For a brief moment in the fall of 1964, the most talked-about place in American politics was a dark Y.M.C.A. basement a few blocks from the White House. That was where, late one night in October, two men having oral sex in a men’s bathroom stall were entrapped and arrested by the local police.
This sort of thing was not unusual in mid–20th century Washington, a city with a teeming underground gay scene and a crusading vice squad to match. Lafayette Square, across Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House, had been a popular, and legally treacherous, gay cruising spot for decades.
But the incident quickly caught the attention of the political class because of the identity of one of the men involved: Walter Jenkins, President Lyndon B. Johnson’s closest aide. The 1964 election, in which Johnson would face conservative Barry Goldwater, was less than a month away. Was a gay-sex scandal in the president’s inner circle really something that voters would abide?
As it turned out, yes. For a variety of reasons, the Jenkins scandal never really took off that fall, and Johnson won the election in an epic landslide without ever having to discuss his aide’s arrest at great length. But reading the journalist James Kirchick’s new book, Secret City: The Hidden History of Gay Washington, I kept thinking about one of the rare occasions when Johnson was asked about the Jenkins case.
At a campaign swing in San Diego three weeks after the cops nabbed Jenkins, a reporter shouted a question at the president about his administration’s “morality problem” (a catch-all euphemism in that period for anything gay). Johnson acted like it was no big deal. “Practically every administration has them,” he told the reporter. “It’s not anything new.”
Kirchick’s engrossing, important book makes clear that, on that point, Johnson was indisputably correct. Examining every presidency from Franklin Roosevelt’s to Bill Clinton’s, Kirchick finds dozens of stories like the Jenkins affair: a man with an important job and a pressing secret that is destined to become fodder for the politics of personal destruction.
The result of all his digging is an 800-page tour de force, certainly the most comprehensive history of gay Washington ever written. It’s also more than that. Tracing the strand of how the capital’s big shots treated gays across the decades, Kirchick provides a compelling account of how the bloodless, brutal Washington power game has always worked.
As such, Secret City’s main characters aren’t just gay men and women but the straight-male political figures for whom they toil. A few of these men are comically naïve. On the topic of gay sex, the Cold War spymaster Allen Dulles is a 20th-century Queen Victoria. “What do these people actually do?” he asks the socialite Mary Bancroft.
Most of the book’s straight politicians are better informed, but that doesn’t stop them from being cowards. When Dwight Eisenhower’s endlessly loyal young aide Arthur Vandenberg Jr. falls victim to a whisper campaign about his sexuality, Eisenhower ditches plans to name Vandenberg as his White House appointments secretary. Ike privately admits to feeling guilt over the incident but barely mentions Vandenberg in his post-presidential memoirs.
John F. Kennedy’s close White House circle includes several closeted or semi-closeted men, including his lifelong best friend, Lem Billings; the patrician columnist Joseph Alsop; and the bachelor Camelot taste-maker William Walton (“gay as a goose,” in the words of the journalist Ben Bradlee). Kennedy is a worldly sophisticate, “quite comfortable in the company of homosexuals,” according to Gore Vidal. When, in 1958, Vidal informs Kennedy that Tennessee Williams admires the future president’s posterior, Kennedy is not repulsed but flattered.
But Kennedy’s private enlightenment has no impact on his administration’s public policies. The visionary gay activist Frank Kameny writes Kennedy, imploring him to reverse policies barring gays and lesbians from the civil service. He never gets a response.
Some of Kirchick’s most interesting chapters concern Republican leaders and the legions of gays in their midst. I got overwhelmed trying to keep track of all the gay men who appear to have attended the founding of Young Americans for Freedom at William F. Buckley’s familial estate. The Nixon White House is briefly convulsed by a baseless conspiracy theory in which several of the president’s top aides, including H. R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman, are meeting at the Watergate complex for early-morning trysts. Early Reagan-era Washington is awash in affluent, semi-closeted men who love Ronnie and Nancy’s flair and fervor for free markets. (They dub themselves the “laissez fairies.”) When faced with a choice between their political connections and personal authenticity, most of these men pick the low road.
Indeed, the most inspiring figures in Secret City are gay men and women who choose the hard consequences of personal integrity in an age and a town that makes it easy for them to do the opposite. Under attack in 1950 from Senator Joe McCarthy, Carmel Offie, the unapologetically flamboyant C.I.A. agent, is incensed at the suggestion his sexual orientation makes him a blackmail risk. “I don’t deny” being gay, he protests. “I’ll stand up on the roof and admit it. Nobody can blackmail me.”
Even today, that kind of courage is hard to imagine. Sure, today’s Washington is a place where an openly gay Cabinet secretary and his husband can be seen carting their twin babies around town. The days when gays in and around the American government had to live their lives in secret are gone. But Kirchick’s book is also the tale of a city where hypocrites and cowards muster fake moral outrage to rise to positions of the highest power. Sadly, that city lives on.
Jonathan Darman is the author of the forthcoming Becoming FDR: The Personal Crisis That Made a President, to be published in September