LBJ's personality 'leaps out' on transcripts of tapes to be released this week

September 19, 1993|By David Hanners | David Hanners,Dallas Morning News

DALLAS -- The public will get its first taste of Lyndon B. Johnson's often-fiery telephone conversations in the days after the Kennedy assassination when the long-secret tapes are released this week.

The Lyndon B. Johnson Library said Friday that transcripts of about 275 phone calls from November and December 1963 would be made available Wednesday, both in Austin and at the National Archives in Washington.

Lewis Gould, a University of Texas history professor who helped review the tapes, said Friday that, although they contain a few historical tidbits, "Johnson's personality is going to impress people, more than any clues to the Kennedy assassination."

Johnson's strong personality "leaps out" on some tapes, Mr. Gould said.

Some of the tapes offer behind-the-scenes glimpses of how Johnson rounded up the seven men who served on the Warren Commission, the panel he established a week after President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas.

Mr. Gould said that on one tape, Johnson cajoles a reluctant Sen. Richard B. Russell, a Georgia Democrat, to serve on the commission headed by Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren.

"He [Johnson] just keeps after Russell, and he says, 'I don't want to serve' and Johnson -- I'm paraphrasing now -- says, 'Dick, I've just called a press conference and announced you're GOING to serve,' " Mr. Gould said.

"Russell just did not like Earl Warren," he continued. "He says, 'I don't like that man, I don't want to serve with him.' Johnson says, 'You're the man I've got to have on that commission.' He's a very persuasive man."

The tapes feature Johnson tending to other matters of government in the infant days of his inherited presidency, said Mr. Gould and Charles Corkran, the library's assistant director.

Discussions range from the mundane -- asking former President Harry S. Truman to attend a state funeral in Greece -- to the more pressing matters of the Vietnam War, an issue that would soon divide a nation and one day topple Johnson's presidency.

Seven large Federal Records Center boxes of the recordings, many of them made on Dictabelt dictation tapes, were turned over to the library after Johnson's death in 1973 by Mildred Stegall, who had been the president's assistant.

Ms. Stegall, who lives in Austin, said Friday that it has been years since she listened to the tapes, which cover the entire Johnson presidency.

"Mostly, as I recall, most of it [the tapes] is on Vietnam," she said, but she could not remember the details.

The tapes were originally supposed to remain secret for 50 years

after Johnson's death, until 2023. But last year, in the wake of Oliver Stone's film "JFK," Congress ordered the release of government files related to the assassination.

Harry Middleton, director of the LBJ Library, said in a statement that the release of some tapes was moved up as a result of the legislation.

They will be released as transcripts, not as the actual tapes.

"Historians will be very interested in [the transcripts]," Mr. Corkran said. "[They give] a feel of how Johnson talked and how he dealt with people he was talking with. It's better than a cold memo."

Mr. Gould, who teaches a course on Johnson at the University of Texas, said historians such as himself (he has written a book on the environmental contributions of Johnson's widow, Lady Bird Johnson) will find the transcripts invaluable because Johnson rarely expressed himself on paper.

"Johnson rarely committed himself to paper," Mr. Gould said. "It's hard to locate Johnson. Sometimes he'd scribble things in the margin of papers . . . but the man himself is elusive. He isn't elusive on the tapes. You HEAR him. When he wants something done, he can't be stopped. When he wants you to do something, you do it."

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