Lyndon Johnson's taped conversations reveal a leader of immense and tragic intricacy

October 19, 1997|By MICHAEL PAKENHAM

As a young reporter in the middle 1960s, I saw a lot of Lyndon Johnson and worked hard at trying to like him. I failed, though I came to respect him profoundly. The fact that the Vietnam war then grew to dominate his consciousness, to define his administration, and to consume the U.S. government and people is one of the premier tragedies of American history.

Had it not been for Vietnam, Johnson might have been one of the toweringly great presidents.

He was the only president in the 20th century to have endured true poverty - gut hunger - as a child. He had been bullied and ridiculed, yet he fought his way up. He was devious and elaborately unattractive. But at his core was a concern for the weak and the downtrodden that was as deep and fierce as that of the most compellingly compassionate public figures. The first truly Southern president since the Civil War, he was the first to declare - to a joint session of the Congress - that "We Shall Overcome." And he meant it.

Now comes a book of powerful revelation, "Taking Charge: The Johnson White House Tapes, 1963-1964," edited and with commentary by Michael R. Beschloss (Simon & Schuster. 591 pages. $30).

From 1963 through 1969, Johnson recorded 9,500 conversations, totalling 643 hours; 240 of those hours constitute the content of this book. Beschloss has painstakingly transcribed them all, adding rich context in commentary and footnotes.

96 percent there

Years after the recordings were made, LBJ ordered that they be sealed until 2023. Now, a combination of decisions by the Johnson family and archivists and the expectation of legal action have led to their opening. Only about 4 percent of the total taped material is being held back for national security reasons or to avoid severely embarrassing people still living.

The book presents details that news stories and magazine excerpts obligatorily underscore. But such specifics are not the power of the book. My careful reading yielded nothing of significant new substance.

Oh, sure, Johnson expressed grave misgivings about many things that he outwardly supported. He painfully distrusted the entire process of investigating the Kennedy assassination. At various points, he speculated on possible roles in that assassination by Fidel Castro, the Soviets and others. He was suspicious of the conclusions of the Warren Commission. From the outset, he had deep doubts about the purpose and prudence of the Vietnam war.

So, Lyndon Johnson was not a simpleton. Superficially apparent conflicts reaffirm that he was complex and manipulative, which meant that often he presented one "truth" to one policy player and an opposing or contrasting "truth" to another. The rich revelation of the book lies in its presentation of the immense intricacy of Johnson's intellect and his handling of relationships with ally and enemy, adversary and sychophant.

The transcripts have, for me, an eerie sense of immediacy. During the period they cover, I was a very green Washington correspondent for the Chicago Tribune, and had the White House beat on weekends - when Johnson held many of his press conferences and long, rambling off-the-record walks.

I worked for the sole major newspaper that Johnson knew would not support him in the 1964 election. And though, as a reporter, I had nothing to do with editorials, Johnson, ever the politician, wooed me unmercifully. As I read the transcripts, many of the voices, especially Johnson's, came vibrantly alive.

Beschoss' precision, patience and professionalism are impressive. I cannot remember another book in which I have found myself unable to skip a footnote - an awkward business, at best, but in this case an inescapable enrichment, splendidly handled.

The book begins with a marvelously brisk prologue, setting the scene by laying out as context Johnson' trip from Dallas to Washington immediately after the JFK assassination. Beschoss's recreation provides a crisp contrast of the accounts offered by William Manchester (in "The Death of a President") and by Johnson himself.

Tape as history

The first telephone conversations, on Air Force One, were tape-recorded as a routine of military communications. But the bulk of the tapes were done on Johnson's specific order that a record of his presidency be made, literally from day one.

LBJ was not unique. The first President to make secret White House recordings was Franklin Roosevelt. Truman and Eisenhower did not. John Kennedy recorded extensively, and very cleverly, leaving a sanitized and thus largely very flattering record. Johnson went at it whole-hog, as did, of course, Richard Nixon.

It is that innocence of censorship that reveals so much.

In his "Editor's Note," Beschloss writes that "LBJ had a nineteenth-century notion of how a President should look and sound. His speeches, press conferences, television interviews, and memoirs were almost designed to conceal the earthy, vulnerable, suspicious, affectionate, devious, explosive, funny, domineering, sometimes threatening private man who strides across the pages of this book."

Such recordings can be - and often are - as manipulative as speeches, memoirs or diaries. If only one participant knows the recording is being done - which is almost always the case - that participant controls the overall effect. But putting the many voices of a historically complex man together offers new windows to revelation.

Through the prisms of this book, Lyndon Johnson emerges as elaborate and acutely aware, as driven and vulnerable, as toweringly arrogant and almost quiveringly insecure. As a tragic monument. And, alas, not a bit more likable.

Pub Date: 10/19/97

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