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All the Presidents’ Tapes

Lingua Franca, February 2000

Howard Stern plays them. C-SPAN’s Radio 90 features them regularly on Saturday afternoons. The secret White House recordings of six consecutive U.S. presidents are finally finding an enthusiastic public, 26 years after outraged Americans forced Richard Nixon to pull the plug on his Sony TC-800B reel-to-reel recorders.

But while Stern broadcasts the voice of President Johnson demanding trousers with more crotch room, a far more serious project is taking shape at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center, a research institute devoted to presidential policymaking. In collaboration with W.W. Norton & Co., the Miller Center’s Presidential Recordings Project intends to transcribe, edit, interpret, and publish all the White House tapes secretly recorded during the Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon administrations.

FDR installed the first crude recording device in the Oval Office in the summer of 1940. By the time of the Watergate burglary, a vast network of secret microphones and voice-activated tape recorders was hidden throughout the White House and Camp David. Almost sixty years and five thousand recording hours later, Americans still don’t know what’s on the tapes. Less than 1 percent of them have ever been transcribed and published, and only about a quarter have even been declassified. But over the next decade, the Miller Center will release more than forty volumes and at least three CD-ROMs—the complete, annotated recordings of every president except Nixon. (Three quarters of the five thousand hours were taped by Nixon alone, and the Miller Center has yet to decide how to handle them.)

Are the tapes the “Dead Sea Scrolls of American political history,” as Timothy Naftali, who heads the publication project, told the New York Times in 1998? Or are they, as some critics charge, a gimmick intended to revive the declining fortunes of a more traditional strain of political history? As the Miller Center prepares to release its first volume, the debate among historians is beginning.

As a former trial lawyer , Philip Zelikow, director of the Miller Center, is a dazzlingly effective advocate for the tapes. While teaching politics at Harvard’s Kennedy School during the 1990s, Zelikow began revising Graham Allison’s classic political science text, Essence of Decision (1971), a case-study of crisis management in the Kennedy White House. His research led him directly to the tapes. “Although additional tapes were being released, there was effectively no effort going on in the historical community to figure out what they contained,” he explains. “I thought that was remarkable.”

So remarkable, in fact, that he temporarily set aside his work on Essence of Decision to publish The Kennedy Tapes (1997), a collaboration with Harvard history professor Ernest May. The volume of presidential recordings made during the Cuban Missile Crisis provides a terrifyingly intimate glimpse into decision-making during what may have been America’s—if not the world’s—most perilous days. It won critical praise for the editors, and fresh respect for a president who had successfully resisted the bellicose counsel of his closest advisors, his Joint Chiefs of Staff, and even his brother Bobby.

The experience convinced Zelikow that scholars needed the tapes accurately and comprehensively transcribed. His timing couldn’t have been better: During the 1990s, the National Archives had sped up its declassification process. And two years ago, the University of Virginia offered a Zelikow a professorship and the chance to direct the Miller Center—an ideal institutional home for the project.

Zelikow asked Naftali, then teaching at Yale, to spearhead the transcription effort. Naftali had listened to the tapes when co-authoring One Hell of a Gamble (1997), a history of the Cuban Missile Crisis based on newly-opened Russian archives, and was eager to don headphones once more for a new study of the JFK presidency. Naftali will edit two JFK volumes to be released this year (eleven are planned altogether); he believes the Kennedy tapes reveal a president so “extraordinarily well-briefed on covert activities” that he was almost certainly aware of the CIA’s efforts to assassinate Cuban leader Fidel Castro.

The tapes are also casting new light on Johnson. After reading transcripts, former South Dakota senator George McGovern publicly revised his opinion of LBJ in a New York Times Op-Ed last December. McGovern wrote that he’d been wrong to assume that Johnson “was fully convinced of the soundness of his [Vietnam] policy and not eager to consider other alternatives.” John Kenneth Galbraith recently announced a similar change of heart. Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Taylor Branch adds: “The tapes are utterly convincing that Johnson didn’t want the war, that he felt that it was a losing cause, and not even necessarily a worthwhile cause, but that he had to do it anyway.”

But Naftali and Zelikow hope the tapes will do more than rewrite a few textbooks. Though Nixon’s recorded banter has done little to raise anyone’s opinion of American democracy, Zelikow views the project as a sort of civics lesson for the American public. Instead of reclining in our La-Z-Boys before another episode of The West Wing, we should be plugging in recordings of Johnson or Kennedy. The tapes “replace the caricatures that we carry in our heads about government decision-making with a visceral sense of what it’s really like,” Zelikow says with some passion. “That’s never been possible before.”

Some critics, however, believe the Miller Center’s true agenda is not quite so disinterested. Naftali ruffled a few feathers in 1998 when he told The New York Times that the Miller Center offered “an intellectual safe haven” for political historians. Since the 1960s, history departments have increasingly abandoned grand, Olympian narratives of the political elite for the bottom-up perspectives offered by social and cultural history. The displacement has left a simmering resentment among traditionalists, including Naftali, who complains that academic fashion is behind the trend. “The Vietnam generation, which now controls hiring [at universities], is uncomfortable with power and those who study it.”

Nelson Lichtenstein, a U.S. labor historian at the University of Virginia, takes exception to Naftali’s comments. “By defining political history so narrowly,” he explains, “people like Naftali seek to ignore or marginalize modes of historical analysis that have greatly enriched our understanding of politics.” Lichtenstein, the author most recently of a book about the labor leader Walter Reuther, warns that “a relentless focus on the elite decision-making process tends to fetishize and decontextualize it, stripping away its relationship to larger cultural, ideological, and social currents.”

Zelikow seems bewildered by such concerns. “Social and cultural historians will love this material,” he predicts, with unconcealed amusement. “They will mine it for all the evidence of the hidden tropes and unconscious conventions of the ruling elite.” Naftali concedes that the tapes are not the only source a historian should consult, “but they’re essential, and they help to bridge the chasm between what happens and how it is reflected in the documentary record.”

Indeed, those involved with the project seem sensitive to the interpretive dangers presented by the tapes. Boston University historian Robert Dallek, who recently finished a two-volume biography of President Johnson, points out that the tapes might give you an accurate account of what was actually said at a meeting, but “they leave out what people understand to have been said”—a far more important consideration in explaining behavior and motivation.

Even Zelikow, while comparing the tapes to “time machines,” allows that “we don’t control the dial, the president does.” Johnson and Kennedy were able to tape selectively, and they may have selected when to tape with posterity in mind. (Nixon, on the other hand, lost control of the dial by using a voice-activated recording system—and lived to regret it.)

But the biggest problem with the tapes might be just getting the words down right. A typical error can be found in Michael Beschloss’s Taking Charge (1997), a non–Miller Center volume of excerpts from the first batch of declassified Johnson tapes. Beschloss claims that in its investigation of Kennedy’s assassination, the Warren Commission arrived at its controversial “single-bullet theory” only after one of the commission’s skeptics had been threatened. “I tried my best to get in a dissent,” complains Senator Richard Russell in Beschloss’s transcription, “but they’d come ’round and trade me out of it by giving me a little old threat.” But Max Holland, a Miller Center researcher completing a book on the Warren Commission, claims that what Beschloss heard as “threat” was actually “thread of it.” Instead of threatening Russell, the commission had accommodated him by agreeing to a strand of his argument.

Sometime well into the new millennium, when all the tapes have finally been declassified and published, we’ll have a better estimate of their value. In the meantime, many historians are reflecting on what we lost when the presidential tape recorders were turned off for the last time in July 1973. Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Taylor Branch laments that “future history will be much the poorer” because of the end of presidential taping.

Surprisingly, Zelikow, for all his enthusiasm over the tapes, doesn’t seem to share Branch’s gloomy view. It’s true, he concedes, that for historians of presidents later than Nixon, “the wish for [an audio] time machine is going to remain in the realm of fantasy.” But with years of work ahead of him, and thousands of hours of presidential recordings yet to transcribe, Zelikow sounds positively relieved to know that no new tapes will be arriving on his doorstep.