The Presidential Recordings: Lyndon B. Johnson. The Kennedy Assassination and the Transfer of Power, November 1963-January 1964

Edited by Max Holland,
Robert David Johnson,
David Shreve and Kent B. Germany.
General editors: Philip Zelikow, Ernest May and Timothy Naftali.
Three volumes. 2,505 pp.
W. W. Norton & Company. $175.

New York Times Book Review, May 8, 2005.

FEW presidents have had a greater impact on American life than Lyndon B.
Johnson. Assuming office in the tragic circumstances of the Kennedy
assassination, Johnson presided over the legislative fulfillment of the civil
rights revolution, a change in immigration policy that dramatically altered the
population's racial and ethnic makeup, and the creation of programs like
Medicare and Medicaid that permanently reshaped Americans' relationship to the
federal government. He also plunged the United States into the ground war in
Vietnam, sparking a generational rebellion that tore the society apart.

Today, another Texan occupies the White House, some of whose actions Johnson
might find familiar. Like him, George W. Bush has dispatched tens of thousands
of American troops to war in the hope of remaking a faraway country. But in many
ways, the modern political world would be unrecognizable to Johnson. Then, as
now, powerful Southerners controlled the key committees of Congress. But in the
1960's, the South was still solidly Democratic and liberalism was at high tide.
Both presidents had close ties to Texas oil companies. But Johnson resisted
their incessant demands for government largess.

Lyndon Johnson has always defied simple characterization. He grew up in one
of the poorest parts of the United States, the central Texas hill country, and
entered politics as the Texas director of the National Youth Administration, one
of the agencies created by Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1930's. He always
retained the New Deal conviction that the government had an obligation to assist
less fortunate members of society.

But Johnson acquired a fortune and rose to political prominence by
establishing close ties with Texas business interests and cultivating powerful
conservatives like the Georgia senator Richard Russell, the leader of the
Southern bloc in Congress, who helped Johnson become Senate majority leader in
1955. A man of enormous energy (one of his biographers, Robert Dallek, calls him
a ''human dynamo''), Johnson struck many contemporaries as aggressive, vain and
power-hungry. Yet he was beset by deep insecurities and as vice president felt
thoroughly humiliated by John F. Kennedy, who marginalized him to the point of

Those fascinated by Johnson's career, as well as by how American politics
has and has not changed in the past half-century, will welcome ''The
Presidential Recordings,'' a colossal project begun by the Miller Center of
Public Affairs at the University of Virginia to publish transcripts of all
accessible recordings of the conversations of American presidents -- from
Franklin D. Roosevelt to Richard Nixon. The fact that presidents tape-recorded
many of their discussions came to light in 1973, when Alexander Butterfield
mentioned it during the Watergate hearings, setting in motion a chain of events
that sealed Nixon's doom.

Johnson's recordings, although dwarfed by Nixon's, include about 9,500
conversations, nearly all of them on the telephone. These three volumes,
weighing in at 2,500 pages, cover the period from Nov. 22, 1963, the day Johnson
became president, to the end of January 1964. At this rate the full project will
require dozens of volumes and tens of thousands of pages. Only obsessive
eavesdroppers and historians are likely to wade through this material, or listen
to thousands of hours of recordings on accompanying DVD's. Why not just put it
all online?

During the past decade, a cottage industry has developed in books based on
taped presidential conversations. Several edited collections have appeared, and
numerous works of history have made use of the recordings. Some of these books
contained errors of transcription. In its accuracy and completeness, ''The
Presidential Recordings'' represents a major step forward. But it also reveals
the problems inherent in this genre of historical evidence. To make the
transcripts readable, the editors have inserted punctuation, turning rambling,
ungrammatical remarks into coherent, complete sentences. They make no attempt to
convey Johnson's Texas accent, which he turned on and off depending on the
listener. In print, Johnson speaks the king's English -- with one notable
exception. In a few instances, the transcripts have the president saying '
'Nigra.'' (Michael Beschloss, in an earlier edited volume of Johnson tapes,
chose, inaccurately, to use the less offensive ''Negro'' in these cases.)

Over all, these volumes offer a tantalizing glimpse into the inner workings
of the presidency and Johnson's style of governing. They provide strong evidence
of the range of issues that come before a president. Like George W. Bush,
Johnson had to act simultaneously as commander in chief in a time of war,
domestic policy maker and leader of a political party in a time of stark
division. The subjects of the 25 recorded calls on Jan. 25, 1964, for example,
include patronage appointments, welfare programs, tax cuts, civil rights, the
1964 election, the building of compact cars in the United States and crises in
Panama and Cyprus.

In some ways, Johnson's preoccupations as revealed on these tapes seem
remarkably up-to-date. Johnson, like his successors, was obsessed with stopping
leaks to the press. The State Department ''leaks everything they got,'' Johnson
complained to his assistant Ralph Dungan. ''I've got about as much confidence in
them as I have in a Soviet spy.'' Johnson, like Bush, devoted much effort to
shaping the news and cultivating journalists (although Johnson actually read
several newspapers every morning). He made numerous phone calls to reporters and
editors, basking in their praise and dishing out flattery (''You got the best
magazine in the business,'' he told David Lawrence of U.S. News & World Report).
Then, as now, the news media allowed themselves to be cultivated. Johnson
succeeded in getting journalists to tone down critical editorials and reporting.
He even agreed to have the Justice Department grant antitrust clearance for a
Houston bank merger after John Jones, a newspaper publisher and chairman of one
of the banks, pledged in writing to support his election.

When Johnson entered the White House, Kennedy's legislative initiatives,
including his tax cut and civil rights bills, were stalled, blocked by a
coalition of Republicans and Southern Democrats. Johnson took as his first task
getting these measures enacted. But fearful of being compared unfavorably with
his martyred predecessor, he determined to place his own stamp on the
presidency: ''I don't want . . . every time they want to see what Johnson's
program is, to go look and see what Kennedy said.''

Bush has emulated Johnson in making the White House the primary center of
power in Washington and imposing his will on Congress. These volumes reveal how
Johnson prevailed in battles with Congress over foreign aid and tax cuts during
his first weeks in office. They offer vivid examples of the famed ''Johnson
treatment'' -- how he cajoled, flattered, threatened and maneuvered to bend
others to his will. He knew how to appeal to principle, politics and
self-interest. He counted noses and knew the details of legislation. He also
told people on different parts of the political spectrum what they wanted to

Johnson worked behind the scenes with Harry Byrd of Virginia, chairman of
the Senate Finance Committee, to get the tax bill to the Senate floor. Byrd
agreed to dislodge it from his committee if Johnson kept his 1965 budget under
$100 billion. A frenzied search for programs to cut ensued, even as Johnson
allocated new funds to begin the war on poverty.

JOHNSON rallied business support by emphasizing his spending cuts and
insisting that antipoverty spending would not encourage long-term dependency. To
Walker Stone, a prominent conservative editor, he observed: ''I'm going to try
to teach these Nigras that don't know anything how to work for themselves,
instead of just breeding. I'm going to try to teach these Mexicans [that] can't
talk English to learn it, so they can work for themselves.''

At the same time, Johnson assured liberals that he was on their side. ''Don
't you get alarmed about all this crap about economy,'' he told the labor leader
Walter Reuther. ''What I'm doing is taking from the haves and giving to
have-nots.'' All this has reinforced Johnson's reputation as a slick maneuverer
who lacked fixed principles.

One example of genuine idealism that does come through in these volumes is
Johnson's commitment to civil rights. When he took office, nobody expected that
he would identify himself with the black movement more passionately than any
previous president. But from his first days in office he urged black leaders,
labor officials and businessmen to lobby Congress for passage of the stalled
civil rights bill. He asked Robert Anderson, a member of Eisenhower's cabinet,
to work on Republicans: ''You're either the party of Lincoln or you ain't. . . .
By God, put up or shut up!''

Determined to receive credit for his efforts from black voters, Johnson
became furious when Jet magazine criticized him for not allowing himself to be
photographed with black leaders. On Dec. 23, 1963, Johnson called Roy Wilkins of
the N.A.A.C.P. at 10:30 p.m., insisting, ''I had my picture made with every damn
one of them.'' And he added, ''If you've ever had a friend in this place, you've
got him now.'' Five minutes later, he urged Whitney Young, head of the Urban
League, to pressure Jet's publisher to change the magazine's tone, which Young
proceeded to do. At 11 p.m. the president met with Gerri Whittington, a black
woman who worked in the White House office pool, and hired her as a personal
secretary. The next day, Whittington joined the group that traveled to Johnson's
Texas ranch for the Christmas holiday. On New Year's Eve, he brought her to a
party at the University of Texas faculty club, a rigidly segregated facility. He
made a point of entering the building arm in arm with her.

Despite the insights these volumes yield into Johnson's modus operandi, they
do not significantly alter our understanding of the man or his presidency. It is
noteworthy, indeed, how much the tapes leave out. Because Johnson and his wife
spoke in person, these recordings contain virtually nothing from Lady Bird
Johnson, whose role in presidential decision making has been re-examined and
emphasized by recent scholarship.

The tapes display Johnson's colorful language -- he refers to Congressman
Otto Passman, who was blocking foreign aid legislation, as a ''cave man,'' a '
'goddamned Cajun from the hills of Louisiana.'' But perhaps because Johnson knew
he was being recorded, his legendary earthiness is missing. About the most
off-color taped comment came in a call to the Arkansas senator John McClellan
about plans to appoint the black journalist Carl Rowan to head the United States
Information Agency. ''I'd expect you [to oppose him],'' Johnson remarked. ''I
didn't want you to . . . send him home one day without his peter.''

''These audiotapes,'' Philip Zelikow, the former director of the Miller
Center, has declared, ''will do for the study of government what the discovery
of Pompeii did for the study of Rome.'' In fact, the conversations constitute
only one piece of a vast historical record, and they reveal less about policy
formation than traditional sources like staff memorandums, records of meetings,
letters and memoirs. Most striking, these volumes include almost no mention of
the conflict that defines Johnson in historical memory -- Vietnam -- even though
he held his first high-level meeting on the subject two days after the
assassination. In December 1963, Senator Mike Mansfield wrote a memo advocating
a political solution based on neutrality for Southeast Asia. By January,
holdovers from the Kennedy administration like the cabinet members Robert
McNamara and Dean Rusk were advocating a sharp escalation of the American
presence. None of this is reflected in Johnson's phone conversations.

Like the current president, Johnson came to the White House with little
experience in foreign relations, and listened primarily to those who already
agreed with him. He relied heavily on the advice of his mentor Richard Russell,
a staunch anti-Communist who saw every local situation as a cold war issue.
Johnson, moreover, feared that withdrawal from Vietnam would hand his political
opponents a potent weapon. ''Do you want that to be another China?'' he asked
one caller, alluding to how Republicans had used the ''loss of China'' in the
1952 presidential campaign against the Democrats.

In the end, Johnson tried to run the country the way he had controlled the
Senate -- by building coalitions and dealing favors to individuals. But as
president he faced an America beset by deep social fissures and irreconcilable
policy differences. By 1968, all his political skills, cajolery and cozying up
to the press could not save his career. Perhaps the greatest limitation of the
presidential tapes is that they give so myopic a picture of politics and
government. Almost by definition the participants in these conversations are
government officials, business figures, labor leaders and heads of organizations
-- what C. Wright Mills famously called America's ''power elite.'' Grass-roots
civil rights activists, antipoverty crusaders and critics of America's role in
Vietnam go unrepresented. The problem, of course, lies not with the transcripts
themselves but with the insular world presidents inhabit. In fact, these
conversations may be the least revealing way of understanding the currents that
tore apart American politics and society and with them the presidency of Lyndon