Taking Charge: The Johnson White House Tapes, 1963-1964

Taking Charge: The Johnson White House Tapes, 1963-1964

by Michael Beschloss (Editor)

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Overview

Lyndon Johnson's secretly recorded tapes offer us the only chance we are ever likely to have to eavesdrop on an American President from his first moments in office until the end. This universally acclaimed volume captures LBJ's private passions and bedrock beliefs as he takes command after John Kennedy's assassination; makes his first fateful decisions on civil rights, poverty, and Vietnam; and runs against Barry Goldwater for President. Michael Beschloss's observations and annotations enhance our understanding of Johnson, his era, and his lasting impact on American politics and culture.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780684804071
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication date: 10/01/1997
Pages: 589
Product dimensions: 6.43(w) x 9.60(h) x 1.33(d)

About the Author

Michael Beschloss has been called "the nation's leading Presidential historian" by Newsweek. He has written eight books on American Presidents and is NBC News Presidential Historian, as well as contributor to PBS's The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. He lives in Washington, D.C., with his wife and two sons.

Hometown:

Washington, D.C.

Date of Birth:

November 30, 1955

Place of Birth:

Chicago, Illinois

Education:

Williams College, Harvard University

Read an Excerpt

Prologue: THE FATAL TRIP TO TEXAS

Three years after John Kennedy was murdered in Dallas, Lyndon Johnson was alarmed by early reports about the soon-to-be-published book The Death of a President, by William Manchester. Inspired by Jacqueline Kennedy, who wanted a single authorized history to overshadow other books being written by authors she distrusted, Manchester's book was said to show a Johnson eager to seize power and insensitive to the dead President's family. While privately asking for advice on how to muffle the political damage of Manchester's book, LBJ offered his own memories of November 22, 1963, and its prelude.

In Manchester's narrative, the fatal trip to Texas is foreshadowed when President-elect Kennedy visits the LBJ Ranch eight days after he and Johnson win the 1960 election.

LBJ: I didn't force him to come to Texas. Hell, he wanted to come out there him-self! Called up and he came. He didn't bring Miz Kennedy, and he may have told her that he didn't want to come because he brought some other people. [chuckles darkly] But it is a hell of a note.

Manchester writes that although Kennedy believed that "all killing was senseless," Johnson cajoled him into a deer hunt at dawn, during which Kennedy "looked into the face of the life he was about to take...fired and quickly turned back to the car."

LBJ: Forcing that poor man to go hunting? Hell, he not only killed one deer. He insisted on killing a second! One took two hours and then, by God, he insisted on killing one for Torby O'Donnell and we just worked so hard. It took three hours and I finally gave up. I said, "Mr. President, we just can't do it."

Poor little deer -- he saw it in his eye and he just could not shoot it? Well, hell, he wasn't within 250 yards from it....He shot it and he jumped up and hoorahed and put it right on the fender of the car so he could kill another one....Most of them have got a rule -- they will not let you kill but one. But he was the President ...and we wanted him to have whatever he wanted....He wasn't competent to be President if he -- I think it is the greatest desecration of his memory that an "impotent" Vice President could force this strong man to do a goddamned thing.

As Manchester had it, based on his interviews with Jacqueline, Kennedy told his wife the "distressing" story in order to "rid himself of the recollection" and "heal the inner scar." Johnson had the deer's antlers and head mounted. After Kennedy became President, Johnson persistently suggested that JFK display his trophy in the Oval Office. Although "inwardly appalled," according to Manchester, the President, as a "favor" to Johnson, allowed it to be hung in the nearby Fish Room.

LBJ: My calling him up and making him put a deer head in his outer room and he didn't want to? I never called him in my life on it. He had his fish up there that he caught on his honeymoon. He put his deer head up there.

[sarcastically:] But even if we had made the tragic mistake of forcing this poor man to put up a deer head here along with his fish -- I do not know who forced him to put up the fish in the Fish Room that he caught on his honeymoon, but I damned sure didn't force him to put up anything. It is just a manufactured lie.

Manchester wrote that Kennedy came to Texas in November 1963 because Johnson had failed to resolve the "petty dispute," which threatened the 1964 Kennedy-Johnson ticket in Texas, between LBJ's old protégé, Governor John Connally, and their political enemy, the liberal Democratic Senator, Ralph Yarborough.
LBJ: My forcing him to go to Texas! I never heard of it. Matter of fact, I tried to postpone it. Told him our popularity was too low.

Kennedy insisted for two years that he come and make five money-raising speeches and he finally told him in my presence, said, "Mr. President, they are going to think that all the Kennedys want out of Texas is money...I would suggest you make one money-raising speech and whatever else you do totally nonpolitical." And he told him that in the spring -- April -- and he told him that in June, and then, because I would not encourage it, by God, he called him up and would not let me know he was calling him and he came up here and had a secret meeting with him....And he told John the reason he didn't tell me: "The Vice President is not enthusiastic."

That's a great myth, that he came here to settle things for me. He came down here because he wanted to raise a million dollars and try to improve himself. And he'd been to Massachusetts and done the same thing. I put him off several months and Connally put him off several months. Didn't want him to come. Told him it was a mistake for him to come. And he finally called Connally...secretly to the White House, and he didn't tell me a thing about it. And Connally agreed that if he'd wait two or three months, he would help him with a dinner. And he didn't want to....And I...had to call my personal friends long distance to get them to put up in order for 'em to even have a respectable crowd.

At the Rice Hotel in Houston, on Thursday evening, November 21, 1963, Johnson had his final private meeting with Kennedy. In the next room, Jacqueline was rehearsing her Spanish, preparing to speak downstairs to a Hispanic-American group. According to Manchester, the First Lady heard "raised voices" -- Kennedy complaining, "expressing himself with exceptional force," about LBJ's treatment of Yarborough in Texas -- and that when Johnson departed, the hotel manager thought that he "looked furious."

LBJ: This Manchester stuff about Kennedy and I having an argument -- I never had an argument with him in my life.

All I can remember was Miz Kennedy was practicing, talking about her Spanish and about...whether she would go or not to this Spanish thing. The President...told me that he just thought that it was an outrage, that he had heard what Yarborough had done, that he had told him that Yarborough had to ride with us or get out of the party. There was no disagreement of any kind and no violence of any kind. A very friendly thing. And he and I had a drink together, and he sat there with his shirt off and left. We had no debate or no argument or no report and I had not asked to see him anyway. If she heard anybody having a disagreement of any kind, it was the President talking about Yarborough.

The next day came the assassination. According to Manchester, after Kennedy's death was announced at Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas, Johnson's "slumped figure" was seen "sniffing from a vapor inhaler." Manchester wrote that a "dazed, silent" LBJ was "far readier to take orders than issue them." Presented a choice between flying back to Washington on Air Force One or the vice presidential backup plane, Johnson chose the President's aircraft and was taken in an unmarked car to the Dallas airport, Love Field.

LBJ: One place they say I slumped, had a vapor inhaler, and would not take any leadership, and the next day I was so arrogant I was bossing everything.

What raced through my mind was that if they had shot our President, driving down there, who would they shoot next? And what was going on in Washington? And when would the missiles be coming? I thought it was a conspiracy and I raised that question, and nearly everybody that was with me raised it.

And the thought that I should go to a plane that did not have the Bag and did not have the communication -- by God, after this terrible thing had happened -- is inconceivable to me.

At 1:33 P.M., heeding a Secret Service agent's shouted order, Johnson ran up the steps to Air Force One, where he prepared to take the oath as President.

LBJ: The reason I went to the airport and didn't take it in the hospital was, first, I wanted to be able to talk to the Attorney General and get the oath. And the second thing was McNamara had always told me that...if you got a warning [of possible nuclear war]...the thing they ought to do is get as high in the air as you can because you was least vulnerable there. Flying, a missile doesn't get you. A plane doesnt get you. You have time to think and you have adequate communications.

With the shades on the plane yanked shut, Johnson sat in the Presidential bedroom on Jacqueline Kennedy's bed and made telephone calls. One was to the late President's brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, at his home in Virginia. Johnson later insisted that RFK advised him to take the oath immediately. According to Manchester, drawing on interviews with Robert, no opinion was offered by the Attorney General, who would have sentimentally preferred that Johnson wait until he landed in Washington so that John Kennedy could return to the capital one last time as President.

LBJ: I thought the most important thing in the world was to decide who was President of this country at that moment. I was fearful that the Communists were trying to take us over...I think that Bobby agreed that it would be all right to be sworn in. He said he wanted to look into it and he would get back to me, which he did.

There's also an implication that Bobby didn't want us to take the oath, when the implication made to me was that he thought it was better to take it there, that he would have somebody call me to give me the oath, and he did.

"He sprawled out on the bunk"? I didn't sprawl. I sat and talked on the phone.

According to Manchester, when Mrs. Kennedy boarded the plane, she found Johnson reclining" on her bed and "came to a dead stop." LBJ "hastily lumbered past her," followed by his secretary, Marie Fehmer, while "the widow stared after them." Then Johnson returned to offer condolences and "called her 'Honey!'"

LBJ: "He lumbered out of the room as she came in"? Well, now, lumbering -- I don't know, I guess that's their way of saying I walked out. But he didn't see me walk out or he doesn't know whether I lumbered or trotted or walked or anything else.

You know, if I call some guy's office to get him, I say to his secretary, "Honey, have him call in." I don't think that I said that to anybody. And I don't think that I called Miz Kennedy "honey." I think that's their idea of "you-all" and "comin'" -- C-O-M-I-N -- and this stuff they write about Texas.

I think I would call people "honey" if I felt they were "honey." And I might have very well said that to Miz Kennedy, although I never felt that way about her and never believed it. I have held her kind of up on a pedestal and been very reserved with her, as her letters to me will indicate -- very proper, very appropriate, very dignified, very reserved.

On Manchester and his book:

LBJ: I took the position when Manchester was selected that he was a fraud. I refused to see him. I asked my people not to see him....Just as I asked them not to see Teddy White. I think they're agents of the people who want to destroy me. And I hate for them to use my friends to do it....My friends don't know it, and they want to be popular and they just do it. And I don't say it's so much popularity. I don't think my wife wants to be popular. But I think she wants to be -- accommodating would be a good word.

I am just going to keep my counsel and try to endure it. But it is vicious, mean, dirty, low-down stuff.

All of it makes Bobby look like a great hero and makes me look like a son of a bitch.

My feeling on the Manchester book is...that we are not equipped by experience, by tradition, by personality or financially to cope with this. I just do not believe that we know how to handle public relations and how to handle advertising agencies, how to handle manuscripts, how to handle book writers....So I think they're going to write history as they want it written, as they can buy it written. And I think the best way we can write it is to try to refrain from getting into an argument or a fight or a knockdown, and go on and do our job every day, as best we can.

Copyright © 1997 by Michael R. Beschloss

Table of Contents

Contents

Prologue: The Fatal Trip to Texas

1 November 1963

2 December 1963

3 January 1964

4 February 1964

5 March 1964

6 April 1964

7 May 1964

8 June 1964

9 July 1964

10 August 1964

Editor's Note

Cast of Characters

Appendix: The Warren Report and the Garrison Investigation

Acknowledgments

Index

Interviews

On Sunday, October 19th, barnesandnoble.com welcomed Michael Beschloss to discuss TAKING CHARGE.


Moderator: Good evening, Michael Beschloss. We're glad you could join us online to discuss TAKING CHARGE.

Michael R Beschloss: Delighted to be with you. I've been looking forward to this.


R. W. Mahar from Canada: Did LBJ see himself as a tragic figure, a President who sought to focus on domestic issues to materially benefit the disadvantaged and disenfranchised, but who instead is remembered by most -- if remembered at all -- as the President who fought a losing war and who alienated his country in the process? Do you expect that the stress he endured in the loss of his Great Society hastened his death prematurely?

Michael R Beschloss: That's an absolutely fascinating question. When you begin listening to LBJ's voice on the tapes in the days he takes power after John Kennedy's murder, the thing that strikes you is how passionate he was about domestic issues and how much more lifeless he seems when he is talking about foreign issues. And this is so much the opposite of John Kennedy and Richard Nixon. Nixon once said, "Domestically, the country can run itself. You only need a President for foreign policy." And as you watch Johnson week by week move into his presidency, the chilling thing is to watch Vietnam take him over bit by bit, just as you can see what he really wants to spend 110 percent of his time on is giving blacks their civil rights and trying to help the suffering poor. Johnson said about Vietnam that he felt it was as if someone was pulling him down by the ankles. And the tragic result is just as you say -- that any consideration of Lyndon Johnson, whether in 1997 or 2097, is going to begin with the calamity of Vietnam. In his retirement in Texas, Johnson always denied that he saw himself in tragic terms, but almost the second he got back to Texas from the White House, he began smoking and overeating, which his doctors had told him in 1955, after his massive heart attack, would kill him. Poignantly, Johnson died of a heart attack on January 22, 1973, two days after he would have finished a second term had he been elected in 1968. What that shows is that had he run again, he almost would have certainly died in office.


Rose Ann from Margate, FL: How did you get the Johnson family to release these tapes early? Why weren't they held until 2023, like he wished?

Michael R Beschloss: Historians always want presidential families and presidential libraries to open everything instantly and as much as possible. Usually that doesn't happen. In this case the Johnson family, Lady Bird Johnson, and the officials of the Johnson Library felt that this was important history and that even though LBJ felt these tapes should be closed until 2023 or later, there was no compelling reason to keep them closed now, even though a lot of the conversations and a lot of the things that Johnson said on the tapes are sometimes embarrassing and harsh.


Jainee from NYC: I recently saw Doris Kearns Goodwin on "Charlie Rose," and she talked about how LBJ wanted his memoirs to sound "presidential," and that, unfortunately, a lot of subtext was glossed over because of that. In the end the memoir was a lot more antiseptic than the man. You have revealed the man by sharing these tapes with the nation. Do you think we find someone who reveals himself to be something less than "presidential," or perhaps just the opposite?

Michael R Beschloss: Wonderful question. Johnson during his lifetime had a schoolboy's ideas of the way a President should look and sound. He also felt that following John Kennedy he wouldn't help himself by looking like a full-blooded storytelling bulldozing unvarnished Texan in public. And the result is that as President, in his speeches and press conferences and also in the memoirs that my friend Doris helped him to write, he looks not much more interesting than Calvin Coolidge. That is why the tapes are so startling. Because privately this turns out to have been very much of a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. In private he was sometimes threatening, sometimes ribald, extremely charming, sometimes flirtatious, and also full of passionate political conviction. Some of it is very unattractive at times, but in the main, the tapes show him to be a vivid and imperishable historical character like his heroes Andrew Jackson and Huey Long. So the result is that the tapes have made Johnson a far more interesting person simply as a figure of great drama in American history. And as a political leader, although they do show his profanity, his bad temper, and occasionally an excessive degree of deviousness, they also show two things that are very arresting in the 1990s. One: political skills in persuading senators and congressmen to do what they didn't want to do, of the kind we have rarely seen in this century, and two: a core of genuine conviction. If you listen to the tapes, you can hear Johnson just after returning from Dallas where he has just become President, and being advised to set John Kennedy's civil rights bill aside. He knows that supporting civil rights might cost him politically, as it did John Kennedy, but he essentially says, "What the hell else is the presidency for?"


Christine Murdock from Boston: I'm fascinated by Johnson's interaction with the Kennedys as depicted in TAKING CHARGE. He shows such deference to them in public, but in private he didn't much trust them. Would you agree?

Michael R Beschloss: Well said. Some of the most fascinating relationships in American history were between LBJ and Bobby, Jackie, and Ted Kennedy. All three are very much a part of this book. With Bobby, from the very beginning, you see Johnson terrified that RFK will come out against him in public and say, "This man cannot fill my brother's shoes." And perhaps even run against him for President in 1964. Throughout the book on the tapes you see Johnson almost to the point of paranoia, suspecting that Bobby is behind every one of his troubles, almost including the Alaska earthquake. When LBJ gets into a scandal over his old aide, Bobby Baker, he thinks RFK is behind it. When a newspaper says that Johnson's net worth is not the $300,000 he claims, but instead $12 million, Johnson thinks Bobby is behind it. Even in the summer of 1964, when blacks riot in Harlem and Brooklyn and Rochester, Johnson thinks that Bobby has told them to riot in order to embarrass LBJ. The amazing thing is when you hear Johnson talking to RFK on the tapes, you would think that these were two men who had a lot in common. In 1963 and 1964, they totally agreed on civil rights and most other issues. One of the most fascinating conversations in the book though is when RFK confronts Johnson and says, "I hear that J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI are sending you damaging information about me." Which they were. And Johnson claims that he does not know what Bobby is talking about.

The relationship with Jackie Kennedy is fascinating, too. We have never been able to hear Jackie Kennedy talking to someone actually in private before, and now we have these tapes of her talking privately to LBJ. The big surprise is that Lyndon and Jackie are almost flirtatious with one another. In one call on the Fourth of July 1964, LBJ complains that he has been out on his boat on the LBJ ranch and got a sunburn, and Mrs. Kennedy replies, "I think you'd look marvelous with a sunburn." LBJ and Jackie had always gotten along well. They were bound by having survived together through the tragedy in Dallas. But through it all, LBJ was always extremely nervous that at some point Jackie might turn against him and tell the American people to throw him out of the White House and put Bobby there instead. Surprisingly enough, probably the best relationship between LBJ and any Kennedy was with Ted. As his conflicts with Bobby grew harsher and harsher, you hear him making a big effort to butter up Ted. There is even a conversation in which, at Ted's behest, LBJ telephones the old ambassador Joseph Kennedy, who cannot speak because of his stroke, and you can hear the old man making grunting noises on the telephone line. There is another conversation in which LBJ talks to Ted Kennedy, who is in a sickbed after a plane crash nearly killed him in June 1964.


Max from Hoboken, NJ: Why did LBJ tape all of his conversations? Was he paranoid?

Michael R Beschloss: I certainly wouldn't doubt the depth of Johnson's suspiciousness, and neither will you if you read the book -- although paranoids do sometimes have enemies, and LBJ had plenty of them, whom you can read about in the book. That was perhaps the main reason why Johnson made these secret tapes of people without their knowledge. He was very worried that he might have a conversation with a political enemy like Bobby Kennedy, or another powerful figure like Martin Luther King, and that after the private conversation Kennedy or King might go out and say that LBJ had told them something that Johnson felt was not true. And in fact this happens in the book when Johnson has a conversation with Bobby Kennedy in July 1964 and tells him, to Kennedy's great anger, that he will not choose him for vice president. Kennedy raced out of the White House and began giving his own version of what Johnson had told him, which was embarrassing to Johnson. LBJ struck back by inviting reporters into the White House family quarters, where he virtually read to them from a transcript of what he had told Kennedy and what Kennedy had told him. Kennedy, of course, immediately heard about this, and he was irate. The other general reason why Johnson taped himself was that he felt the tapes, which finally grew to comprise 10,000 conversations over the five years of his presidency, would help him write his memoirs. But it is still a bit of a mystery why this President, who was so concerned about his image, would preserve these tapes, which show so many sides of him that he worked so hard to conceal in his lifetime.


Mark Farris from Virginia Beach, Virginia: If Johnson was agonizing over the Vietnam issue in 1964, as the tapes show, why do you think he escalated the war?

Michael R Beschloss: Excellent question. What you see through 1963 and 1964 is a President who is being yanked in all sorts of different directions on Vietnam. In a way, we had never really known before these tapes showed us that Johnson from the beginning knew that Vietnam could be a calamity, that it could destroy his presidency, that it might take half a million men and ten years, and that even then America might lose. At the same time he is surrounded by Kennedy holdovers like Robert McNamara, Mac Bundy, and Dean Rusk, who all tell him, "If you lose Vietnam, you might lose the Cold War and Russia might dominate the world." Throughout the book you also hear him very upset that he is being lambasted by Republicans like Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon for being soft on Communism in Asia. What you see in 1963 and 1964 is a President who is basically trying to keep the Vietnam issue on ice until the 1964 election. He never wanted to have the kind of national discussion of Vietnam during the campaign that might have taught him that the American people would not tolerate a long war in Asia. What the tapes and the book show is a very new picture of how Johnson fell very deeply into Vietnam. We knew that in August 1964, after an attack in the Gulf of Tonkin, Johnson bombed North Vietnam. What the tapes show is that the inside story was a lot more interesting. After a first attack on a destroyer, Johnson did nothing and then was told by Republican friends that he had been too soft and that Goldwater would cut his guts out. Then two days later came a secret report of a second attack. Johnson waited many hours to decide whether the report was true or not, then, as you can hear on the tapes and read in the book, McNamara, the Secretary of Defense, calls up Johnson very upset and says, "O, my God! You won't believe it. The report of a second attack has leaked to the press, and it's on the wires, and everyone thinks there was a second attack for sure." Thus Johnson had to choose between two horrible alternatives.


Oslo from Kittyville, TN: I've always been very touched by Lady Bird's commitment to beautifying the nation's highways, as well as her spunk. What kind of influence did this obviously strong woman have on her husband? And do you think their partnership was balanced?

Michael R Beschloss: A huge influence. The biggest surprise in the book and on the tapes for me was that without Lady Bird, Lyndon Johnson would have been an emotional cripple. Unlike his public image, in private this was an often terrified man who went through huge mood swings of elation and anger and then dejection and very, very deep depression. All of which you can see in these conversations. In August 1964, for example, in private on the second day of the Democratic Convention, Johnson was petrified and dejected by press attacks and the possibility that there might be some kind of race war between blacks and whites that he, as a southern President, could not cope with. One of the big signs of psychiatric complexity is when you see a big difference between someone's external reality and the way he perceives it. Johnson's external reality should have been wonderful. The American people liked him at that point, he was about to be nominated unanimously, and he was about to win the presidency by the biggest landslide in the century. Yet Johnson's temperament, emotionally, was privately so fragile that you can hear on the tapes and read in the book that he almost pulled his name out at the Democratic Convention and announced that he would retire to Texas in 1964. As you can read in the book, the person who pulled him out of his funk was Lady Bird. The book includes a great many excerpts from her private taped diaries. They show that she not only gave LBJ very shrewd political advice, which was concealed from the American public at the time, but that she also had almost a psychiatrist's understanding of her husband's ups and downs and was able to keep him balanced and help him to be an effective President. The story of Lyndon and Lady Bird was really untold before these tapes were released, and now we can get a sense of how important she really was.


Louise from Austin, TX: Hi. I am really looking forward to reading TAKING CHARGE. Did LBJ really think that Kennedy's assassination in 1963 was part of a Cuban conspiracy? Or was he just speculating when he was talking to Hoover?

Michael R Beschloss: He, from the minute the assassination happened, thought it was a conspiracy of some kind. On the day he died in 1973, he privately continued to suspect a conspiracy but felt that it had never been proven. One of the most chilling things on the tapes is the difference between Johnson in public, saying he believes in the Warren Commission and that Lee Oswald was the lone gunman, and Johnson in private, being startled and influenced by a talk with Hoover about Oswald's presence at the Cuban Embassy in Mexico two months before the assassination. One of the most fascinating conversations in the book has Johnson being astonished to find that the Kennedy administration tried to kill Castro. He suspected that this might explain a lot.


Moderator: Mr. Beschloss, thanks so much for joining us tonight. Do you have any last comments?

Michael R Beschloss: My only comment is, as always, I am amazingly impressed by the wonderful quality of the questions during the last hour.


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Taking Charge; The Johnson White House Tapes, 1963-1964 (4 Cassettes) 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
ck2935 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I actually have the hardcover edition of this book. Another insightful book for an inside scoop on the Lyndon Johnson White House. He was a true deal maker and an arm wrangler. It is amazing what he accomplished in the area of civil rights and education, but unfortunately is stained by his failed Vietnam policy.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I actually found this book "refreshing" (for lack of a better word). All the history I've ever read has been in history books that just spit back facts at you. With this, you can look at President Johnson's exact words when it comes to taking over as president when JFK was killed.