Echoes of the past: Insights from the secret White House tapes
Watch the UVA Democracy Biennial
The Biennial was originally broadcast September 24-25, 2021
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May 22, 2019
Ken Hughes, Kent Germany, Guian McKee, Marc Selverstone, and Nicole Hemmer (moderator)
“Working on the Secret White House tapes is as exciting as it sounds,” said Nicole Hemmer, a Miller Center expert on history and media. “You get to be a fly on wall of the Oval Office during the 1960s and early 1970s, a time when big decisions are being made and big plots being hatched.”
The only project to tackle work across administrations, the Miller Center’s Presidential Recordings Program analyzes and transcribes the secret tapes that U.S. presidents made from 1940 to 1973, spanning from Franklin Roosevelt through Richard Nixon. These recordings reveal uncanny parallels to current events.
“This is not the first time in recent history that the president has sought to turn over the fighting in an ongoing war, partly to local allies, particularly in the midst of the unpopularity of these wars, and with a specific timetable in mind,” said Marc Selverstone, chair of the Miller Center’s Presidential Recordings Program. “That honor goes to Vietnam.”
Straight from the early 1960s barked the voice of Secretary of Defense Robert MacNamara, in conversation with President John Kennedy and others. “We need a way to get out of Vietnam,” MacNamara said. “This is a way of doing it…” With an election then looming, there was, Selverstone remarked, “an intensely political nature of the withdrawal process.”
Only a couple of years later, with Kennedy dead and Lyndon Johnson preparing for the 1964 election, the secret tapes captured what Kent Germany, a Miller Center fellow and professor at the University of South Carolina, believes is the most sincere political moment of LBJ’s life: Johnson had almost quit. He’d prepared a press statement, although he never made it public, and spoke to his oldest friends, his closest allies, his wife. Perhaps because of a rousing letter from Ladybird Johnson, LBJ changed his mind. Two days before winning the landslide election, in which 61 percent of the electorate voted for him, said Germany, an exhausted, battered Johnson defined what his Democratic party stood for:“Our party has always been a group that you could come to with any bellyache and injustice.… That’s why it was born.… As long as the poor and downtrodden and bended know they can come to us, that’s what we’re here for and that’s what we’re doing.” Germany has studied Johnson for more than 20 years, he said, “and I’ve boiled it down to this one minute.”
Another four years down the road, a very different-sounding Johnson talked election strategy with Chicago Mayor Richard Daley. The twang of the Texan president and the swaggering gravel of Daley’s voice denouncing “Commies” and “Long-Hairs” reveal a striking confidence in 1968 that they could defeat Bobby Kennedy. “I think it’ll be a landslide,” Daley growled. But as history turned again, LBJ withdrew his bid for the nomination little more than a week after that call, Germany recounted. Two minutes later, Bobby Kennedy was dead.
A recording of President Richard Nixon talking with Secretary of State Henry Kissinger underscored the shrewd manipulations repeatedly used for political gain. Again trying to withdraw from Vietnam, Nixon would use what amounted to a fraudulent ceasefire for an edge in the coming election.
Although he’d said publicly that the withdrawal strategy would bring peace to South Vietnam, Kissinger told Nixon, “I think we can settle it. Our terms will destroy them.”
“You’re convinced of that?” Nixon asked.
“Our terms will destroy them.” Kissinger repeated.
On hearing the terms, said Ken Hughes, a Nixon expert and research specialist at the Miller Center, President Thiệu of South Vietnam wept.
This resonates today, Hughes said. “Nixon and Kissinger were very clever about arranging it so that it looked like they had won, when in fact they had just done what I think Buzz Lightyear called a controlled form of falling. [That was Woody.] Trump can do that. The last time they discussed it in public, his plans were to bring the last American troops home [from Afghanistan] in late 2020… He could fool some of the people at the crucial time for him, and when it all falls apart, it will be some time after the election when it will be too late to hold him accountable.”
Perhaps eerier are the parallels between Nixon’s and Trump’s attempts to dangle pardons to their aides while under investigation. Shot through with expletives, the White House tapes deliver Nixon’s voice, declaring that “there’s going to be a total pardon.”
“They were all charged with obstruction of justice and perjury in 1974, and the grand jury that indicted them wanted to indict Nixon as well, but the special prosecutor at the time said, ‘I’m not really sure we can indict a president,’” Hughes recounted. “So they simply named him as an unindicted co-conspirator.… Until Nixon got on that helicopter to leave the White House for good, they pressed him to fulfill his promise. Nixon did not and ended up the only person who was pardoned for his crimes in Watergate. Everybody who was promised a pardon went to prison.”
Key quotes from this session
“It’s a joy, an extraordinary opportunity to spend your days with LBJ and even with Richard Nixon, but to listen to tapes, their ability to shock is wearing off a little bit. Because we’re in a different generation. Kent is teaching students on a daily basis. Whereas 10 years ago we were finding the tapes startling and revelatory, and shocking with some respect…but that whole sense of what’s public and what’s private and what’s acceptable anymore. Private lives are being played out publicly in ways that just would not have been the case before.” —Marc Selverstone
“LBJ in the oval office had three televisions, tuned to the major networks, so he could follow the news in real time, and he had the ticker with the newswires as well. You think about that: The president of the U.S. was setting this up, and he’s the first to do it. You compare that media news and information environment, the speed it represents, to the world we live in today, particularly the way social media as mobilized by trump, and increasingly other politicians as well. It’s an incredible contrast, but it’s also where the onramp is.” —Guian McKee