Why you should care
Because you rarely get to listen to history happen out loud.
Good sh*t might not be what instantly comes to mind when you hear the phrase “presidential tapes.” But then again, you don’t often come across tapes like the ones Lyndon B. Johnson made while in office. Roughly a half-century ago, long before Richard Nixon made recording yourself while in office a really terrible idea, LBJ indulged in a persistent habit. Over six years, the accidental president collected tapes of major international and domestic policy meetings — recorded on reel-to-reel — and even a few dictaphone-recorded telephone conversations.
These tapes are revelatory in part because we rarely get to hear raw power exercised so nakedly.
It’s pretty mind-blowing: You can hear every angle — sharp, unpleasant, historical and otherwise — of the former Texas teacher and high school debate coach. There are insights into Nixon and Vietnam, still being uncovered to this day. You hear the sounds of the vice president consoling a just-widowed Jackie Kennedy. There are the landmark civil rights conversations — and negotiations — between LBJ and MLK. There are the conversations where LBJ expresses personal doubt about whether he was up to being president (the job he had so long sought) — the same question many Americans were asking. And of course, there’s the corner-turning discussion between LBJ and Thurgood Marshall, in which the President offers the former NAACP chief counsel the solicitor general position and plans for his eventual ascent to the Supreme Court. And in perhaps the most gut-wrenching moment, you hear LBJ — almost 10 years before the Vietnam War ended, and with it nearly 1.5 million lives — say that the war likely could not be won.
These tapes are revelatory in part because we rarely get to hear such raw power. But they aren’t remarkable merely because of the cast of iconic figures — what makes them an experience not to be missed is that they tell one of history’s damn good stories. And while LBJ is the undisputed star, the tapes’ other storyteller-in-chief is historian Michael Beschloss, whose incisive narration sets the scene as history unfolds. In one unforgettable section, you hear LBJ turn a surprisingly cold shoulder to Bobby Kennedy, a grieving man who, as Beschloss points out, might have been thinking to challenge the VP for the 1964 presidential nomination in the name of his recently slain brother.
Johnson may at first have seemed an oddity in office, despite having run the gamut of government positions, from representative to senator to VP and eventually president. But today he is remembered as a lionhearted liberal, for his rise from New Deal devotee to education pioneer and hero of the civil rights movement. And it’s utterly fascinating to hear the moments of vulnerability and turning points as they transpired.
With Obama ushering in a season of more muscular presidential action, these tapes are a timely reminder of what actually goes on behind the scenes. So listen up as one of the original power brokers brings you into the inner circle. It’s a tour de force that is guaranteed to make you think differently about LBJ, politics and the presidency.