The Johnson Tapes: LBJ Secretly Recorded the Private Moments in an Era of War and Riot. an Exclusive Glimpse at How Power Really Works

By Bechloss, Michael R. | Newsweek, October 13, 1997 | Go to article overview

The Johnson Tapes: LBJ Secretly Recorded the Private Moments in an Era of War and Riot. an Exclusive Glimpse at How Power Really Works


Bechloss, Michael R., Newsweek


LBJ secretly recorded the private moments in an era of war and riot. An exclusive glimpse at how power really works.

AS LYNDON JOHNSON WAS dying of heart disease in January 1973, he reminded his personal aide, Mildred Stegall, to safeguard the cache of tape recordings of his private presidential conversations. He wanted them kept secret for at least another 50 years, and some of them, he instructed, should never be made public. Fortunately, Johnson's widow, Lady Bird, has chosen to honor a different wish of her husband's: that history be written "with the bark off." The tapes, excerpted here from 'Waking Charge: The Johnson White House Tapes, 1968-1964" (which will be published this week by Simon & Schuster), capture the 36th president as he assumes power after the assassination of John F. Kennedy and grapples with the tumultuous issues of his age, starting with civil rights and Vietnam.

We will probably never again get such an intimate glimpse of a presidency from beginning to end. Roosevelt and Eisenhower taped a few of their conversations, Kennedy more, and Nixon recorded about half of his White House years--until he was found out. But only Johnson kept the secret tape recorders running from the first hour of his presidency to the end. "Johnson was obsessed with recording everything," said Richard Nixon. "We know what my problems were with that crap, but ... Johnson worshipped it." The news that Nixon had bugged the Oval Office mused such public outrage that no president today would even dream of systematically recording his private conversations.

To create "Taking Charge," the first of several volumes, I have listened hard to the hundreds of hours of just-opened, often-scratchy Johnson tapes to decipher exactly what LBJ and his foes and intimates told each other in secret from JFK's murder to the eve of LBJ's victory in 1964. The book offers 553 pages of the most startling encounters and explains how they change what we know about the history of our times. I had no privileged access to the tapes; no member of the Johnson circle has seen the book before publication. The tapes unveil Johnson's suspicion that Kennedy was killed by an international conspiracy, his tortured doubts that America could ever win a war in Vietnam and his emotional private threats in August 1964, on the verge of winning the century's largest national landslide, to throw the presidency away and retire to Texas.

Why did LBJ tape people without their knowledge? Certainly he wished to harvest heroic quotations for his memoirs. He also wanted leverage in dealing with people like Nixon, Bobby Kennedy, George Wallace, Martin Luther King Jr. and J. Edgar Hoover--an undeniable record of what they had confided and promised him. Johnson originally planned to choose which conversations would be taped or not, but it soon proved difficult for the harried president to remember when to turn the recorder off.

In his speeches and press conferences, Johnson strained to sound statesmanlike The tapes reveal him as the far more mesmerizing man he really was--earthy, vulnerable, suspicious, affectionate, devious, explosive, funny and domineering. For someone so concerned about his public image, it is curious that he didn't simply destroy the tapes. But then again Johnson may have realized that, in the end, history might reward him: the recordings show him in the engine room of one of the most turbulent decades in our history, twisting senators' arms and, while plunging into the Vietnam abyss, taking grand political risks for the black and the poor. Perhaps Johnson also sensed that the most durable characters in American history, like his heroes Andrew Jackson and Huey Long, are the most spellbinding.

The Kennedy Assassination

When JFK is killed in Dallas, Johnson almost immediately suspects a conspiracy. "What raced through my mind was that if they had shot our president. driving down there, who would they shoot next? …

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