Michael Beschloss: Reaching for Glory
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TERENCE SMITH: The new book is “Reaching for Glory.” Lyndon Johnson’s secret White House tapes, 1964-1965. This is the second volume of transcriptions of the Johnson tapes. It covers one of the most significant and turbulent times in the Johnson presidency. The President was pushing for civil rights reform while escalating America’s involvement in Vietnam among other things. The author is NewsHour regular presidential historian Michael Beschloss. Michael, welcome.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Thank you, Terry.
TERENCE SMITH: These tapes are just a gold mine of real-time firsthand history of the Johnson presidency. Remind us again how they were made and why they were made.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Johnson had this taping system that was in the Oval Office. His White House bedroom, down on the LBJ ranch and he used it to record 10,000 of his private conversations with his family, his friends, his intimates, most of whom did not know he was taping them without their knowledge. Even Lady Bird did not know he was taping his conversations with her.
TERENCE SMITH: He controlled the machine. He turned it on and off.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: He thought he did. He would tell the secretary to turn on the system but then he would oftentimes forget to turn the system off and some of the most fascinating conversations on these tapes come from when Johnson let the tape recorder keep on running unwittingly.
TERENCE SMITH: You cover in this, of course, the Vietnam War is escalating, there’s trouble in the Dominican Republic. Do you see any parallels from that period then to what President George W. Bush is going through now?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Well, you get a sense from the inside of what it is like for a President to take the country into a very difficult war. But otherwise, Vietnam and our new war, I think, are almost polar opposites. Vietnam we now know we didn’t need to save Vietnam to win the Cold War. We did it without that. In the case of this war on terrorism, this is an essential war. We all feel the most basic responsibility of our government is to remove this scourge so that we don’t have to live this way.
TERENCE SMITH: And yet there are some common elements you found in the way Presidents deal with these things?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Absolutely right. Johnson had to deal with things like how much can bombing do. He was bombing North Vietnam, not getting many results, had to consider whether to put in ground troops just as President Bush is right now.
TERENCE SMITH: One stunning thing that you learned from these tapes is that LBJ himself harbored the deepest doubts about this country’s prospects in Vietnam, the chances for victory.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: That was the biggest shocker for me. I was listening to these tapes February of ’65 and I assumed that what historically we had known was true which was that Johnson knew it would be difficult but he assumed that we could win in Vietnam. Then I hear February of ’65 he’s about to start rolling thunder, the systematic bombing of North Vietnam, and instead what he says is something very different. He says to Robert McNamara on these tapes in private, “I don’t think we can win.”
TERENCE SMITH: We have an excerpt of that tape. In fact, the date is February 26, 1965. Let’s listen to it.
LYNDON JOHNSON: We’re off to bombing these people. We’re over that hurdle. And I don’t think anything is going to be as bad as losing, and I don’t see any way of winning…I’m scared to death of putting ground forces in, but I’m more frightened about losing a bunch of planes from lack of security.
TERENCE SMITH: He was worried.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: He was. You know, when I heard that for the first time, Terry, it sent a physical shudder through me. He says many things… It’s an abiding thing all through the months that follow. He says, “I’m scared to death. I feel tied in. I feel chained.” You know, if you’re a veteran of Vietnam 2001 or a veterans’ family, what do you really think if you now discover that the President who sent your son or daughter in did so knowing that while going into harm’s way they were going to a war that he felt there was no chance of winning.
TERENCE SMITH: And at a time when he was telling the country there was a chance to win.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Absolutely. I think what it shows is that a President should honor his instincts. If he felt that this war was so terrible and so fated to be lost that he couldn’t tell it to the American people, he should have said to himself, well, maybe I shouldn’t get involved in this war.
TERENCE SMITH: The book also contains some fascinating excerpts of Lady Bird Johnson dictating into her diary. How did you get ahold of those?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: That was great. She’s 88. She’s in Texas. I asked her if I could put these in the book. They haven’t been shown to anyone else. She made this diary everyday, almost every afternoon. And she would talk into her tape recorder about her feelings and in many cases about her husband because she LBJ go through a real emotional decline in 1965, which had to do with the fact that he knew he had felt to get involved in this war in Vietnam and at the same time he knew that that war would destroy him, his presidency and badly harm the country.
TERENCE SMITH: In fact we have an excerpt of her, of one of these tapes. We can listen to that now.
LADY BIRD JOHNSON: I wish I could have been of more use to Lyndon. He said, “Things are not going well here…Vietnam is getting worse day by day. I have the choice to go in with great casualty lists or get out with great disgrace. It’s like being in an airplane and I have to choose between crashing the plane or jumping out. I do not have a parachute. When he is pierced, I bleed. It’s a bad time all around.
TERENCE SMITH: Bad time all around.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: It was. She saw it more than anyone else because she understood his psyche. You have to empathize with Johnson. He felt compelled to get involved in this war in Vietnam. He said if you don’t stop the Communists there, he says on the tapes, they’ll come into your house and rape your wife in your own bed. At the same time, he knew that it was going to be a catastrophe.
TERENCE SMITH: There’s another tape involving her in which she talks about going out and buying a black dress, anticipating a funeral.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: She was so worried about him; she felt that there was a very good chance that the pressure would kill him. And it was in 1965 during this period that she bought that black dress because she thought that Lyndon might not survive in the White House.
TERENCE SMITH: Of course President Johnson’s other big battle was the civil rights battle. What do we learn from the tapes about that?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: That in civil rights this was a very great man. Johnson had absolute conviction and was willing to take big political risks to get civil rights and voting rights. In 1965 at the time that civil rights marchers in Selma were bloodied, Johnson reacted to that by saying, “I’m going to go to Congress and I’m going to get a Voting Rights Act that makes sure that African- Americans can vote.” That’s a real test of presidential greatness.
TERENCE SMITH: In fact, we have an excerpt in which he’s talking I believe to Senator John McClellan, a Democrat from Arkansas. What’s the context there? They’re talking about the plight of the people in the cities, the young African Americans.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Indeed McClellan was a segregationist and Johnson had known him for years in the senate. If you listen to this on one level it almost sounds as if Johnson is a racist too. But what he’s doing is he’s talking about how tough it is for black kids. He’s also trying to convey to McClellan you and I, as white southerners understand each other. Unless we get civil rights there is going to be revolution so you should be civil rights too.
TERENCE SMITH: Let’s give it a listen.
LYNDON JOHNSON: (March 23, 1965) You take an old hard-peckered boy that sits around and got no school and got no job and got no work and got no discipline. His daddy’s probably on relief, and his mama’s probably taking morphine. Why, he ain’t got nothing hurt if he gets shot. I mean, he’s better off dead than he is where he is.
SEN. JOHN McCLELLAN: …His life isn’t worth a damn anyway.
LYNDON JOHNSON: That’s right. And they’re 38 percent of those unemployed, and they just fill these cities. What you’ve seen in Selma is nothing. We’re handling things reasonably well there…but you just wait till this thing…the rats get going into Harlem and Chicago.
TERENCE SMITH: So he could look ahead and he saw trouble coming down the road?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: And indeed it came that summer in Watts. In the aftermath of Watts he says on the tapes now the white backlash is going to come. He says there is going to be conservative backlash against everything I’ve done. He even says on the tapes it will be good for Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.
TERENCE SMITH: You also have tapes in his book about the relationship with the Kennedys, the whole Kennedy family. It was complex.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: From the very beginning he thought that Robert Kennedy was out to ruin him, enmesh him in some kind of a scandal or later on run against him for President as indeed he did. So at the same time he tried to make sure that Jacqueline Kennedy, the late President’s widow, was on his side. And I’ve got these tapes where he’s talking to Jackie and saying, “Come back to the White House. Be photographed next to me.” He thought that would help him. Instead Robert Kennedy said to him or said to Jackie, “Johnson is using you. Keep your distance.”
TERENCE SMITH: In fact, the tapes with Jacqueline Kennedy are very flirtatious in his manner.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Indeed.
TERENCE SMITH: Right after the assassination of President Kennedy.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: That was Johnson. That was oftentimes the way he dealt with which was to be semi-flirtatious. In this case he would go overboard. He says to Jackie, “tell John and Caroline i want to be their daddy.” You can imagine how she would have probably reacted.
TERENCE SMITH: Yet he was afraid that Robert Kennedy would denounce him as soft on communism if you didn’t pursuit it in Vietnam.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: The great irony. It’s on one of these tapes. At the beginning of ’65 someone says to him, there’s some talk that you might get out of Vietnam and betray John Kennedy’s commitment. What he makes clear is that he’s worried that even if he did pull out of Vietnam one cost of that would be that Robert Kennedy, a big hawk in 1965, would make his life miserable.
TERENCE SMITH: True or false it worries him.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Worried him a lot and sometimes paranoids really do have enemies.
TERENCE SMITH: Fascinating stuff, Michael. Thank you very much. Are there more tapes?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: More tapes and one more volume, which will take the story through the end of Johnson’s presidency.
TERENCE SMITH: We’ll look forward to it. Michael Beschloss, thank you very much.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Thanks a lot, Terry.