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Caught on Tape: Lyndon B. Johnson Tapes

October 14, 1997 at 12:00 AM EDT
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PHIL PONCE: For years few people knew that President Lyndon Johnson secretly taped private conversations in the White House. And he wanted those tapes kept secret for 50 years after his death. But now NewsHour regular presidential historian Michael Beschloss gives the first comprehensive look at what those tapes contain in his new book “Taking Charge: The Johnson White House Tapes 1963 to 1964.” Michael, welcome. First of all, just how extensive was the taping that was going on under Lyndon Johnson?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, Presidential Historian: Johnson taped about 10,000 conversations, it turns out, from the first minute he was on Air Force One at the air field in Dallas after John Kennedy’s murder. The second the plane took off you can hear him calling Rose Kennedy, the late President’s mother, and consoling her in Hyanisport. Johnson from the beginning of his time in the White House as President expanded the system to include not only the Oval Office but his bedroom, the LBJ ranch and other places. He worked the system, himself. He could decide whether to turn it on or off, but usually he forgot to tell the secretaries to turn the system off, and a lot of the richest stuff on these tapes comes from conversations that he recorded accidentally and probably did not want us to hear.

PHIL PONCE: Ten thousand conversations. Now, the President did not want any of them released until the year like 2023 or something like that. How is it that they were released before his wishes?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Well, he went through an elaborate procedure to have these tapes locked up in a vault after he was president down in Austin, Texas, and left an intention which was finally written down, saying they should be closed for 50 years after his death, and many of these conversations should never be opened. By the 1990′s the people in the Johnson Library felt this was history, they were going to open inevitably, so why not do it now, no reason to delay.

PHIL PONCE: The first conversation we’re going to hear an excerpt from is a conversation between President Johnson and Martin Luther King. Sum it up for us briefly.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: It’s a few days after Johnson became President. There were a lot of people in this country who were very worried about Johnson on civil rights. When he first ran for the Senate in ’48, he did so as an anti-civil rights candidate, as many did in Texas in those days. And so many black leaders especially worried that when Johnson, the first southern president in all that time, became president, he might not have the kind of commitment to civil rights that John Kennedy had. Here is talking to Martin Luther King, assuring him of his commitment to civil rights.

PRESIDENT JOHNSON: A good many people told me that they heard about your statement. I guess on TV, wasn’t it?

MARTIN LUTHER KING: Yes, that’s right.

PRESIDENT JOHNSON: I’ve been locked up in this office and haven’t seen it, but I want to tell you how grateful I am and how worthy I’m going to try to be of all your hopes.

MARTIN LUTHER KING: Well, thank you very much. I’m so happy to hear that, and I knew that you had just that great spirit. And you know you have our support and backing. We know what a difficult period this is.

PRESIDENT JOHNSON: It’s just an impossible period. We’ve got a budget coming up that we’ve got nothing to do with. It’s practically already made. And we’ve got a civil rights bill that hasn’t even passed the House and it’s November, and Hubert Humphrey told me yesterday that everybody wanted to go home, and I’m going to ask the Congress Wednesday to just stay there till they pass ‘em all. They won’t do it, but we’ll just keep them there next year until they do, and we just won’t give up an inch.

MARTIN LUTHER KING: Uh-huh. Well, this is mighty fine. I think it’s so imperative. I think one of the great tributes that we can pay a memory of President Kennedy is to try to enact some of the great progressive policies that he sought to initiate

PRESIDENT JOHNSON: Well, I’m going to support ‘em all, and you can count on that. And I’m going to do my best to get other men to do likewise. I’ll have to have you-all’s help. And I never needed it more than I do now.

PHIL PONCE: Michael, the title of your book is “Taking Charge.” And here within three days after the assassination he is taking charge

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: He sure is. And the other thing is that we historians always wonder if what a president says in public is the same as what he says in private, and this kind of thing shows how committed Johnson was to the civil rights bill, which passed the following summer, although then he got very angry at black leaders who wanted him to move faster because he thought that they weren’t grateful enough.

PHIL PONCE: How much pressure did he feel to pass a the civil rights law?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: He felt that this was a sign of his ability to carry on where John Kennedy had left off at the time of his death. He also knew that so many people were looking at a southern president and wondering if he was real or not. The result was that because of his enormous political skills he was able to get that bill passed, especially as a tribute to John Kennedy, perhaps as JFK might not have been able to do.

PHIL PONCE: And as far as the assassination, itself, what do the tapes show that Lyndon Johnson thought about why Kennedy was shot, or who killed him?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: The tapes show that from the first minute after the assassination Johnson was very suspicious that this was a conspiracy. It was the height of the Cold War. He knew that if there was a Soviet surprise attack, it probably would be preceded by this kind of an assassination. Then you hear on these tapes Johnson getting back to Washington, being told by J. Edgar Hoover of the FBI that Oswald, the presumed gunman, had been seen two months earlier at the Cuban embassy in Mexico City. For the rest of his life Johnson was very suspicious that Oswald had international connections and that these had to do with the assassination.

PHIL PONCE: The next excerpt that we’re going to listen to is an excerpt of a conversation between President Johnson and Robert Kennedy. Tell us what we’re going to be hearing and the context.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: They are talking about Martin Luther King making a trip to Greenwood, Mississippi, and they–Robert Kennedy, the attorney general, late president’s brother, and President Johnson are worried about getting King some protection. The “he” that you’ll hear referred to is J. Edgar Hoover of the FBI who was not terribly pro-civil rights.

ROBERT KENNEDY: I understand that–you know–he sends all kinds of reports over to you about me and about the Department of Justice.

PRESIDENT JOHNSON: Not any that I’ve seen. What are you talking about?

ROBERT KENNEDY: Well, I just understand that–about me planning and plotting things.

PRESIDENT JOHNSON: No, he hasn’t sent me a report that I remember. He hasn’t sent me any report on you or on the department any time. And I get, I guess, a letter every three or four days that summarize a good deal of stuff. And Walter Jenkins gets eight or ten of ‘em a day on Yugoslavia, various routine things where people are talking. But as far as I know they haven’t involved you.

ROBERT KENNEDY: Well, I had understood that he had had some report about me.

PRESIDENT JOHNSON: No, no.

ROBERT KENNEDY: About the overthrow of the government by force and violence.

PRESIDENT JOHNSON: No, no.

ROBERT KENNEDY: Leading a coup.

PRESIDENT JOHNSON: No. That’s an error. He never said that or indicated or given any indication of it.

PHIL PONCE: What should people keep in mind as they listen to that?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Robert Kennedy was Lyndon Johnson’s enormous towering political enemy in 1963 and ’64, and J. Edgar Hoover of the FBI was sending LBJ files on Robert Kennedy things that might be damaging. And Kennedy in that conversation, which began on civil rights, is confronting LBJ with the fact that he has heard that Hoover is sending him this kind of information. And LBJ is playing a little bit dumb.

PHIL PONCE: So LBJ had been receiving some from J. Edgar Hoover, and he’s just–again, as you say–why is he playing dumb?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: He’s playing dumb because he doesn’t want to admit that he has asked Hoover to send the kind of information that he is getting on Kennedy. The other thing to remember is that RFK in 1964 towered in Lyndon Johnson’s mind in a way he really shouldn’t have. LBJ owned the Democratic Convention. He was going to be elected by a landslide, but in his mind RFK and the memory of John Kennedy was so great that he was very worried that Robert Kennedy might actually go to the convention with his sister-in-law Jackie and get the delegates to nominate RFK instead of Johnson.

PHIL PONCE: Throughout those two years, according to the transcripts, there was an underlying concern on his part, a repeated concern about everything having to do with the Kennedys, it seems.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Johnson, because he was a very suspicious and very emotional and very terrified person, at times tended to focus on Kennedy as behind everything. When there is a bad newspaper story about Johnson’s wealth, he thinks it came from Kennedy. When black leaders are complaining that Johnson is not doing enough on civil rights, he thinks that Kennedy is behind it. When there’s a scandal surrounding his formal Senate aide, Bobby Baker, Johnson feels that this was fomented by Robert Kennedy, so you see this psycho drama that goes throughout these tapes.

PHIL PONCE: The next clip that we’re going to be listening to has to do with Vietnam. It’s a conversation between President Johnson and one of his advisers. Set it up for us.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: This is an adviser, McGeorge Bundy, his national security adviser, and Johnson is talking to Bundy about pressure on him to expand American involvement in Vietnam and perhaps get into a major war.

PRESIDENT JOHNSON: I’ll tell you, the more that I stayed awake last night thinking of this thing, the more I think of it, I don’t know what in the hell–it looks like to me we’re getting into another Korea. It just worries the hell out of me. I don’t see what we can ever hope to get out of with once we’re committed. I believe the Chinese Communists are coming in to it. I don’t think that we can fight ‘em ten thousand miles away from home and ever get anywhere in that area. I don’t think it’s worth fighting for, and I don’t think we can get out, and it’s just the biggest damn mess that I ever saw.

McGEORGE BUNDY: It’s an awful mess.

PRESIDENT JOHNSON: And we’ve just got to think about it. I was looking at this sergeant of mine this morning–got six little old kids over there–and he’s getting out my things and bringing me in my night reading, and all that kind of stuff, and I just thought if I’d ordered all those kids in there and what in hell am I ordering them out there for. What the hell is Vietnam worth to me? What is Laos worth to me? What is it worth to this country? We’ve got a treaty but, hell, everybody else has got a treaty out there, and they’re not doing anything about it. Now, of course, if you start running from the Communists, they may just chase you right into your own kitchen.

McGEORGE BUNDY: That’s the trouble. And that is what the rest of the– about half of the world is going to think if anything comes apart on us. That’s the dilemma.

PRESIDENT JOHNSON: But everybody I talk to that’s got any sense and the other, just says, oh, God, please give this thought. Of course, I was reading Mansfield’s stuff this morning, and it’s just Milquetoast as it can be, it’s not fine at all, but this is a terrible thing we’re getting ready to do.

PHIL PONCE: What is the new insight one gets from listening to that tape?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: That privately Johnson knew very much that there was a very great potential in the War in Vietnam to destroy him and to do a lot to destroy the soul of the American people as, in fact, happened. And, you know, Phil, when I heard the tape for the first time, it just made the hair stand up on the back of my neck, and I just wished I could go back to 1964 and say, don’t do it, you know, just stop time now.

PHIL PONCE: What motivated him to make these tapes?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Two things. One was he felt that it would be a secret weapon for him to have this hidden record of what people told him and what he told others. For example, if Robert Kennedy came in and had a showdown with Lyndon Johnson, as happened a number of times, then went out and said that something else had transpired that actually was the case, Johnson felt that he could use his exact record to show people that Kennedy was saying something that was not true. The other thing was through history Johnson felt that it would be very important to have some kind of record that would show what kind of president he was.

PHIL PONCE: Did people have any inkling or suspicion that they were being taped?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: This was one of the biggest secrets within the Johnson White House not only among many of his closest aides, even among some of his relatives.

PHIL PONCE: Along those lines, what do you say to criticism that tapes like this maybe are not so reliable because the president knew that he was being taped and, therefore, could posture himself so it wasn’t necessarily a true reflection of how he might have felt?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: I think very occasionally a president like Johnson does posture. You hear him, for instance, asking a senator whether the Senate might impeach someone who didn’t act in Vietnam. That might be something that is said for later on, but when you hear–think of a president like Johnson going through this very turbulent period, ten crises a day, he always feels beleaguered, most of the time he’s forgotten even that the tape recorder was running. You listen to these tapes. They show a lot of sides of Lyndon Johnson, many of them very embarrassing, many of them ugly that certainly he did not want recorded for history.

PHIL PONCE: As you were listening to the tapes, did you ever think, oh, this is so unfair that he knows it’s being taped but that no one else seems to?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: I think that when you have situations where a president is trying to entrap someone, that is just the reason that most of us nowadays, looking back, are delighted to have this kind of a source but are very unhappy that a president would have chose to do this sort of thing.

PHIL PONCE: And as you look at the tapes in their totality, what new insights have you developed about President Johnson?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: That this was perhaps the president of the century where there was the greatest difference between the way he appeared in public, this commanding, stoical Texan, and the way he was in private, which was charming, bull-dozing, oftentimes terrified, very emotional, and very different from what I had been led to expect.

PHIL PONCE: And you asked President Clinton about any taping that’s going on in the White House currently. What was his response?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: He chuckled and shook his head because he knows that if a president secretly tapes people the way that LBJ did nowadays there would probably be a subpoena on the White House door within about five seconds.

PHIL PONCE: Michael Beschloss, I thank you.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Thank you, Phil.