in judgment.
Sumner Welles with FDR.
The same can be said, based on contextual evidence, for Truman (who knew about J. Edgar Hoover's relationship with Clyde Tolson and didn't care), Ike (who had several lesbian assistants during WWII), and JFK (whose best friend, Lem Billings, was gay).
Jerry Ford endorsed same sex marriage rights shortly before he died, hardly surprising since a gay man, Oliver Sipple, saved President Ford from an assassination attempt in 1975. And we know Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton are for gay rights, despite having grown up in the old South.
Even the elder George Bush has shown more comfort with LGBTs recently, attending a same-sex wedding.
That leaves Nixon, Reagan, and the young Bush as the odd men out. It’s not hard to infer that LBJ’s daughters are right: Those with an open mind are increasingly supporting marriage equality and LGBT rights in general. There’s no logical reason to suspect their father would have been an exception.