LBJ and His Tapes
Of the six presidents who secretly taped in the White House, President Johnson was the only president who did so for the duration of his presidency. Johnson had first started recording while vice president, but the first tape on which Johnson is heard as president was recorded aboard Air Force One en route from Dallas to Washington, DC, on 22 November 1963, just hours after JFK’s assassination. With the slain president’s body on board, the newly sworn-in President Johnson and his wife, Lady Bird Johnson, called John Kennedy’s mother, Mrs. Rose Kennedy, to offer their condolences.2 The final recording in the Johnson tapes collection was recorded on 2 January 1969.3
That Johnson treated the telephone as an essential tool of governing was well known to those who knew him. “This guy was on the phone more than any president in history,” wrote Newsweek’s White House correspondent Charlie Roberts. “He made the phone an instrument of national policy.”4 In January 1973, New York Times columnist James Reston wrote a remembrance of the late president, who had died on the twenty-second. Writing six months before Alexander Butterfield’s revelation, Reston said that hearing LBJ was the only way to truly understand him. If only he had kept a taped record, Reston mused, we might be able to “hear him talking endlessly about his problems, his cunning contrivances, his feeling for the Congress, and particularly his affection for his lovely and remarkable wife, and his hardscrabble land in Texas.”5
During his first year in office, Johnson taped up to 29 telephone calls a day as a way of keeping track of lobbying efforts and political engagements. By 1965, however, Johnson began to tape his telephone calls more selectively. In 1968, he added a system for taping meetings in the Cabinet Room, presumably intending to record Vietnam decision making. In all, the Johnson tapes comprise nearly 850 hours of recordings, including over 9,400 telephone conversations and 77 meetings. At various times, recorders were installed on telephones in the Oval Office, the Old Executive Office Building, the White House residence’s master bedroom (designated as the Mansion in these collections), and the LBJ Ranch near Johnson City, Texas. Rarely, he also used a portable recorder while traveling. And although occasionally the speakerphone would capture room conversations in those locations, the only concerted effort to record meetings was apparently focused on the Cabinet Room, and then only in 1968.6
The original tapes are now in the custody of the Lyndon B. Johnson Library and Museum in Austin, Texas. The library first took possession of them in January 1973 when, a week after Johnson’s death, his longtime personal assistant Mildred Stegall delivered the tapes along with Johnson’s instructions that they should remain sealed for fifty years after his death, hinting at his recognition of their political sensitivity. Fearing for the tapes’ archival integrity, archivists at the Johnson Library under the direction of Harry Middleton began preservation efforts in the mid-1970s.7 After extensive deliberations and consultations instigated and overseen by then-Director of the LBJ Library Harry Middleton, the library began releasing the tapes publicly in 1993.8 The processing and releasing of the telephone tapes collection was completed in December 2008.
Revealing the Tapes
Until Watergate, the existence of Johnson’s tapes was not widely known. Within Johnson’s White House, the tapes were not treated as official government records and therefore were not considered subject to the same record-keeping and security classification requirements. Rather, they were considered, by the President at least, to be private, personal records. The taping system was a closely held secret, known to only a few aides and some White House secretaries who were assigned the task of creating transcripts for Johnson’s use.
Nevertheless, from time to time, cracks in that secrecy emerged. One source was President Kennedy’s longtime personal secretary, Evelyn Lincoln, who maintained friendly contacts among Johnson’s secretaries and White House staffers while also remaining close to Kennedy insiders. In his journal, published in 2008, former Kennedy aide Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. told of learning about the system from Lincoln in March 1964:
Evelyn Lincoln told me at luncheon that all LBJ’s phone talks are taken down on tape. They are immediately transcribed by the girls in her old office and then given to the President the first thing in the morning, so he can see what he said. What a treasure trove for the historian! and what a threat to the rational and uninhibited conduct of government!9
Robert Kennedy also learned of the recording system at some point early in Johnson’s presidency, perhaps through Schlesinger or Lincoln or both, a discovery that was, in turn, disclosed to journalist and historian Theodore White. In his 1965 book, The Making of the President, 1964, White described the famous July 1964 meeting in which Johnson told Kennedy that despite pressure on him to do so, he would not be naming Kennedy as his running mate in the upcoming election. Having heard of Johnson’s proclivity for taping and with relations between the two already tense, Kennedy was guarded during this sensitive and potentially contentious meeting.
Thereafter, since the story [of LBJ’s cutting RFK from the ticket] was out, friends of the Attorney General began to make available Robert F. Kennedy’s version of the story.
He had indeed come at one o’clock to the Oval Office and the President had sat behind his desk. The business part of the conversation had taken only a few minutes of the forty-five minute session. The President had looked at the wall, then looked at the floor, then said that he’d been thinking about the Vice-presidency in terms of who’d be the biggest help to the country and the Party—and of help to him, personally. And that person wasn’t Bobby.
The Attorney General had said fine, and offered to help and support him. The Attorney General had been restrained during the entire conversation—he knew that the President had taken to the habit of recording conversations in his office on tape, and he could see that the buttons were down and the tape recorder was on.10
White’s brief mention of LBJ’s taping, however, seems to have been largely overlooked for at least the next decade. And recordings included in the current digital editions led to a new discovery of another overlooked public disclosure that LBJ had a taping system connected to his telephone, one even earlier than the publication of White’s book. It came at the height of the 1964 election campaign and was the product of a politically motivated leak.
A key part of the Johnson campaign’s 1964 election strategy was to paint the Republican candidate, Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona, as trigger-happy and reckless, charges that found their ultimate expression in the famous “Daisy” television advertisement, in which the Johnson campaign implied that Goldwater might lead the country into a nuclear war. But even before that commercial aired, the charge that Goldwater was reckless was starting to stick.
At a press conference on 12 August 1964 in Hershey, Pennsylvania, Goldwater lashed out in frustration. Asked by a reporter to answer the Johnson campaign’s accusation that he was “impulsive and imprudent and trigger-happy,” Goldwater accused Johnson of hypocrisy, claiming that just over a week earlier Johnson and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara had themselves authorized the U.S. military to use nuclear weapons if necessary in responding to the Tonkin Gulf attacks on 3–4 August. Goldwater was apparently misinterpreting a statement McNamara had made at a press conference on the afternoon of 5 August. McNamara had been asked by reporters about the orders he had issued to the Seventh Fleet in the Gulf of Tonkin, and he responded that the Fleet had been told to protect themselves with “whatever force is necessary.” In the context of the carefully cultivated ambiguity of nuclear deterrence that so dominated Cold War military strategy of the period, McNamara’s phrasing was, on the face of it, reminiscent of many previous veiled nuclear threats. But in this case, context was crucial. Goldwater focused on the “whatever force is necessary” phrase but in the process overlooked public assurances given the previous night (4 August) by McNamara and the State Department that no nuclear weapons would be used. Nevertheless, as the story played out in the press in the following days, Goldwater stood by his accusation. On 14 August, in direct response to Goldwater’s charge, the Pentagon declassified and released a section of the original orders to the Seventh Fleet. Those orders specified that the military response was to utilize “conventional ordnance only.”11
But as the campaign heated up, the issue of nuclear (im)prudence lingered and was thrust into the center of the campaign with the 7 September broadcast of the “Daisy” commercial. As Goldwater found himself again on the defensive, he continued to charge that Johnson himself had already proved his own recklessness with the response to the Tonkin attacks in early August. Evidently, Johnson, or someone very close to him, decided to answer the accusation by leaking to Washington Post reporter Chalmers Roberts some information that could only come from the inner sanctum of the White House. In a 4 October article on the election campaign, under the subheading “Orders Now Taped,” Roberts wrote:
After Sen. Goldwater implied that Mr. Johnson had permitted the possible use of nuclear weapons in the Aug. 4 incidents, the Administration was able to say that orders for the use of “conventional ordnance only” had been issued. Now the President has taken the precaution of adding a recording device to his telephone so that his orders, and he has given some tactical orders to the Navy, are on tape for the record.12
Roberts disguised the source of his information, but recordings included in the current digital edition suggest that the source was Johnson himself. It was not unusual for Johnson to call reporters to berate them or suggest material for columns, and at least one such call with Roberts was recorded, a 15 August 1964 call in which Johnson had addressed directly, and at length, Goldwater’s “nuclear” charge. No mention of the recording system is made in the open part of that conversation, but one minute of the recording, at a point in the conversation when Roberts asks about “the technical control situation,” remains excised by the LBJ Library.13 The type of information in Roberts’s 4 October article, characterized as “the word at the White House,” was also consistent with the type of information he would have gleaned from talking personally with the President. The information does not seem to have appeared elsewhere, which would also seem to indicate a private conversation between Roberts and Johnson or someone close to him rather than a public press statement provided to multiple reporters. Until the excised portion of that tape is released publicly, it is not possible to say definitively that it was Johnson himself who told Roberts of the recording system, but the available evidence strongly suggests that it was. And although the Roberts article implied that LBJ’s telephone recording system was designed for specific and limited use, it nevertheless amounts to the first known public disclosure of presidents taping their conversations in the White House.
For almost another decade, the idea of secret presidential taping apparently faded from public awareness. After Butterfield’s dramatic revelation during the Watergate investigation, Nixon’s practice of secret taping was widely criticized. In launching a congressional investigation into the practice, the chairman of the Permanent Investigations Subcommittee, Senator Henry Jackson (Democrat), expressed concerns that it could inhibit the kind of frank and honest advice that executive privilege was designed to protect and that it might well have a deleterious effect on American foreign policy if foreign visitors to the White House became concerned that they were being taped.14 Even formerly staunch Nixon supporters like Frank Rizzo and Arlen Specter condemned it as “appalling,” “outrageous,” and un-American.15
In an attempt to deflect the growing chorus of condemnation, the Nixon White House claimed that Nixon’s Democratic predecessor had also taped. But the attempt to cast secret taping as a bipartisan affair sparked partisan defensiveness, blurring the lines between fact, loyalty, and partisanship. Despite the public, albeit oblique, mentions of LBJ’s recording system almost a decade before the Watergate investigations that had appeared in White’s book and Roberts’s article, Johnson insiders initially denied that LBJ had taped.
A day after Butterfield’s disclosure and the Nixon White House’s claims that LBJ had also taped while in office, a Secret Service spokesman said that it knew nothing of an LBJ taping system and that if one had been installed the Secret Service did not put it there. Harry Middleton, the director of the LBJ Library, confirmed that the Johnson Library did in fact have in its holdings a collection of tapes but, in an apparent effort to distinguish them from the expansiveness of Nixon’s taping, emphasized their limited scope, referring to “selective telephone conversations” LBJ had recorded along with “a limited number of meetings recorded in 1968 in the Cabinet Room. Most of these concerned national security matters.”16 Juanita Roberts, LBJ’s White House secretary, also downplayed similarities with Nixon’s taping system, implied that LBJ used the system infrequently, and suggested that often those being recorded would have known they were recorded thanks to President Johnson’s habit of asking, “Did you get that, Juanita?” She also told the Washington Post that although the White House Communications Agency had the capability to record conversations passing through its services, “there was not a capability on his [Johnson’s] phone. If there was, I didn’t know it, and I checked out every line every morning before he’d come into the office.” Other aides insisted that although the capability existed to record conversations on the telephone, they knew of no office or room bugging on the scale implemented by the Nixon White House. Asked by reporters whether Kennedy had any similar system, the curator of the John F. Kennedy Library and an appointments secretary for the former president, David Powers, initially denied knowing of any such system, a statement corrected two days later by the library’s director, Dan Fenn Jr.17 Kennedy aide, biographer, and loyalist Arthur M. Schlesinger told the New York Times and the Washington Post that not only did Kennedy not have such a system but that it was “absolutely inconceivable” that Kennedy would ever have approved such a system.18 Within days, further details emerged from unnamed sources about LBJ’s taping system, and Chalmers Roberts raised the possibility that President Franklin Roosevelt had also taped while in office.19
Since then, most of the presidential recordings—although not all—have been dutifully reviewed, processed, and released by the archivists of the National Archives and Records Administration.20
|||For security or deed reasons, some of the conversations from the Norton edition are summarized only; this will be noted in the digital version.|
|||The Presidential Recordings, Lyndon B. Johnson: The Kennedy Assassination and the Transfer of Power, November 1963–January 1964, vol. 1, November 22–30, 1964, ed. Max Holland (New York: Norton, 2005), pp. 63–66.|
|||John Powers, “The History of Presidential Audio Recordings and the Archival Issues Surrounding Their Use,” CIDS Paper, National Archives and Records Administration, 12 July 1996.|
|||Quoted in David Shreve, “Preface,” The Presidential Recordings, Lyndon B. Johnson: Toward the Great Society, February 1, 1964–May 31, 1964, vols. 4–6 (New York: Norton, 2007), p. xxxi.|
|||Ibid., p. xxvii.|
|||Ibid., p. xxviii.|
|||John Powers, “The History of Presidential Audio Recordings.”|
|||Shreve, “Preface,” p. xxviii.|
|||Diary entry for 25 March 1964, in Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., Journals: 1952–2000 (New York: Penguin, 2008), p.225.|
|||Theodore White, The Making of the President, 1964 (New York: Atheneum, 1965), p. 278. That Kennedy could actually see the recorder is unlikely since the recorders themselves were physically located inside the kneewells of his secretaries’ desks in the secretarial space outside the Oval Office (John Powers, “The History of Presidential Audio Recordings”). He may have been confusing some of Johnson’s new electronic gadgetry such as oversized telephone systems and television remote controls for his three television sets.|
|||Tom Wicker, “Navy Order Cited in A-Bomb Dispute,” New York Times, 15 August 1964; Chalmers M. Roberts and Murrey Marder, “ ‘Conventional Ordnance’ Specified in Viet Action,” Washington Post, 15 August 1964.|
|||Chalmers M. Roberts, “Johnson Expects to Win With Rating Shift,” Washington Post, 4 October 1964.|
|||See Conversation WH6408-22-4962, 4963.|
|||Jules Witcover, “LBJ White House Bugging Reported,” Washington Post, 19 July 1973.|
|||Middleton quoted in Jules Witcover, “LBJ Aides Disavow System,” Washington Post, 17 July 1973.|
|||John Kifner, “Kennedy Aides Unaware That Talks Were Taped,” New York Times, 19 July 1973.|
|||Witcover, “LBJ Aides Disavow System,” and Kifner, “Kennedy Aides Unaware That Talks Were Taped.”|
|||Jules Witcover, “LBJ White House Bugging Reported,” Washington Post, 19 July 1973; Chalmers M. Roberts, “Bugging the Oval Office,” Washington Post, 18 July 1973.|
|||For the current status of individual recordings collections, see http://www.whitehousetapes.net.|