by Dafydd Townley
At this year’s Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia Hillary Clinton will be officially declared as the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate. Despite the challenge from Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, it’s been a relatively easy affair. Clinton had the support of the majority of the superdelegates – the elected holders of office, the party leaders, and the Democratic members of the Senate and Congress. She appears to have the backing of the entire party and can plan ahead with confidence. Such confidence is usually reserved for incumbent presidents searching for re-election. Not so in the case of Lyndon Johnson in 1964.
Johnson had been John F Kennedy’s Vice President, and had assumed the office of the presidency under the 20th Amendment of the Constitution when Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963. Bobby Kennedy, John’s brother, had been the Attorney General during his brother’s presidency and was extremely popular among the various officials of the Kennedy administration. As a result Johnson was severely worried about the possibility of Kennedy and his supporters performing a coup at the 1964 Convention. Such a coup would lead to Kennedy usurping Johnson as the Democratic candidate and ending Johnson’s long political career. Johnson, fearful of the additional concerns of radical elements within the Democratic Party who wanted a more militant and politically dangerous Civil Rights Bill, asked J Edgar Hoover for help.
Hoover and Johnson had been neighbours for a number of years in Washington, and both men shared a perverse interest in potentially harmful gossip. Johnson knew that Hoover was a potentially important weapon in maintaining his own political survival. He ingratiated himself with Hoover, telling him shortly after taking office ‘as far as I’m concerned, you’re my brother and personal friend. You have been for twenty-five to thirty years.’ Hoover obliged Johnson’s request not least because he disliked the Kennedy brothers, but because he was insecure in his position as Director of the FBI. Hoover was fast approaching mandatory retirement age for federal employees and knew that by agreeing to help Johnson he could avoid being forced into retirement.
Johnson was particularly worried about Martin Luther King’s influence on the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP). The MFDP were claiming to be the legal delegates for Mississippi as the regular Mississippi Democratic only allowed whites to vote. Instead a deal was brokered by civil rights leaders and party members to nullify the Mississippi delegation’s vote. The MFDP were unhappy because it appeared as though the party was condoning segregated voting in Mississippi. The official Mississippi delegates refused to agree to any deal and almost all of them left the Convention.
Under the guise of being protection for the Johnson, the FBI sent agent Cartha DeLoach and a team of thirty agents to the Democratic Party’s National Convention in Atlantic City in August 1964 ‘at the direction of the president.’ Through a combination of informant coverage, infiltration of various groups, and by agents acting as reporters, the Bureau’s Special Squad gained information on the various rival groups to Johnson’s nomination. DeLoach reported back to Johnson by telephone with minute by minute update on the activities of Johnson’s potential opponents, while the agents also remained ‘alert to exploit opportunities for penetration of key dissident groups in Atlantic City and to suggest counter measures.’ As a result Johnson’s special advisers such as Walter Jenkins would be able to keep Johnson one step in front of the MFDP and other potential opponents.
DeLoach later told Special Assistant William Moyers that it was ‘a pleasure and privilege to be able to be of assistance to the President’ and that he had ‘only to call on us when a similar situation arises.’ When questioned about these activities by the 1975 Senate review of US intelligence agencies, the Church Committee, DeLoach maintained that such surveillance was essential to unearthing intelligence on possible violence and necessary to protect the president. Nonetheless, the warrantless surveillance and use of the FBI to undertake such a mission was unlawful and beyond its statutory remit, and a precursor of the Watergate affair. Johnson would later go on to again use the FBI to illegally investigate political opponents and dissident groups such as the anti-Vietnam war movement and the Ku Klux Klan. It’s unlikely that Hillary Clinton will need to any time soon.