Lyndon Johnson's Watergate


Lyndon Johnson's Watergate

Jun 7, 2005 3 min read

Former Distinguished Fellow in Conservative Thought

Lee Edwards is a leading historian of American conservatism and the author or editor of 25 books.

It was a political scandal of unprecedented proportions: the deliberate, systematic, and illegal misuse of the FBI and the 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 airplane.

The president? Lyndon B. Johnson. The target? Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona, the 1964 Republican presidential candidate.

Here are three examples of a presidential abuse of power for political purposes that constitute an even graver offense than Watergate.

In the fall of 1964, the White House turned to the CIA to get advance inside information about the Goldwater campaign, although the senator could hardly be described as a "domestic enemy" (the only valid excuse for agency action). E. Howard Hunt, later convicted for his part in the Watergate break-in, told a congressional committee a decade later that he was ordered to spy on Goldwater's headquarters. He said that President Johnson "had ordered this activity" and that White House aide Chester L. Cooper "would be the recipient of the information."

CIA Director William Colby admitted that Cooper prepared campaign material for Johnson and obtained advance texts of Goldwater speeches through a "woman secretary," clearly suggesting that the agency planted someone inside the Goldwater campaign organization.

The Democrats constantly used the covertly obtained information to undercut Goldwater initiatives. In early September, for example, the Goldwater campaign announced the formation of a Task Force on Peace and Freedom that the AP described as one of the most "unusual tactics in the history of American politics." Three hours before the Goldwater task force was unveiled, the White House announced that President Johnson had created a 16-member panel of leading authorities to consult with him on international problems. The White House announcement trumped the Goldwater plan. Democratic campaign speechwriter John Roche revealed that he and his colleagues got advance texts of Goldwater's major speeches. "When I innocently inquired how we got them," Roche said, "the reply was 'don't ask.'"

Goldwater's regional political directors were convinced that the telephones of the Republican national headquarters in Washington were bugged. At one private meeting aides discussed the possibility of a campaign stop by Goldwater in the Chicago area. Midwest director Sam Hay called the Republican chairman of Cook County, who agreed it was a good idea but promised to keep the trip confidential. Within the hour, a reporter called to say that he had heard Goldwater would be coming to town and wanted the details.

Senator Goldwater recalled that two correspondents once questioned him about a proposal not yet made public: that if elected, he would send Eisenhower to Vietnam to examine the situation and report back to him. Goldwater insisted he discussed the Eisenhower mission with only two members of his personal staff, but the two reporters swear they heard about it at the Johnson White House.

Most disturbing of all was the FBI's bugging of the Goldwater campaign plane where the senator and his inner circle often made their most confidential decisions. The bureau's illegal surveillance was confirmed by Robert Mardian, when he was an assistant attorney general in Nixon's first term.

During a two-hour conversation with J. Edgar Hoover in early 1971, Mardian asked about the procedures of electronic surveillance. To Mardian's amazement, Hoover revealed that in 1964 the FBI, on orders from the Oval Office, had bugged the Goldwater plane. Asked to explain the blatantly illegal action, Hoover said, "You do what the president of the United States orders you to do." William C. Sullivan, the bureau's number two man, confirmed to Mardian the spying operation against the Goldwater campaign.

Why did President Johnson order the Anti-Goldwater Campaign and illegally use both the CIA and the FBI as his personal political instruments? All the polls agreed he would win and by a handsome margin. But Johnson wanted the mother of all political landslides, eclipsing FDR's record presidential victory in 1936 and at the same time burying six feet deep Barry Goldwater and American conservatism. Johnson nearly succeeded in the first objective, receiving 61.5 percent of the popular vote, but miserably failed in the second.

Of all the men who have run for and lost the presidency in modern times, only Barry Goldwater and the central themes of his campaign were vindicated so quickly. Reviled and rejected in 1964 as no other presidential candidate in the 20th century, Goldwater was easily reelected to the U.S. Senate in 1968 while the president who had won by one of the largest margins in presidential politics dared not seek reelection. Just twelve years later, the Great Society was exposed as a trillion-dollar bust and Ronald Reagan, an unabashed conservative, became our 40th president.

Lee Edwards, Distinguished Fellow in Conservative Thought at The Heritage Foundation (, is the author of many books, including the just-published " To Preserve and Protect: The Life of Edwin Meese III."

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