The Presidential Recordings Program

Philip Zelikow, Ernest May and Timothy Naftali

[Reprinted from Max Holland, ed., Lyndon B. Johnson: The Kennedy Assassination and the Transfer of Power, November 1963–January 1964, Volume One, The Presidential Recordings (New York: W. W. Norton, 2005), pp. xvii–xxii.]

Between 1940 and 1973, presidents of the United States secretly recorded thousands of their meetings and conversations in the White House. Though some recorded a lot and others just a little, they all created a unique and irreplaceable source for understanding not only their presidencies and times but also the office of the president itself and, indeed, the essential process of high-level decision making.

These recordings of course do not displace more traditional sources of historical knowledge such as official documents, private diaries and letters, memoirs, and contemporaneous journalism. Rather, they augment these sources much as photographs, films, and recordings augment printed records of presidents’ public appearances. But they also do much more than that.

Because the recordings capture an entire meeting or conversation, not just highlights caught by a minute taker or recalled afterward in a memorandum or memoir, they can have two distinctive qualities. First, they can catch the whole complex of considerations that weigh on a president’s mind on a particular day. Most of those present at an individual meeting with the president know chiefly the subject of that meeting; even key staff advisers have compartmentalized responsibilities. However, the tapes or transcripts of successive meetings or conversations reveal the interlocked concerns of which only the president is aware. They can provide hard evidence, not just bases for inference, about presidential motivations.

Desk diaries, public and private papers, and memoirs and oral histories all show how varied and difficult a president’s responsibilities are and how little time there is for meeting those responsibilities. But only the tapes provide a clear picture of how these responsibilities constantly converge—how a president could be simultaneously, not consecutively, a commander in chief worrying about war, a policymaker conscious that his missteps in economic policy could bring on a market collapse, a chief mediator among interest groups, a chief administrator for a myriad of public programs, a spokesperson for the interests and aspirations of the nation, a head of a sprawling political party, and more.

The tapes reveal not only what the president says but what he hears as well. While people vary in their ability to learn visually versus verbally, action-focused individuals tend to take in more of what they hear than what they read, especially when they can directly question a speaker. A document read aloud or summarized to a president thus has a much better chance of registering than that same document simply being placed in his in-box. Though listening and reading can both be selective, the tapes probably show—better than any other records—the information and advice guiding presidential choices.

Perhaps most usefully, the secret tapes record, as do no other sources, the processes that produce decisions. Presidential advisers can be heard debating with one another, adapting to the perspectives of others, and changing their minds. The president’s own views are often reshaped as well, sometimes by a subtle but profound shift in the definition of an issue or the stakes involved. While participants rarely have a clear memory of such changes, the tapes record them word for word.

Casting about for analogies, we have thought often of Pompeii. As the ruins uncovered there have given students of Greco-Roman civilization knowledge not to be found anywhere else, in any form, so the presidential recordings give students of the presidency, American and world history, and decision making knowledge simply without parallel or counterpart. They are a kind of time machine, allowing us to go back and listen as history was being made. And, unlike even the finest archaeological site, what we uncover are the words and deliberations of the people themselves in not one but multiple moments of action.

Though Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman, and Dwight D. Eisenhower all made a few secret recordings, John F. Kennedy was the first president to install an elaborate taping system and to make extensive use of it. His family and aides removed the system almost immediately after his murder in 1963. Lyndon B. Johnson then installed a different system, of which he, too, made frequent use. Richard Nixon, after two years without using any recording devices, installed a voice-activated system that captured every conversation in a room containing a microphone.

The existence of Kennedy’s taping system was known at the time only to the President himself, his private secretary (Evelyn Lincoln), and the two Secret Service agents who installed and maintained it. President Kennedy’s brother Robert learned of the system at some point, and the circle probably eventually extended to include also the President’s close aide, Kenneth O’Donnell. Other senior White House officials like special counsel Theodore Sorensen or national security assistant McGeorge Bundy knew nothing about it. President Kennedy had to activate the system with a buzzer press, and he tended to use it as a kind of electronic diary to record meetings he considered important, probably with a view to memoirs that he never had the chance to write. He paid little attention to the tapes while he was President, leaving them to Mrs. Lincoln to store away for later. There is no evidence that he ever intended to make the tapes public.

During the period covered by these volumes, President Johnson only recorded telephone conversations and the occasional office conversation caught while the speakerphone was activated. He used Dictaphone equipment. Originally produced as a Gramophone, from patents by Thomas A. Edison, early Dictaphone recorders had recorded sound by stylus cutting on wax-coated cylinders. During and after World War II, the Dictaphone Corporation had developed electronic recording devices and in 1947 had begun to distribute Time-Master machines, with reusable plastic dictabelts. These went into common use for dictation to be transcribed by stenographers. President Kennedy had used such a device to supplement his secret reel-to-reel taping system. President Johnson first taped telephone calls when he was majority leader in the Senate and then as Vice President, and he began to do so in the White House as soon as he moved in. Later—though not in the period covered by these volumes—Johnson would install a system of his own for making secret recordings of meetings.

Richard Nixon created by far the largest collection of secret recordings. Between February 16, 1971, and July 12, 1973, Nixon taped over 3,700 hours of his meetings and telephone conversations. Eventually, the U.S. Secret Service installed microphones in seven locations ranging from the Oval Office and Nixon’s hideaway office in what is now the Eisenhower Executive Office Building to Camp David. An avid reader of history, Nixon had kept a recorded diary when he was Vice President. As President, he intended to make use of meeting and telephone tapes to write his memoirs.

On the premise that these and the other secretly made presidential recordings will remain important historical sources for centuries to come, the University of Virginia’s Miller Center of Public Affairs is producing transcripts and annotations for all accessible recordings of all six presidencies. This work is organized in the Center’s Presidential Recordings Program (PRP), directed by Timothy Naftali. The recordings are arranged in reference volumes organized chronologically for each presidency. In 2001 the first three volumes in the John F. Kennedy series appeared, covering all taped meetings and conversations between July 30, 1962, and October 28, 1962. The PRP also produces policy or thematic volumes in which scholars present a selection of transcripts to tell a particular story. Two of these books have appeared so far: The Kennedy Tapes: Inside the White House During the Cuban Missile Crisis (the Concise Edition) by Ernest May and Philip Zelikow (2002) and Kennedy, Johnson, and the Quest for Justice: The Civil Rights Tapes by Jonathan Rosenberg and Zachary Karabell (2003).

When the PRP began its work in 1998, it adopted the methods and style developed by May and Zelikow to produce the original edition of The Kennedy Tapes. May and Zelikow had initially used court reporters and then settled on producing the transcripts themselves by listening to analog or cassette recordings without any amplification. Naftali worked with George Eliades, then a scholar at the Center, to find better hardware and to develop a rigorous team method to produce transcripts. In consultation with our editorial advisory board and our scholars, we subsequently developed a number of methodological guidelines for the preparation of the presidential recordings volumes:

First, the work is done by trained professional historians who are specialists on the period covered by the tapes and on some of the central themes of the meetings and conversations. For those unfamiliar with the history and personalities of the period, transcribing presidential tapes can be a bit like trying to assemble a jigsaw puzzle without being able to see the picture on the puzzle box. Each volume has one or two lead editors, who write the daily introductions, conversation introductions, policy descriptions, and footnotes and are responsible for the final versions of the transcripts. The volume editors are listed on the cover. Assisting these editors are associate editors who also draft and critique transcripts and help with the research. The complete list of editors for each reference volume appears on the title page. These historians not only delve into documentary sources but sometimes interview living participants who can help us comprehend the taped discussions. Our voice identifications are based on samples we have compiled and on our research. We list only the names of the participants we can identify.

Second, the transcription process is built on the foundation of a team method. No one historian is an expert on all the issues that turn up on the tapes. By having each transcript corrected, edited, and annotated by several scholars, it maximizes the pool of expertise while at the same time minimizing some of the physical and psychological factors that complicate any transcribing effort (e.g., different people often hear slightly different things). By the time a transcript has passed through the process, it has been subjected to possibly hundreds of hours of listening and research by several different scholars.

The process is adaptable according to the degree of difficulty of the original recording, but every transcript has benefited from at least four listeners. The first stage is to generate raw, rough transcripts from the audio recordings. The PRP draws on the talents and enthusiasm of a team of carefully trained undergraduate and graduate student interns to construct a first draft. Using these student drafts as a basis, usually one or two scholars painstakingly produce a primary draft (referred to as an A-version). Two or more scholars then carefully go over the transcript, individually or sometimes two listening at the same time. They edit, correct, annotate, and update the transcript as they go (creating B- and C-versions). The transcript is then returned to the original scholar, who has the responsibility for chasing up any remaining annotation or research issues (creating a D-version). The reference volume editors remain accountable for checking the quality and accuracy of all the work in their set of transcripts, knitting them together with the annotations. We, as the general editors, then review this work, advised regularly by members of the Program’s editorial advisory board.

Third, the Program uses the best technology that the project can afford. As of 2005, the Program uses high-quality digital clones of the DATs or CDs made available by the National Archives and Records Administration. Using computer software and studio-quality headphones and amplification equipment, transcribers are able to examine each audio recording in minute detail and enhance the audio signal when necessary. The PRP made great strides in 2001 after the adoption of the Cool Edit software, which had been introduced by David Coleman, a scholar at the Center.

Fourth, we strive to make the transcripts accessible to and readable by anyone interested in history, including students. This requires a considerable amount of subjective editorial work. Since people often do not speak in complete and grammatically correct sentences, the transcriber has to infer and create sentence structure, paragraphs, commas, semicolons, and the like. We often omit verbal debris such as the uhs that dot almost anyone’s speech. Listeners unconsciously filter out such debris in interpreting what someone is saying. Judgments must be made. Someone says, for example, “sixteen . . . uh, sixty. . . .” The transcriber has to decide whether this slip conveys any information about what the speaker was trying to say. But the judgment calls are usually no more difficult than those involved in deciding whether to insert punctuation or paragraphing. In the effort to be exhaustive, sometimes there is the temptation to overtranscribe, catching every verbal fragment, however indistinct. Such attempts can add too much intrusive static, making the substance less understandable to readers now than it was to the hearers then. Obviously, what to include and omit, balancing coherence and comprehension against the completeness of the record, also requires subjective judgment. The object is to give the reader or user the truest possible sense of the actual dialogue as the participants themselves understood it.

The tape quality varies and the scholars are occasionally unable to make out a word or a passage. In those instances, the editors have placed “[unclear]” in the text. The transcribers and editors aim for completeness. Rather than guess at an indistinct passage, however, it is their preference to indicate to the reader this lack of certainty. Over time, others using the transcripts and listening to the tapes or with access to better technology may be able to fill in passages marked as “unclear.” Although the Miller Center volumes are intended to be permanent, authoritative reference works, the transcripts will always be subject to some amendment. Like editors of the great series of papers of the Founding Fathers, editors of these volumes will issue periodic updates.

Fifth, the scholars seek to embed the transcripts in the political, international, cultural, and social context of the period. Each reference volume includes explanations and annotations intended to enable readers or users to understand the background and circumstances of a particular conversation or meeting. With rare exceptions, we do not add information that participants would not have known. Nor do we comment on the significance of items of information, except as it might have been recognized by the participants. As with all historical sources, interpretations will have to accumulate over future decades and centuries.