In November 1963, the available evidence indicates President John F. Kennedy was on the verge of deciding to remove Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson from the 1964 Democratic Party presidential ticket.
But the instant JFK was pronounced dead, everything changed, and LBJ was secure as the party’s presumptive presidential nominee for 1964.
The scandal that most threatened LBJ’s place on the 1964 ticket with JFK centered on Bobby Baker, a Senate page who rose to become Johnson’s secretary when LBJ was Senate majority leader. After Johnson became vice president, Baker continued as his personal secretary and close private adviser.
The Baker scandal and the evidence that Kennedy was about to dump Johnson from the ticket have led conspirators to conclude that LBJ at least was aware of assassination plots against Kennedy and did nothing to intervene or expose them. Books such as “The Man Who Killed Kennedy: The Case Against LBJ” by Roger Stone, a senior staffer in the campaigns of Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush, have gone further, charging Johnson with murder.
The Baker scandal
In the middle of the Baker scandal was a vending machine company, Serve-U Corporation, from which Baker was deriving an annual gross income of $3.5 million. At that time his compensation from the Senate was less than $20,000 a year.
Serve-U Corporation had links to Texas oil millionaire Clint Murchison, as well as ties to mobsters Sam Giancana and Meyer Lansky. The company derived most of its earnings from vending machines placed in aerospace companies dependent on the government for contract work.
Baker also was engulfed in a sex scandal involving the Quorum Club, a private club on Capitol Hill he created. The club was run out of the Carroll Arms Hotel near the Senate office buildings on Capitol Hill. It provided call girls to prominent lobbyists and influential members of Congress. Baker was positioned centrally, advancing his career politically and financially by trading on sex and power.
Life magazine exposes scandal
The Baker scandal broke wide open with a Life magazine cover story published Nov. 8, 1963, hitting the newsstands just three weeks before JFK’s death.
The Life issue featured a front-page photograph of a laughing Baker in a costume at an unspecified Washington masquerade party with his mask lifted to show his face. A yellow banner across the cover of the magazine proclaimed: “Capital Buzzes Over Stories of Misconduct in High Places: The Bobby Baker Bombshell.”
The article featured “German call girl” Elly Rometsch, an East German beauty who was a Communist Party member before fleeing to the United States with her parents.
“Last week, a Senate committee was investigating Bobby Baker,” the featured article read. “He had quietly resigned after a former vending-machine associate sued him, charging use of Baker’s influence in placing machines in defense plants.”
The second page of the article featured a full-page photograph of a smiling LBJ with his arms around Baker’s shoulder.
The caption under the photo noted Baker was “an indispensable confident” of Johnson. Baker was described as “a messenger, a pleader of causes, a fund-raiser and a source of intelligence.”
A two-page spread featured a picture of scantily clad waitresses sitting on bar stools, waiting to greet guests during the opening of the Carousel Hotel in Ocean City, Md., in 1962.
The article pointed out that in addition to his interest in the vending-machine business, Baker was half owner of the Carousel as well as having business interests in a law firm, a travel agency, an insurance agency and a Howard Johnson motel.
Noting that Baker had just resigned from the Senate under fire, Life asked how his $19,612 annual salary had enabled his family to move into the $124,500 Washington home he bought a short walk from LBJ’s residence in Washington. Baker and his wife, Dorothy, had five children at the time, ages 10 to 1, with the youngest named Lyndon Baines Johnson.
The Life probe expanded during the week of Nov. 11, 1963, when reporter William Lambert sought permission from his managing editor, George P. Hunt, to begin raising questions about how LBJ acquired his fortune.
Lambert was the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist famous for breaking the story on the Teamsters Union penetrating the criminal empire of organized-crime boss J.B. Elkins that led to the McClellan Committee hearings.
Lambert explained to Hunt his concern that LBJ had used his public office to enhance his private wealth.
Lambert wanted to know how LBJ had managed to accumulate millions in personal net worth when he had been on the public payroll ever since he got out of college. Hunt authorized Lambert to put together an expanded investigative reporter “task force,” assigned to research not only Baker in Washington, but also LBJ in Austin and Johnson City, Texas.
The Life magazine issue dated Nov. 22, 1963, that hit the newsstands on Nov. 18, 1963, the Monday of the week JFK was scheduled to leave for Texas, contained a second article on the Baker scandal.
Titled “The Bobby Baker Scandal: It grows and grows as Washington shudders,” the article authored by Keith Wheeler disclosed to readers that Life had assigned a nine-member investigative team to investigate Baker.
This second article went in-depth, exposing Baker’s sleazy use of sex to rack up political favors and make lucrative business deals. Baker, according to the story, employed “hostesses,” who essentially were prostitutes, to escort lobbyists, legislators and businessmen.
“But in the peculiar Washington world here under review, wives were not the only women involved in social activity,” the article read. This may have been because simple congeniality often carried the burdens of business. The lines between having fun and furthering important actions were often hard to draw.”
The article continued: “Girls, a former Baker business associate said, were often around as business adjuncts. As he put it, in describing one planning session which he attended, ‘Again – so help me – even to talk business, they had a bunch of girls who, they say, work in the government and during their lunch hour they make a little extra money.”
Wheeler made clear that everything about Baker led back to Lyndon Johnson. Noting the U.S. Senate was “Baker’s base of operations,” Wheeler pointed out that the Senate was controlled by a small group of Southern senators and conservative Republicans called the “Establishment.”
At the center of the Establishment, Wheeler found LBJ.
“In a very real sense the present Establishment is the personal creation of Lyndon Baines Johnson who, from the day he took over as majority leader until he went to the Vice Presidency, ruled it like an absolute monarch,” Wheeler wrote.
In his 2012 book in his “Years of Lyndon Johnson” series titled “The Passage of Power,” Robert A. Caro, the Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer of LBJ, noted (pages 298-299) that after the publication of the second article, Wheeler and Lambert scheduled a meeting with Hunt.
The Life investigation that started with the Baker scandal had morphed to focus on LBJ as the real target Lambert and his team sought to expose. As Caro explained, it was clear “that the Bobby Baker case was inevitably going to become the Lyndon Johnson case as well.”
The meeting was scheduled for late morning of that Friday, Nov. 22, 1963, in the managing editor’s office, at which all the members of the team who were in New York were invited to attend.
The JFK assassination derailed the Life investigation.
No third article on the Bobby Baker-Lyndon Johnson scandal was ever published by the magazine.
Stopped only by the JFK assassination, Lambert and his team of Life Magazine investigators could have ended LBJ’s political career.
What to do with LBJ
Caro reported in his 2012 book “The Passage of Power” (pages 294-296) that on Wednesday, Nov. 13, 1963, JFK convened the first major planning session for the 1964 campaign in the Cabinet Room at the White House.
The meeting included White House staff advisers Kenneth O’Donnell, Lawrence O’Brien and Ted Sorenson.
The main subject of the meeting, Caro further reported, was JFK’s chances in the South in 1964, along with a broader discussion of the future of the South in Democratic Party plans.
Already evident was the voter realignment that would ultimately materialize as the Moral Majority, which 1968 presidential candidate Richard Nixon molded into a “Southern strategy” aptly described by then-Republican Party adviser Kevin Philips in his 1969 book “The Emerging Republican Majority.”
The meeting also included intense speculation over whether Johnson would be on the ticket since the primary reason he had been chosen to be JFK’s vice presidential running mate in 1960 was the belief he could help win Texas and gain votes in the Southern states.
The intense Democratic Party in-fighting in Texas, a primary reason JFK included Dallas in the upcoming trip, brought into question whether Johnson could be as effective in 1964 as he had been in 1960. Even with LBJ on the ticket in 1960, Kennedy won Texas in 1960 by fewer than 48,000 votes of the approximately 1.3 million cast.
Caro reported that the morning after the November strategy meeting, Kennedy’s personal secretary, Evelyn Lincoln, was reviewing material from the meeting when JFK came over to her desk.
Lincoln commented that the 1964 Democratic convention would not be as exciting as the 1960 convention had been “because everyone knows what’s coming.”
According to Lincoln’s memory, JFK responded, “Oh, I don’t know, there might be a change in the ticket.”
She also reported that about a week later, when JFK was sitting in a chair in her office, he commented that his running mate in 1964 would probably be a moderate Southerner, maybe even the young governor of North Carolina, Terry Sanford, but it would not be LBJ.
Johnson loyalists dismissed these recollections, insisting JFK never seriously considered dumping LBJ. But Caro was not so sure. He wrote that in his conversation with Lincoln, she repeated the conversation. The secretary explained she wrote down word-for-word in her diary what Kennedy said about LBJ and that she used the notes when writing her 1968 book, “Kennedy and Johnson.”
Caro specifically noted that in his conversation with Lincoln she insisted Kennedy wanted Johnson off the ticket, explaining JFK had implied “the ammunition to get him off was Bobby Baker.”