It was 3:15 on the morning of June 26, 1980, and Congressman Bob Livingston was extraordinarily drunk, hiding in the congressional gym beneath the Rayburn House Office Building, petrified that a team of highly trained right-wing homosexual assassins working on behalf of Ronald Reagan was about to kill him.

To the extent that the Louisiana Republican is remembered today, it’s for the brief but sensational role he played in America’s most infamous political sex scandal. On the same day in December 1998 that Bill Clinton was impeached for lying about his affair with a White House intern, Livingston, then the House speaker-designate, shocked the nation with his own admission of adultery. Preempting a journalistic exposé that had dredged up evidence of his past relationships with women not his wife, he not only refused the speakership but announced his resignation from Congress altogether.

What people don’t know is that nearly two decades before this bit part in the Clinton impeachment drama riveted the nation, Livingston was at the center of another scandal involving politicians and illicit sex, one that, in his own words, had the potential to be “world-shaking.” Most explosive about this whole terrible intrigue, and what tied it all together, was the nature of the sexual activity involved.

For most of the 20th century, the worst thing one could possibly be in American politics was gay. The mere insinuation of homosexuality was sufficient to destroy a political career, and things could get particularly vicious between intraparty adversaries. The first outing in American politics, of the isolationist Massachusetts Sen. David Walsh in 1942, was perpetrated by interventionist allies of fellow Democratic President Franklin D. Roosevelt. While public attitudes have become far more open, the insinuation that someone is gay — whether true or not — remains a potent weapon (as elements of the campaign against North Carolina Republican Rep. Madison Cawthorn recently illustrated), especially in socially conservative milieus.

This account of the alleged “homosexual ring” that controlled Ronald Reagan, and the efforts to expose it on the eve of the 1980 Republican National Convention that nominated him for the presidency, is compiled from interviews with several of the surviving participants and documents uncovered in the papers of former Washington Post Executive Editor Ben Bradlee. Appropriately for a story involving what was once considered the gravest sin in American politics, it has never been told until now.

The series of events that led Livingston to take refuge in the warrens of a Capitol Hill basement began innocently enough.

Shortly before closing his office on the evening of June 25, Livingston’s secretary received a phone call from L. Francis Bouchey, executive vice president of a small conservative foreign policy think tank called the Council for Inter-American Security. Bouchey’s wife was out of town, and he was home alone facing the unsavory prospect of a TV dinner. Was Livingston free for supper? As luck would have it, Livingston’s secretary said, the congressman’s wife was also away, and his evening was open. Bouchey and Livingston would meet at 7:30 at The Palm near Dupont Circle.

Bouchey drove into the city from his home in Annandale, the pleasant suburban community where Livingston also happened to live with his family. The men had several other things in common. Both were 37 years old, brothers of the Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity and committed conservatives. One of Bouchey’s responsibilities was to enlist up-and-coming legislators in the cause of rolling back communism across Latin America, a crusade that was beginning to assume great significance at the dawn of the 1980s. As the congressman representing the Port of New Orleans, Livingston had every reason to worry about this threat, and when Bouchey offered him a seat on the council’s advisory board, he was happy to accept.

But over dinner, three weeks before he and his fellow Republicans were to gather at the Joe Louis Arena in Detroit for their national convention, Livingston had something more urgent on his mind than the twilight struggle between capitalism and communism. For months, speculation had been mounting as to whom Reagan would choose as his running mate. The former governor of California needed a veep candidate who could heal the widening divide within the GOP between its moderate establishment and conservatives like himself. Some of the top contenders were former CIA Director George H. W. Bush, who had recently bowed out of the race for president, and former President Gerald Ford. But it was the serious consideration of a fellow House colleague — Rep. Jack Kemp — that most piqued Livingston’s interest. Bouchey’s group was informally advising the Reagan campaign on Latin American issues. Perhaps Bouchey had a window into its deliberations.

“Do you know anything about Kemp, is he AC/DC?” Livingston asked, referencing not the Australian hard rock band but the slang expression for bisexual.

“Yeah, I heard some things,” Bouchey replied. “That stuff’s been around.”

“That stuff,” or what Kemp adviser Jude Wanniski termed “the homosexual thing,” had dogged the upstate New York congressman and former professional football player since the fall of 1967, when the syndicated newspaper columnists Drew Pearson and Jack Anderson published a piece linking Kemp to a “homosexual ring” operating within Reagan’s gubernatorial office. Kemp, then the starting quarterback for the Buffalo Bills and an aspiring policy wonk, had spent the summer offseason working for Reagan as perhaps the most famous intern in America. According to the muckraking duo, Reagan’s security chief had obtained “a tape recording of a sex orgy” held at a Lake Tahoe cabin leased by two Reagan staffers, and while Pearson and Anderson didn’t name any names, in the case of Kemp, they didn’t have to. One of the eight men involved, they wrote, was an “athletic adviser on youth activities who has since gone on leave for the fall athletic season.”

Murmurings about the handsome young athlete spread from the political watering holes of Sacramento to the locker rooms of the American Football League, following him all the way to Capitol Hill, where Kemp, who died in 2009, began a meteoric rise after winning a seat in Congress in 1970. In 1978, during the congressional midterm elections, senior Jimmy Carter aide Hamilton Jordan told a reporter to disregard Kemp as a serious presidential contender because he was a “queer,” and the chair of the Democratic National Committee advised another journalist that a Kemp-sponsored tax bill had no chance of passing for the same reason. “There is absolutely not a shred of evidence,” a fed-up Kemp complained. “There is nothing, and there was nothing.” The “slander” and “old calumny” that the virile ex-football pro and father of four might be gay, journalists Rowland Evans and Robert Novak wrote at the time, was a “vicious canard,” the sort of “poisonous” “garbage” one found “submerged in the political sewers” and other “gutter communications” that “not only do gross injustice to their victims but also demean and pollute democratic government.”

All this was on Livingston’s mind because of what he had heard the previous month at a secret meeting with members of the Republican “Wednesday Group,” a club of liberal to moderate GOP congressmen who gathered weekly to talk shop and plot strategy over pretzels and booze. Livingston was not a member of the group. But he had been roped into an impromptu discussion in California Rep. Pete McCloskey’s office by a colleague. Behind those closed doors, McCloskey suggested strongly that the possibility of Kemp as a running mate was proof that the “homosexual ring” around Reagan, long dismissed as rumor, might be something all too real.

While Livingston was concerned about the potential political liability for his party’s impending nominee, McCloskey was worried that Reagan himself represented a danger to the Republican Party and the country.

In recent weeks, McCloskey explained to the other congressmen huddled in his office, he had been in contact with a local television news reporter named Bill Best who used to work in the Bay Area and had been active in California GOP politics during the late 1960s. The last time McCloskey had heard from Best was in early 1976, a few months after Reagan announced his decision to challenge President Gerald Ford in the Republican primary. Best agitatedly told him that senior Reagan advisers had sexually propositioned him on two separate occasions. McCloskey did not hear from Best again until four years later, in the spring of 1980, when Reagan was on the verge of clinching the nomination. Best began calling him frantically to report that “homosexual people were very close to Reagan’s campaign leadership,” that they were “running” Reagan’s campaign, and that “the situation is absolutely out of control.” It was not until a boozy lunch with a man claiming to have been a “long time Reagan associate,” however, that Best found what he believed to be the “smoking gun” proving that Reagan was controlled by homosexuals. “Bill, you don’t understand the problem,” the man told Best. “I once engaged in a homosexual act with Reagan.”

As for Kemp, McCloskey had never known what to make of the rumors surrounding his colleague. “The big joke on Capitol Hill,” he told me in an interview at his home outside Sacramento in 2019, “was that the most dangerous position in pro football is to be Jack Kemp’s center.” After hearing from Best, McCloskey agreed that a Kemp nomination would revive the 1967 “Scandal in Sacramento,” possibly leading to revelations about the other homosexuals in Reagan’s orbit and thereby imperiling the GOP ticket.

As far as homosexuality itself was concerned, McCloskey was more progressive than the vast majority of his colleagues. As a lawyer in Palo Alto in the 1960s, he had represented men arrested for homosexual solicitation, and when New York Rep. Bella Abzug introduced the first bill in Congress prohibiting discrimination against gay people, he was its only Republican sponsor. “I am heterosexual, I think,” the quirky congressman told The Advocate, a gay magazine, in 1977. “I wonder sometimes.”

In the present situation, however, McCloskey’s personal attitudes were beside the point. An Eisenhower-era executive order barring gay people from holding federal government jobs (on the grounds that they were supposedly more susceptible to blackmail) had led to a purge of thousands of workers, and while the civil service lifted its ban in 1975, gays were still prohibited from holding security clearances (a restriction that would not be lifted until 1995). “There is nothing inherently wrong with [homosexuality],” McCloskey was later to write, with a caveat, “in any office which does not have national security responsibilities.” And since the alleged homosexuals in Reagan’s orbit were all closeted, they were presumably vulnerable to inducement by foreign powers.

McCloskey, a dovish veteran of the Korean War with a jawline so sharp his staff nicknamed him “Mount Rushmore” had a tortured relationship with his party in general, and with the darling of its conservative faction in particular. McCloskey was first elected to Congress in 1967 after defeating the former child movie star, and Reagan’s friend, Shirley Temple Black in an open primary. The following year, Reagan declared that McCloskey’s refusal to endorse their party’s archconservative Senate nominee amounted to a violation of the GOP’s “Eleventh Commandment” — “Thou shalt not speak ill of any Republican” — as articulated by the state party chair. “Maybe a young congressman has a little more to learn about party loyalty,” Reagan cracked. Both McCloskey and Reagan would go on to challenge incumbent Republican presidents, McCloskey taking on Richard Nixon from the left in 1972 and Reagan seeking to dethrone Gerald Ford from the right four years later, and so strikingly did they represent their respective ideological flanks that Lou Cannon, the dean of California political reporters, described them as “the two most charismatic contenders for the soul of California’s Republican party.”

As Reagan progressed toward the presidency, this battle between the liberal and conservative factions of the California GOP was projected onto the national political stage. And at every step of Reagan’s inexorable rise, McCloskey was there trying to stop him. In 1976, “scared to death that Ronald Reagan was going to be the next president,” McCloskey recruited fellow liberal Republicans to support Ford. At the beginning of the next election cycle, despite his preference for moderates like Tennessee Sen. Howard Baker and Rep. John Anderson of Illinois, McCloskey supported Bush. “It is absolutely essential to stop Ronald Reagan from getting the Republican nomination,” he declared, “and George Bush is the only candidate who can do that.” Alas, Bush couldn’t do it, and was now vying to be Reagan’s running mate. With Reagan’s nomination all but sealed, the recalcitrant ex-marine would wage one final, desperate battle for the soul of his party.

Over dinner at The Palm, some five weeks after the exchange in McCloskey’s office, Livingston apparently could not get the salacious stories involving Kemp and the homosexual Reagan aides out of his mind. As he sipped white wine and Bouchey downed martinis, the subject of Kemp’s sexuality “dominated” their conversation, as Bouchey, who died in 2017, was to remember according to notes of an unpublished interview with a reporter. He found Livingston’s “preoccupation” with whether “a colleague of his was a switch-hitter” to be curious. “He was very interested in him,” Bouchey recalled. “The whole subject was raised by him. It was certainly not raised by me.” At one point, however, Bouchey might have volunteered the possibility that Kemp and Reagan himself had both engaged in gay sex.

Following the meal, Livingston suggested a nightcap in Georgetown. The two hopped into Livingston’s Mustang and drove to F. Scott’s, a Georgetown haunt. After a drink there, they went next door to another watering hole, the Tombs. Last round was called, and Livingston offered to give Bouchey a ride back to Capitol Hill, where Bouchey had parked his car. By this point, Bouchey remembered, both men were deep “in the cup,” and he replied that he was “in no shape” to drive himself home. Livingston offered to take them both back to Annandale. Collapsing into the Mustang, the men paused for a moment, and Livingston inserted his key in the ignition. Before he could start the car, Bouchey placed his hand firmly on Livingston’s knee and asked, “Are you trying to get something started with me?”

Bouchey would later insist he had intended nothing sexual by the gesture or the remark. “I guess I was drunker than he was,” he conceded. A sexual proposition, an inebriated lark or something in between — it was one man’s hand placed upon another man’s knee that set off a chain of events with the potential to rattle the Reagan campaign, upset the presidential race and change the course of history.

Livingston panicked. “Oh, hell no,” he said, jerking his knee in rebuff. He quickly started the car, and an awkward silence descended over both men. Livingston’s mind began to process the jumble of things he had seen and heard over the past few weeks: the long-standing rumors about Kemp; the supposed gay network encircling Reagan; McCloskey’s contact who claimed that he, too, had been hit on by gay Reaganites; Bouchey’s ties to various Latin American juntas and paramilitaries. Three months earlier, a tragedy involving politics, murder and homosexuality had occurred when former New York Rep. Allard Lowenstein was shot to death in his Manhattan law office by a man rumored to have been a love interest. None of it added up to anything good.

When Livingston reached Bouchey’s home in Annandale, he stopped the Mustang, unceremoniously dumped his inebriated passenger off at the curb and sped away.

Though he lived in the same town, Livingston was afraid to return home. He hightailed it back to Washington, to the safest place to which he had access: the dank subterranean chamber of the House members’ gym. “When I was 15, someone tried to make a pass at me,” Livingston recalled to me in a 2019 interview about these events. “It was the first and last time” he was so approached until that moment during the summer of 1980. Using a phone in the locker room, Livingston rang the Capitol Police and asked to be put through to McCloskey.

“You were absolutely right,” Livingston gasped, according to a summary of their conversation later recorded by McCloskey.

“I just had a terrible experience.” Livingston proceeded to explain how he had just spent the night drinking with a friend and fraternity brother who “runs a security agency which furnishes support, training and weapons for Latin American governments.” This person had in the past mentioned “hits” across Latin America, and the previous October, a full week before the El Salvadoran military staged a coup, he predicted with chilling accuracy “precisely what was going to happen and who would be involved.” He “has the capacity to ‘hit’ people both in Latin America and here” in the United States, and he “indicated to me during the evening that Kemp was certainly a participant in homosexual conduct and that he thought it possible Reagan was also.” After making clear that he “saw nothing wrong with men enjoying each other’s company sexually,” this man “made a pass at me on three different occasions” over the course of the evening. Livingston was calling McCloskey from the House gym, he explained, because he feared he might be “met by a shotgun blast at the door” of his home for having rejected the man’s sexual advances.

Signaling disinterest in the “AC/DC” lifestyle, apparently, constituted more than just a personal affront to an intoxicated frat brother. Apprised of a clandestine homosexual cabal reaching all the way from Washington to Sacramento, and from San Salvador to Santiago, Livingston had balked at its initiation rites and thus put himself in grave danger. “When he becomes sober and realizes what he has said to me, and that I refused him,” Livingston said, according to McCloskey’s memo, “I think he is fully capable of violence.”

“You were right,” Livingston kept repeating. “There is a network.”

McCloskey told his worried colleague that he could sleep on his couch. But Livingston preferred to stay put. They agreed to meet first thing the next day, after the Republican caucus breakfast.

That morning, McCloskey recalled, Livingston was “white as a sheet.” Once the meeting ended, the two legislators marched to Livingston’s office in the Cannon Building, where Livingston showed McCloskey the wallet and business card Bouchey had mistakenly left in his Mustang the previous night. McCloskey told Livingston “it was imperative that Bouchey know that others besides him know” what had transpired between them, and that Livingston’s secretary should therefore call Bouchey to inform him that the congressman had his wallet, which he should feel free to pick up anytime. And then, as McCloskey returned to his own office, a lightbulb went off in his head.

When Bill Best first told McCloskey back in 1976 about the homosexual advances made to him by the two Reagan aides, he had given McCloskey and four other people sealed envelopes containing a statement about one of those encounters. Best told his confidants not to open the letters unless something happened to him, and to destroy them if Ford won the GOP nomination, which he eventually did. McCloskey, however, held on to Best’s note, storing it in the safe in the tiny lavatory adjoining his personal office.

McCloskey asked his legislative assistant to retrieve the sealed envelope. Written across the flap was Best’s signature and, below it, the words: “To be opened only by Pete McCloskey.”

Inside was a one-page statement, dated January 9, 1976, which read, in part:

Over the course of the following week, McCloskey typed up everything he knew about the intrigues concerning the presumptive Republican presidential nominee — the 1967 “homosexual ring” scandal in Sacramento, the repeated sexual importuning of Bill Best by various Reagan aides, Bob Livingston’s dramatic escape from a dread homosexual hit squad — into a two-part, 13-page, 33-point confidential memorandum.

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