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The Johnson White House Tapes, 1963-1964,
edited with commentary by Michael Beschloss
(Click for Amazon book review)
OnTheIssues.org BOOK REVIEW:
This is not the most important book written about LBJ: the book's real importance is its very existence. The book consists of transcripts from secret audiotapes that LBJ made while in the White House. The taping system was secret at the time; its existence was revealed a decade later, during Watergate. LBJ, anticipating that someday his tapes would be discovered (LBJ died just prior to Watergate), ordered them "sealed until 2023" (p. 550). They were released in 1992 "in the wake the furor generated by Oliver Stone's film JFK" (p. 551). This book, published in 1997, was the first large-scale transcript of the Johnson tapes. (There's a second volume, Reaching for Glory, published in 2002 and covering LBJ's second term; OnTheIssues will excerpt that eventually!)
LBJ fell into a brief window of opportunity for taping -- after audiotape became common in the late 1950s and before the practice became unthinkable after Watergate in 1973. JFK also did some taping, and installed the system that LBJ used, but LBJ was much more consistent about it:
And LBJ certainly was gifted at moving fast with legislation. Prior to becoming Vice President in 1961, LBJ was the Senate Majority Leader, well-known for pushing legislation through Congress. In time for the 1964 election, he pushed through Congress two historic pieces of legislation: the Civil Rights Act and the "War on Poverty" bill. LBJ's maneuvering on those two major issues make up the majority of his conversations in this book, along with the usual scandals, plus an inordinate number of visits with Kennedy family members. Let's look at each of those four topics....
The Civil Rights Act ensured that LBJ would be re-elected because of overwhelming support from black voters (which had held true in every presidential election ever since 1964). LBJ had, in 1957 in the Senate, pushed through an earlier and much weaker Civil Rights Act, which established voting rights for minorities but not much else. Voting rights and civil rights for African-Americans became one of the focal points of all of politics in the 1960s, and LBJ deserves credit for taking things one step at a time, and for pushing those who opposed it (most of whom were in the Democratic Party in those years!), and especially for taking the political heat for it.
The "War on Poverty" bill established the framework for the "Great Society" of LBJ's second term. He coined both of those terms in speeches during the one-year period covered by this book. Similar to minorities supporting Democrats based on civil rights legislation, the poor and working class overwhelmingly supported LBJ in 1964 and have done so in every presidential election since (not quite as overwhelmingly as minorities, but the results of LBJ's actions echoed in 2012 when Mitt Romney declared that the Democrats had a lock on the 47% of the electorate who received any of the handouts initiated by the Great Society).
This book reveals and details numerous minor scandals, most of which have been long forgotten. The one exception is the "scandal" (more accurately, the conspiracy theory) that LBJ participated, or tacitly allowed, JFK's assassination as a political coup -- that was the concept behind the 1992 Oliver Stone film that led to the early release of these tapes. Reading LBJ's actual conversations demonstrates how ridiculous that theory is -- he was as shocked by the assassination, and as clueless about its origins, as anyone -- chapter 1, encompassing 63 pages of transcripts from late November 1963, is heavily dedicated to this topic. The rest of the book is peppered with visits from Rose Kennedy, Joe Kennedy, Ted Kennedy, Sargent Shriver (a Kennedy in-law), and RFK -- all of whom LBJ maintained relationships with -- evidently mostly to cater to the American electorate's opinion that everyone should be nice to the assassinated president's family.
LBJ was not so nice to RFK -- Bobby Kennedy became, by default, LBJ's Attorney General, but LBJ didn't like him in his Cabinet one bit. LBJ considered RFK a rival for the presidency, especially when RFK started seeking the Vice Presidential nomination early in 1964. LBJ's big push for liberal legislation was, in part, to ensure that he did not need RFK as V.P. in order to win in 1964. RFK eventually gave up on the Vice Presidency and ran for Senator from New York -- which race he won, and from which he launched his 1968 presidential campaign. Alas, many of the key conversations between RFK and LBJ were not recorded -- such as July 29, 1964 when LBJ told RFK that he would definitively not be considered for Vice President -- presumably because RFK knew from JFK about the secret recording system.
One topic which does not get a lot of attention in this book is Vietnam -- the issue that dominated LBJ's second term and caused him to withdraw from the 1968 election. LBJ certainly worried about Vietnam a lot -- both before and after the Gulf of Tonkin incident in August 1964. That incident, and the resulting Gulf of Tonkin Resolution authorizing military force in Vietnam, laid the groundwork for the huge escalation of the Vietnam War in LBJ's second term. But it was simply not a big issue in the 1964 election -- nowhere close to the dominant issue it later became. RFK did volunteer to serve as Ambassador to Vietnam in 1964 -- presumably to try to avoid an American war there because RFK saw it was a growing issue -- but LBJ didn't accept the offer. See our other LBJ books, linked below, for much more detail about LBJ and Vietnam.
In summary, this book is an enlightening look at a hidden piece of history. Pundits have mostly read this book for evidence of LBJ's aggressive personal habits, such as "the Johnson Treatment" of persuading legislators to vote his way. Indeed, this book provides some earthy language and earthy details of an earthy politician -- but it provides real substance too. The author annotates most of the conversations, providing context and explaining what obscure references meant -- which makes the book accessible even to readers 50 years later. If you are the sort of reader interested in the details of the political process, this is the book to read -- it's the real thing, unlike those dozens of "Inside Baseball" books written by tell-all pundits who wish they were flies on the wall in the Oval Office. This book is written by a fly on the wall in the Oval Office -- a fly with an audio tape recorder -- and provides a unique glimpse into the inner workings of the presidency.
-- Jesse Gordon, editor-in-chief, OnTheIssues.org, June 2013
The Johnson White House Tapes, 1963-1964,
edited with commentary by Michael Beschloss.
Page last edited: Feb 24, 2019