Show: FRESH AIR
Date: OCTOBER 08, 1997
Head: Taking Charge
Sect: News; Domestic
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
LBJ's secret White House tapes are no secret anymore. During his years as president, Lyndon Johnson recorded many of his conversations with people ranging from Martin Luther King and J. Edgar Hoover to Johnson's tailor and barber. The tapes have been released by Johnson's widow, Lady Bird, and they offer surprising insights into Johnson's use of power and his thoughts about Vietnam, the civil rights movement, and the Kennedy assassination.
Historian Michael Beschloss has just edited and annotated the tapes made during LBJ's first year in the White House. The book is called "Taking Charge: The Johnson White House Tapes, 1963-64." Beschloss is also the author of four previous books on American presidents and is a regular commentator on the PBS News Hour with Jim Lehrer.
Michael Beschloss, welcome to FRESH AIR.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, PRESIDENTIAL HISTORIAN, EDITOR, "TAKING CHARGE: THE JOHNSON WHITE HOUSE TAPES, 1963-1964": Thank you, Terry.
GROSS: I want to start with one of the excerpts of the Johnson tapes. Now, this isn't one of the more politically profound excerpts, but it is a very interesting one. And this is with Eddie Sands (ph). Explain to us what we're about to hear.
BESCHLOSS: Eddie Sands is a New York hairdresser and it's December of 1963, and LBJ calls him up. LBJ was a bit of a control freak. He not only wanted to control what his wife's hair looked like and his daughters' hair looked like, but even his secretary's. He said: "if I'm going to have to look at, for instance, Yolanda" -- one of his secretaries over the Christmas holidays -- "she's gonna have to get a bale of hair cut off," he says in another conversation.
So here Johnson is calling up Eddie Sands, his hairdresser in New York, to get him to come down and do all these haircuts, and also to negotiate a fee. And before we begin, you should remember that Johnson at this point is worth about $12 million, but he's trying to get Sands' price down.
GROSS: Let's hear it.
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)
LYNDON B. JOHNSON, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Mr. Sands.
EDDIE SANDS, HAIRDRESSER: Who's that?
JOHNSON: It's Lyndon Johnson.
SANDS: Mr. Johnson, yes sir.
JOHNSON: Can I talk to you now without getting in the paper and getting it advertised?
SANDS: Oh, surely.
JOHNSON: If not, I want to talk to somebody else, but I hope I can, but I don't want it in any of these columns now and I don't want it to get out and Mr. Roosevelt said one of the most valuable men he had in his vicinity destroyed his usefulness because he had to advertise it, now...
SANDS: Mr. Johnson, I give you my solemn word as a gentleman.
JOHNSON: All right. Now, I'm a poor man. I don't make much money, but I got a wife and a couple of daughters and four or five people that run around with me, and I like the way you make them look. Now how much...
SANDS: That's nice, sir. I'm most flattered. I promise you I will -- take my word for it, that this is in confidence, sir.
JOHNSON: Well, this is your country and I want to see what you want to do about it. Now how can you come down here and make them look better?
SANDS: When do you want me to come?
JOHNSON: Well, it's -- it depends first on how much it'll cost me.
SANDS: It won't cost you anything. Don't' worry about it, sir...
JOHNSON: All right. I just have to live off a little paycheck, and I'm in debt, but I want to see if you can't come and -- I don't know whether the planes are flying this morning, but if you can't come and stay 'til five or six o'clock this evening. If you can't do that, I'll have to wait 'til next year.
SANDS: No, I believe we can arrange that, and I think we can manage this -- I have a very important appointment, but this I'd be very happy to cancel and I will come by myself.
JOHNSON: All right. Now bring whoever you need and we'll pay their transportation, but we can't pay you much else, 'cause we...
SANDS: Don't you ever worry about that, my...
JOHNSON: This is -- this is...
SANDS: ... Mr. Johnson, I want to try to get a plane out this morning.
JOHNSON: You just come right on in and then call Miss -- call Miss Roberts in my office and tell her what time you'll arrive and I'll have a White House car meet you.
SANDS: You bet, sir. Is that Miss Robinson, should I call?
JOHNSON: Miss Roberts...
GROSS: OK, that's LBJ and his hairdresser recorded in 1963. Michael Beschloss, what is revealing about this?
BESCHLOSS: Well, what is revealing is that Johnson was a huge micro-manager. He wanted to control almost every relationship around him. And that was politically really helpful, because Johnson wanted to get huge things done for the country -- war on poverty, civil rights, all sorts of other things. And he was a master in dealing with senators and congressmen of a kind that we've rarely seen in the 20th century.
But when it gets to his human relationships -- members of his family, members of his staff -- it gets a little bit more intense, as you can see.
GROSS: Why were these tapes made in the first place?
BESCHLOSS: Johnson, first of all, didn't think it was a bad thing to secretly record people when they didn't know they were being recorded. You know, Terry, in 1997 that's considered a horrible thing and it's illegal most places; 1963, a lot less so.
Johnson basically had two purposes. One was he wanted a hidden record of what he told people and what they told him so that, let's say he got a promise out of a congressman, then the Congress went -- congressman went an reneged on what he had told Johnson. Johnson then would have a very exact record of the conversation, and he could go back to that congressman and say: "listen, on such and such a date, you said this and you promised me this, and you've now doublecrossed me."
The other thing that Johnson wanted to do was to have historic moments in the Oval Office recorded for history, that he could use in his memoirs, and certainly those are there, too.
GROSS: He had told his secretary to keep these tapes secret until 50 years after his death. Why are they being made public now?
BESCHLOSS: Actually, he said even more than that. There was a scene just about a week before Johnson died of a heart attack, January of 1973. He was sitting in his library in this huge, white corduroy -- this gargantuan custom-built chair that Johnson liked to sit in, and this aide, Mildred Stegal (ph) came in, and Johnson said: "as I told you before, if anything happens to me and I'm not feeling well and I don't think I'm going to live long, I want you to make sure that these tapes will be concealed for at least 50 years after my death, and as far as I'm concerned, most of them should never be opened."
That was the case for years after Johnson's death in '73. His family honored that. Most people in the United States didn't even know that Johnson had tapes. Then by the early 1990s, they were in a very different situation. Scholars were suing for release of the Nixon tapes. There was a very different concept of openness. These were tapes, for instance, that were made on tape recorders that were paid for by the government.
And I think what the Johnson circle felt was that perhaps it would be better before there were any efforts made to force the tapes out -- better to do it voluntarily and also perhaps show some self-confidence in Johnson's record and leadership.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Michael Beschloss. He's a presidential historian and author of the -- editor, that is -- of the new book Taking Charge: The Johnson White House Tapes, 1963 to 1964.
Now, these tapes reveal something of what was going through Lyndon Johnson's mind at the time of and shortly after Kennedy's assassination. One of the things he says on a tape is: "what raced through my mind was that if they had shot our president, who would they shoot next? And what was going on in Washington? And when would the missiles be coming? I was fearful that the communists were trying to take us over."
BESCHLOSS: That was about three minutes after Kennedy was shot in Dallas. That's immediately the thought that came into Johnson's mind. And Johnson, of course, goes with Kennedy to the hospital, finds out that he has died, and then races to Air Force One because he has been told by Robert McNamara, if there's ever an emergency situation like this, the fastest thing you should do should be to get to an airplane, get into the air, because if this was a conspiracy, if there's going to be any kind of a nuclear war, the safest place for a new president would be in the air.
GROSS: What else did you learn through these tapes of what Johnson believed about the Kennedy assassination?
BESCHLOSS: The most startling was that from the minute that Kennedy was killed until the end of Johnson's life, he was very suspicious in private that Kennedy had been killed by a conspiracy, probably a conspiracy backed by Fidel Castro.
At the same time, that was not something that Johnson could say in public because Johnson was terrified that if Americans felt, for instance, that Castro had killed Kennedy or perhaps the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, people were so upset about John Kennedy's death that they would demand that LBJ, as president, initiate some kind of military attack on Cuba or the Soviet Union that Johnson says privately on the tapes would "check us into a war that could kill 40 million Americans in an hour."
GROSS: Did Johnson believe in the single gunman theory?
BESCHLOSS: He did not, and one of the interesting things is that you got this tape in September of 1964, when the Warren Commission report is put out. Johnson is talking to Richard Russell, one of the members of the Warren Commission, and Russell says: "I signed the report, but I really don't believe it because I don't believe that one bullet went through both Kennedy and Connally, and I don't believe in this lone gunman theory." And Johnson says: "I don't either."
And the amazing thing about that is that Johnson says privately "I don't believe that report," the same week that publicly he's endorsing the report and trying to get Americans to believe that a lone gunman, Lee Harvey Oswald, had killed Kennedy without any other connection.
GROSS: My guest is historian Michael Beschloss. He's edited the first volume of LBJ's White House tapes. The book is called Taking Charge. We'll talk more after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
Back with historian Michael Beschloss. He's edited the first volume of Lyndon Johnson's White House tapes. The book is called Taking Charge.
I think what one of the places that these LBJ tapes are most revealing have to do with his reservations about the war in Vietnam. And one of the clips that you've brought with you from the LBJ tapes really indicates the reservations that he had. And this is from a conversation he was having with McGeorge Bundy on May 27th of 1964. Introduce this tape for us; put this in context for us before we hear it.
BESCHLOSS: May, 1964, Johnson was getting enormous pressure from the Joint Chiefs of Staff to go in whole-hog to Vietnam -- escalate the fighting a great deal. That hadn't happened yet. There were still only about 16,000 advisers there. And Johnson is trying to decide in his own mind whether this is a good thing or not, and he's very much tortured.
He knows he's getting pressure from the joint chiefs. He knows he's gonna be denounced by the Republicans like Richard Nixon or Barry Goldwater as soft if he doesn't do what the joint chiefs say. At the same time, he knows -- and this is a big surprise -- as early as the spring of 1964, that the odds are very much against America ever winning a war in Vietnam.
GROSS: And what has set up this particular conversation?
BESCHLOSS: What happened was the government in Saigon -- the South Vietnamese government, which was allied with the United States -- was collapsing. The Viet Cong and others who were allied with them were making huge inroads, and basically the joint chiefs were telling Johnson fish or cut bait.
GROSS: So this is Lyndon Johnson with McGeorge Bundy, Special Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs.
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)
JOHNSON: I'll tell you, the more I just stayed awake last night thinking about this thing, the more I think of it, I don't know what in the hell -- well, it looks like to me we're getting into another Korea. It just worries the hell out of me. I don't see what we can ever hope to get out of there with once we're committed.
MCGEORGE BUNDY, SPECIAL ASSISTANT TO THE PRESIDENT FOR NATIONAL SECURITY AFFAIRS: Once...
JOHNSON: I believe the Chinese communists coming into it. I don't think that we can fight them 10,000 miles away from home and ever get anywhere on -- in that area. I don't think it's worth fighting for and I don't think we can get out. And it's just the biggest damn mess I ever saw.
BUNDY: It is. It's an awful mess, but...
JOHNSON: And we've just got to think about -- I looked at this sergeant of mine this morning -- got six little old kids over there, and he's getting out my things and bringing me in the night reading and all that kind of stuff. And I just thought if I'd ordered all those kids in there -- and what in the hell and I'm ordering him out there for?
BUNDY: One thing that has...
JOHNSON: What the hell is Vietnam worth to me? What is Laos worth to me? What is the worth to this country?
BUNDY: Well, we have to get...
JOHNSON: Now, we've got a treaty -- we've got a treaty, but hell everybody else has got a treaty out there, and they're not doing a thing about it?
BUNDY: Yep, yep, yep.
JOHNSON: Now, of course, you start running from the communist, they may just chase you right into your own kitchen.
BUNDY: Yep, that's the trouble, and that is what the rest of the -- that half of the world is going to think if this thing comes apart on us. That's the dilemma. That's exactly the dilemma.
JOHNSON: But everybody I talk to that's got any sense now, they just says "oh my God, please give this thought." 'Course I read -- Mansfield's stuff this morning, and it's just milquetoast as it can be. Got no spine at all. But, this is a terrible thing we're getting ready to do.
BUNDY: Mr. President, I just think that big -- is the only big decision in one sense that -- this one is one we have -- that we either reach up and get it or we let it go by, and I'm not telling you today what I'd do in your position. I just think the most we have to do is to pray with it for another while.
JOHNSON: Did you see the poll this morning? Sixty-five percent of them don't know anything about it, and...
BUNDY: A vast amount.
JOHNSON: ... those that do, majority think we're mishandling it, but they don't know what to do. That's Gallup.
BUNDY: Yep. Yep.
JOHNSON: It's damned easy to get in war, but you're gonna be awfully hard to ever extricate yourself once you get in.
BUNDY: It's very easy. I'm very sensitive to the fact that people who are having trouble with an intransigent problem find it very easy to come and say to the President of the United States: "go and be tough."
GROSS: That's one of the Lyndon Johnson White House tapes recently released. Michael Beschloss has edited a book of those tapes. He's a historian. He's written extensively about presidents.
What amazes me listening to that excerpt that we just heard is that Johnson is making a lot of the arguments that the anti-war demonstrators were later to make.
BESCHLOSS: You said it.
GROSS: He's making them himself.
BESCHLOSS: Exactly, and making them in private. And this is one of the ways that these tapes really show an inner Johnson that's so different than what we saw at the time. In public, he was saying we must stand in Vietnam. In private, we now know, he thought that this was something that could be one of the worst tragedies in American history, as it turned out to be.
And it's so different from, for instance, you know, the Oliver Stone view of Johnson. You remember when, in "JFK," Johnson comes to office, comes to power and is just desperate to get involved in Vietnam; to help the military industrial complex. That's a very different portrait.
GROSS: The incident that really got us very deep into the war and into bombing Vietnam was -- one of our U.S. destroyers was attacked in the Gulf of Tonkin by the North Vietnamese. And it was attacked once, and then Johnson had gotten a report that it was attacked again, although that report turned out not to be true. And it was after that second alleged attack that the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution was passed, and we started bombing North Vietnam.
Now, you have a conversation with Robert McNamara who was the Secretary of Defense at the time, talking to Johnson about this alleged second attack. Set this up for us.
BESCHLOSS: Well, here Johnson is. This is Johnson's notification that there is evidence that there is evidence that there is a second attack on the destroyer Maddox in the Gulf of Tonkin. And Johnson is faced with a very big decision -- whether to do nothing or whether to retaliate by bombing North Vietnam, which will escalate the war and get America into a totally new dimension. And here, he hears for the first time that this is alleged to have happened.
ROBERT S. MCNAMARA, SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: Mr. President, we just had word by telephone from Admiral Sharpe (ph) that the destroyer is under torpedo attack. I think I might get Dean Rusk and Mac Bundy -- have them come over here and we'll go over these retaliatory actions, then we ought to...
JOHNSON: I sure think you ought to agree to that. Yeah.
MCNAMARA: And I've got a (unintelligible) here. I'll call it to them.
JOHNSON: Now where are these torpedoes coming from?
MCNAMARA: Well, we don't know -- presumably from these unidentified craft that I mentioned to you a moment ago. We thought that the unidentified craft might include one -- one PT boat which has torpedo capability, and two SWAT COP (ph) boats, which we don't credit with torpedo capability, although they may have it.
JOHNSON: What are these planes of ours doing around while they're being attacked?
MCNAMARA: Well, presumably the planes are attacking the ships. We don't have any word from Sharpe on that. The planes would be in the area at the present time -- all eight of them.
JOHNSON: OK. You get them over there, and then they come over here and...
MCNAMARA: I'll do that. Yeah.
GROSS: Michael Beschloss, what did you learn from hearing this conversation?
BESCHLOSS: What I learned was that Johnson was given a pretty flat report that there had very likely been a second attack, and that led to the events of later that day. And as you hear further on later tapes, what happens is that late afternoon, the joint chiefs and McNamara the Defense Secretary are sort of looking at the evidence. Was there a second attack or not? And the evidence is very mixed.
Then you hear on a tape about 5:00 o'clock p.m., McNamara calls up Johnson and says: "oh my God, there's been a press leak" and the press leak was a report that had appeared on a wire service that there had indeed been a second attack.
And what happened was -- this is another one of these tragic moments in history -- Johnson was faced with a horrible choice: either go on and decide perhaps that there had been no second attack and announce that. And if he had done that, then probably Barry Goldwater, the Republican nominee for president, and the Republicans would have stomped him and said "Johnson is covering up. Johnson's a coward. Johnson's not retaliating."
Either do that or bomb North Vietnam, quell those suspicions, but drag America into the beginning of the Vietnam War, and that latter course is ultimately what Johnson did.
GROSS: Are you saying, in a way, that Johnson got us deeper into war for American political reasons. You know, to -- so that he wouldn't be called a coward; so that he could get reelected.
BESCHLOSS: One of the worst things that can happen in American history is when big foreign policy and military decisions have to be made during the heat of a campaign. And that week in August of 1964 was probably the worst example of that, because Barry Goldwater had just been nominated -- one of the most militaristic party nominees probably in American history for president -- was charging Johnson with being a softie, and Johnson is given this terrible choice, and ultimately chose to do this largely for political reasons.
GROSS: Now there's a phone call that Lady Bird Johnson makes to her husband right after the first bombing of North Vietnam. I think this is a very interesting phone call. I'd like to play it. This is from August 4th, 1964. Do you want to say anything before we hear it?
BESCHLOSS: Yes. One thing that's sort of a big surprise from all these tapes -- a lot of them are of Lady Bird and Lyndon talking. In those days, first ladies were required in public to suggest that they had no involvement with politics; that they were really rather frivolous. One thing you get from the tapes is that Lady Bird was a constant source of enormously shrewd advice about politics, about personalities.
But perhaps most important, she propped Johnson up. This was a guy who was very depressive. Oftentimes, he felt very insecure and terrified. One of the things that surprised me about these tapes was that in 1963, 1964, the time that Johnson should have felt most happy and secure because after all, he was about to win election by a landslide -- over and over again in private, he thinks it's all going to come crashing down. And one sense you get from Lady Bird is that she was always there knowing what his limitations were and trying to bolster him up, and here's a little example of that.
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)
LADY BIRD JOHNSON, FIRST LADY OF THE UNITED STATES: Yes, beloved.
JOHNSON: Did you want me?
LADY BIRD: I just wanted to see you whenever you were all alone.
JOHNSON: All right.
LADY BIRD: Just made it to tell you I loved you, that's all.
JOHNSON: And I feel (unintelligible) -- the rest of them still there?
LADY BIRD: No, they left at 3:00 this afternoon, dear.
JOHNSON: Golly, well I -- why didn't they tell me good-bye?
LADY BIRD: Oh, because I guess they just -- figured you just didn't have a moment.
JOHNSON: I'll be darned. Well, any other news?
LADY BIRD: Nothing in comparison to yours, darlin'.
JOHNSON: I'm trying to get Senator Goldwater now to come over just as soon as he get through.
BESCHLOSS: Johnson was actually going to call Goldwater to tell him that he was about to bomb North Vietnam, just before that happened, as a gesture of bipartisanship.
GROSS: I'll tell you what I find interesting about this tape between Lady Bird and LBJ is that -- I think everybody has become so cynical about relationships of husbands and wives at the White House. And this seems to be a kind of genuine expression of concern and of love and of support.
BESCHLOSS: Well, actually when I heard one of these tapes, and it may have been this one, I said to my own wife, you know, why don't you talk to me all the time like...
BESCHLOSS: Exactly. She said it was in another age.
GROSS: Historian Michael Beschloss is the editor of Taking Charge: The Johnson White House Tapes, 1963 to '64.
We'll talk more and listen to more tapes in the second half of the show.
I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Back with historian Michael Beschloss. He's edited the first volume of the Johnson White House tapes. Throughout Lyndon Johnson's presidency, he secretly recorded his conversations. The tapes have been released by Johnson's widow, offering valuable insights into Johnson's use of power and his thoughts about the civil rights movement, Vietnam, and the Kennedy Assassination.
Beschloss has edited the first volume of tapes from LBJ's first year in the White House 1963 to '64. The book is called Taking Charge.
One of the dramas that you actually hear when you listen back to these tapes, or when you read the transcripts in your book Taking Charge, is that at the same time Johnson is going through this crisis about what should he do in Vietnam, he's also going through a lot of crises about what should he do with the civil rights movement here in America.
And they're both weighing on his mind a lot. And I want to play a tape that you've brought with you of J. Edgar Hoover, then head of the FBI, telling Johnson the latest on the three missing civil rights workers -- Cheney, Schwerner, and Goodman -- missing in Mississippi. And Hoover's about to report that their car was found totally burned.
Can you say something about this tape, Michael Beschloss, before we hear it?
BESCHLOSS: It's chilling, and it just really makes the hair stand up on the back of your neck. This was four days after Johnson had gotten his big victory in the Senate on the civil rights bill, June of 1964, and he was at that point terrified that the South was going to rise up -- white Southerners -- in anger against blacks because the civil rights bill had been passed.
He was worried throughout 1964 that there could be a serious race war with riots that could get even worse. And so, he's just on tenterhooks waiting for any sign that this is going to be touched off. And then he gets the news that these three civil rights workers in Mississippi have been lost, and then Hoover calls to tell what has become of the car in which they were driving.
GROSS: Well, here's that conversation.
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)
J. EDGAR HOOVER, DIRECTOR, FEDERAL BUREAU OF INVESTIGATION: Mr. President?
HOOVER: I wanted to let you know we have found the car.
HOOVER: Now, this is not known. Nobody knows this at all, but the car was burned and we do not know yet whether any bodies are inside of the car because of the intense heat that still is in the area of the car. This is off to the side of the road. It wasn't going toward Meridian, but is going in the opposite direction.
Now, whether there are any bodies in the car, we won't know until we can get into the car ourselves. But I did want you to know that apparently what's happened, these men have been killed, although as I say, we can't tell whether anybody's in there in view of the intense heat.
JOHNSON: Well, now what would make you think they've been killed?
HOOVER: Because of the fact that it is the same car that they were in in Philadelphia, Mississippi. It is merely an assumption that probably they were burned in the car. On the other hand, they may have been taken out and killed on the outside.
JOHNSON: Or maybe kidnapped and locked up.
HOOVER: How's that?
JOHNSON: Or maybe kidnapped and locked up.
HOOVER: Well, I would doubt whether those people down there would even give them that much of a break.
JOHNSON: How long had the car been burnt, you reckon? Six, eight hours?
HOOVER: Well, we frankly don't know. The intense heat would have indicated that the car probably has been burning for maybe six hours or five or six hours.
JOHNSON: Looks like those fellows jumped out of a car that's burning.
HOOVER: Well, you would think they would unless they'd been bound and were locked in that car, then the car set afire.
JOHNSON: Well, why wouldn't an agent be able to look in a car at see if there's any bones in it?
HOOVER: To see whether there were any bodies in it?
JOHNSON: The bones -- yeah.
HOOVER: Well, the reason for that is the car is so burned and charred with heat that you can't get close to it.
JOHNSON: OK. You call me as soon as you can. Now, this group's coming down here to see Lee White (ph), my assistant.
JOHNSON: Do you think in the light of this that this Congressman (unintelligible) to see him? Do you think I ought to step in and just tell him I've talked to you and you're doing everything you can?
HOOVER: I think it would be all right. I don't like to have you having to see these people because we're going to have more pieces like this down South, and every time that it occurs, they're gonna have these families come on here to Washington, and of course, the congressmen, being politically-minded, they'll want you to see them.
GROSS: J. Edgar Hoover talking to LBJ in 1964. Michael Beschloss...
BESCHLOSS: I might mention -- I'm sorry -- I was just going to say, I might mention that the denouement was that the bodies were not found in the car. There was a search that took six weeks, and then finally six weeks later, they found that the three men had been shot by the side of the road almost immediately, and their bodies buried in a dam.
GROSS: What do you learn from going through the LBJ tapes about his genuine commitment to the civil rights movement? How much of it was politics? How much of it was a genuine commitment?
BESCHLOSS: Well you know, that's one of the things that I think tends to get obscured by Vietnam; that Johnson for all his flaws, there really was a bottom line with the man. There was a core of conviction that caused him to take very big political risks.
One of them was, I think, for the poor; and the other was for blacks. You know, when Johnson came back from Dallas after Kennedy's murder, November of 1963, there was every political reason in the world for him to say: "let's set this civil rights bill aside for a year until I get elected, then I will not be an accidental president."
He knew that in 1963, that when John Kennedy submitted a civil rights bill to Congress, it dropped his popularity ratings 22 points. So, Johnson had no reason to think that wouldn't happen to him. Instead, he gets back to Washington the night of the assassination; is advised by political advisers, set this civil rights bill aside; and he basically says: "what's the presidency for? Even if it costs me my reelection, this will be something that have been good to have paid for it with."
GROSS: And you know, you mention that Kennedy had wanted Johnson to be on the sidelines in terms of the civil rights movement and the civil rights act, because he wanted Johnson to be able to still carry the South. And he...
BESCHLOSS: That's it.
GROSS: ... yeah. Go ahead.
BESCHLOSS: And Johnson as vice president was very frustrated because privately he was very pro-civil rights, but publicly Kennedy was saying: "I need you to help us hold the South in 1964, so don't get too far out front on civil rights."
GROSS: Johnson hired an African-American secretary, the first African-American presidential secretary. And I think he did this in part as a symbol of his commitment to civil rights. You have a tape of him calling her up, her name was Geraldine Whittington (ph), and querying her on this position. And she thinks it's a phony phone call.
BESCHLOSS: She sure does.
GROSS: It's a funny tape. I'd thought we'd just play it here. Tell me what you find interesting about this tape before we hear it.
BESCHLOSS: Well, it's late at night. He's never met Gerry Whittington, but he's told that she's a good secretary. She's a black woman. And Johnson calls her up late at night at home, assuming that she's got nothing else to do but come right down to the White House. And she thinks that someone's playing with her.
GROSS: OK. This is recorded in 1963.
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)
GERALDINE WHITTINGTON, PERSONAL SECRETARY TO LYNDON JOHNSON: This is Whittington.
WHITE HOUSE OPERATOR: Just a minute.
WHITTINGTON: I'm at home. Who's this?
JOHNSON: This is the president.
JOHNSON: What are you doing?
WHITTINGTON: Oh, I think someone's playing with me.
JOHNSON: No, I want to talk to you about our work, honey. Where are you, at home?
WHITTINGTON: Oh, yes I am.
JOHNSON: Are you busy?
WHITTINGTON: No, I'm not.
JOHNSON: Can you come down here immediately?
WHITTINGTON: Oh, I'd be glad to.
JOHNSON: Come down. I've got Jennifer (unintelligible) here. We want to talk to you about a little reassignment.
WHITTINGTON: Oh, oh, yes sir.
JOHNSON: (unintelligible), you grab a cab, and come the Southwest Gate, and I'll tell them to let you in. And if you need a car sent out for you, I'll get one. But you can get a cab quicker can't you?
WHITTINGTON: Well, I -- as a rule I can, Mr. President, but inasmuch as the weather's so...
JOHNSON: I'll get one now. Give me your address.
WHITTINGTON: My address is 3807...
WHITTINGTON: J Street, Northeast.
JOHNSON: 3807 what?
WHITTINGTON: J -- that's J-A-Y.
JOHNSON: J-A-Y Northeast. All right.
WHITTINGTON: And the name of the apartments is the Mayfair Apartments. That might help the driver.
JOHNSON: Mayfair. All right, now what's your -- what's your telephone number?
WHITTINGTON: My telephone number is 399-6293.
JOHNSON: ... 293. All right, if he gets lost, he'll call you and he ought to be there in 15 minutes. How far as you away from the White House?
WHITTINGTON: Oh, I guess about 25 minutes.
JOHNSON: Twenty-five minutes?
JOHNSON: Helluva long way. Do you walk to work?
WHITTINGTON: No sir, I don't.
JOHNSON: All right. OK. 399-6293. Mayfair Apartments, 3807 Jay Street, Northeast.
WHITTINGTON: Yes, it is.
JOHNSON: OK. Get ready now and get your working clothes on.
WHITTINGTON: I certainly will. Thank you.
GROSS: I don't why she didn't still think it was a prank by the time the phone call was over. What a bizarre phone call.
BESCHLOSS: That's for sure, and so poor Ms. Whittington has to come down to the White House. It was about 11:00 p.m. Johnson gives her an interview, thinks she's OK. So Johnson appoints her, and Johnson of course wanted to let the world know that he had appointed the first black secretary, Negro secretary as they would say in those days.
But Johnson thought it'd be a little bit crass to put out a press release, so you know how he let the world know that he had hired this woman?
BESCHLOSS: He had her go on "What's My Line?"
And so they say "what's my line?" My line is: "I am President Johnson's secretary."
GROSS: Well, that's a scream. I notice he calls her "honey" on that phone conversation, too. Couldn't do that today.
BESCHLOSS: No, I think that's right. It would make a little different statement.
GROSS: My guest is historian Michael Beschloss. He's edited the first volume of LBJ's White House tapes. The book is called Taking Charge. We'll talk more after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
If you're just joining us, my guest is historian Michael Beschloss, and he has edited the LBJ tapes -- the tapes made throughout LBJ's presidency. And the first volume has just been published. It's called Taking Charge: The Johnson White House Tapes 1963 to '64. And it has commentary by Michael Beschloss.
You have brought a very dramatic tape with you, and this is made the night before President Johnson is nominated at the Democratic Convention for what would be his second term. The first term was when he succeeded Kennedy after the assassination.
And he's telling his Press Secretary George Reedy that he's considering pulling out of the race and just retiring. And you can hear in this how the war and the civil rights movement have really weighed on him. And I was really surprised to hear these reservations. Were you?
BESCHLOSS: I was, and what I was mainly surprised about was to get a sense of LBJ's emotions. This is someone who, as I was suggesting earlier, in private, had these enormous mood swings that were very great even in those of us who were not political leaders.
And here he's in a situation where he should be having the thrill of his life. He's about to be nominated unanimously by the Democrats in Atlantic City. He knows that he's likely to defeat Barry Goldwater in probably the biggest landslide of the 20th century.
Yet he is so upset over press attacks, over the danger that there will be conflict between the races over civil rights, and also this is three weeks after the escalation of the Vietnam War at the Gulf of Tonkin -- that he literally is telling his press secretary: "I am on the verge of throwing it all away and delivering a statement saying that I'm going to pull out my name and retire to Texas."
GROSS: This is Lyndon Johnson August 25, 1964.
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)
WHITE HOUSE OPERATOR: George Reedy on 9-0.
JOHNSON: Yes, sir.
REEDY: What should I tell them about this morning?
JOHNSON: I don't know, George. There's really not much to tell 'em.
REEDY: That's what I think.
JOHNSON: I'm just writing out a little statement that I think I'm gonna make either in press conference here or go up to Atlantic City this afternoon to make, but I don't think we can tell about it now, and I guess that's all.
REEDY: All right. Incidentally, the attorney general just announced for the New York State Senate.
JOHNSON: Was he on TV, I wonder?
REEDY: I don't know if he's on TV. I saw the ticker.
JOHNSON: Mm-hmm. Here's what I think I'm gonna say to them, whatever number of months it is -- 44 months ago, I was selected to be the Democratic vice president -- vice president. Forty-four months ago I was selected -- I was elected to be the Democratic vice president. In the time given me, I did my best.
On that fateful November day last year, I accepted the responsibilities of the president, asking God's guidance and the help of all of our people. In the nine months, I have carried on as effectively as I could. Our country faces grave dangers. These dangers must be faced and met by a united people under a leader they do not doubt.
After 33 years in political life, most men acquire enemies as ships accumulate barnacles. The times require leadership about which there is no doubt, and a voice that men of all parties and sections and color can follow. I've learned after trying very hard that I am not that voice or that leader.
Therefore -- and then I'm going to say -- therefore I suggest that the representatives of all states of this union, selected for the purpose of selecting a Democratic nominee and for president and vice president -- proceed to do their duty, and that no consideration be given to me because I'm absolutely unavailable.
That's -- I think they may just pick the two they want, in two places. We'll take the nominee and do the best we can to help him 'til January, and then if he's elected, why that's fine. I think he will be.
And they can have a new and fresh fellow without any of the old scars, and I don't want this power of the bomb, and I just don't want these decisions I'm being required to make. And I don't want the conniving that's required. And I don't want the disloyalty that's around. I don't want the bumbling and the inefficiencies of our people, and all of them talk too much.
REEDY: This will throw the nation into quite an uproar, sir.
JOHNSON: Yeah, I think so. And I think it -- now's the time, though. I don't know any better time. They're there and they've got nothing else to do. And I'm absolutely positive that I cannot lead the South and the North and the South.
And I don't want to lead the nation without my own state and without my own section. I'm very convinced that the Negroes will not listen to me. They're not gonna follow a white Southerner, and I think the stakes are too big to try to compromise.
I look at the Herald Tribune -- there's nothing but things we've done terrible. I read the New York Times, and we had a pallid platform, and that is outrageous. I picked up every paper I had this morning, and we had just played hell.
And there's just about be a lot of people that don't have these bouts and these angers and these barnacles and these things they have to carry, and the nation ought to have a chance to get the best available. That's what we all -- my children have.
And I know it -- I'm not.
REEDY: I think it's too late sir. I know it's your decision, because you're the man that has to bear the brunt, but right now I think this just gives the country to Goldwater.
JOHNSON: Well, that's all right. I don't care. I'm just willing to -- I don't think that. I don't agree with that thought, but I think that people better not gamble.
REEDY: He can't sir. He's just a child. And look at our side? We don't have anybody. The only man around I'd trust to be president would be McNamara and he wouldn't stand a chance.
JOHNSON: No, but we don't -- we didn't trust any of the rest of them, you know. We didn't trust Eisenhower or Jack Kennedy -- and that's a matter for them. Anyway, if they'd been running their for a couple hundred years, and I leave it up to them and their processes can work without any dictation; without any influence from me.
And I don't feel like it. I don't want to live with my wife and my daughters, and the things that are going through like Time magazine this week, and the lies that they publish. I just don't -- I don't want to be the center of attention enough that they understood in publishing that stuff. I just want to be away from it.
And I know that a man ought to have a hide of a rhinoceros to be in this job, but I don't have a hide of rhinoceros, and I'm not seeking happiness. I'm just seeking a little comfort once in a while -- getting away from it. I think I've earned it after 33 years. I don't see any reason why I must die in it.
REEDY: I think you've earned it, too, sir -- the -- but I don't think it's a question of having a hide of a rhinoceros. It's kind of a question of rising above these things.
JOHNSON: Well, I can't do that. I can't do that. I can't -- I have a desire to unite people, and the South is against me and the North's against me, and the Negroes are against me. And the press doesn't really have any affection for me. The -- or an understanding, and I'm unable to give it to them. I try, but I just -- I was just looking at the Philadelphia Inquirer this morning. My friend Henry Brandon, whom I do not know, but...
REEDY: I doubt if it...
JOHNSON: ... it's a textbook caricature of a fast-dealing politician.
GROSS: That's LBJ, August 25, 1964, speaking with his Press Secretary George Reedy. Michael Beschloss, I think, you know, there's two things that really surprise me hearing that tape. One was how wounded Johnson seemed to be by the bad press he was getting and by feeling that he'd lost -- he'd lost a lot of the American public.
But also, I was really surprised that he was willing to throw his party into such disarray -- to pull out, you know, at the absolute last minute. And this is the consummate politician and he's willing to do that to his party?
BESCHLOSS: Well, you know, people who are very depressed do things that seem otherwise a little bit irrational. And what happened after this conversation was, he then went to see Lady Bird, and Lady Bird talked with him for a long time, and she knew her husband's emotions and mood-swings very well.
And she basically said: you know, if you do this, you're going to throw the country into a turmoil. She said if you come back to Texas, you might start drinking again. You might be full of anger. And I don't want to be the target. And she later said in her diary, which I quote in the book: "I do not know hours that I ever found more difficult."
GROSS: Do you think a lot of his decisions were made out of depression?
BESCHLOSS: I'm not qualified in terms of psychology or personality theory, but this is someone who was very much affected by mood swings, I think, of highs and lows. And the thing to remember is: this is not 1968 when the war is raging and the students are marching in the streets and Johnson cannot speak at anything but a military base. This is 1964, where he's wildly popular. He is getting huge acclaim by the press. He is about to win in a landslide. And even in this atmosphere, you hear how he responds to it.
GROSS: He sounds so thin-skinned. You know, when he says: "you should have the hide of a rhino, but I don't have that."
BESCHLOSS: Well, all I can say is if he didn't have the hide of a rhino in 1964 and could not cope with the really minuscule political problems he had then, you can imagine what waits on the tapes for the years ahead, as Vietnam begins to grow into an enormous problem.
GROSS: My guest is historian Michael Beschloss. He's edited the first volume of LBJ's White House tapes. The book is called Taking Charge. We'll talk more after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
Back with historian Michael Beschloss. He's edited the first volume of LBJ's White House tapes -- the secret recordings Johnson made of his conversations during his presidency.
Well you know, since we're talking about presidential tapes, I feel here I really ought to bring up with you the idea of the Clinton fundraiser tapes that are attracting so much attention now -- the tapes that were not made available...
GROSS: ... to Janet Reno when she was deciding whether the fundraising investigation required a special prosecutor. So, what do you think about the importance of these tapes that were made at about 44 different coffees with, you know, wealthy donors or potential donors to the Clinton campaign?
BESCHLOSS: It's interesting, but to compare them, for instance, to the Johnson tapes, it doesn't tell us very much, because Clinton was basically at events that were not public in terms of Clinton speaking in the stadium, but he was in a room, for instance, with about 30 or 40 people, and on exceedingly good behavior.
I would love to hear the Bill Clinton White House tapes of the kind that LBJ made of his private conversations, which would be absolutely scintillating, but no president will ever do that again.
GROSS: You confident of that -- nobody will ever do that again?
BESCHLOSS: Absolutely. And I actually asked President Clinton, knowing what the answer would be, I said: "I assume that I am not wrong to presume that you do not tape your private conversations." And he said: "yes, you would be correct to presume that."
And the reason for that is that after Richard Nixon's tapes were revealed in 1973, the public was so disgusted by the idea that a president would tape people without their knowledge in private, entrap them in many cases, that no president would want to incur that kind of wrath again.
GROSS: The tapes at these coffees were produced by the White House Communications Agency, which records the presidency. Who is this group?
BESCHLOSS: That is actually a military group, and they are in charge, I believe, of taping all of Bill Clinton's public and semi-public appearances, as they have with other presidents, so there is a record of what he says to reporters; what he says in a speech; what he says in a gathering like this; and also if he gives an interview, for instance, in the Oval Office. They're mainly technicians.
GROSS: Now, let me get back to the LBJ tapes. Do you think that these tapes have given you a pretty different view of the man and the presidency? Do you -- are you reevaluating his presidency based on what you've heard on these personal recordings?
BESCHLOSS: Yes, I would. To begin with Vietnam, no one is ever going to say that Vietnam was anything but a tragedy for this country, and that was a war that never should have been waged. But one thing that the tapes do show is that this was not a warmonger who came to power in November of 1963 after the Kennedy assassination, this was someone who was getting advice from different places and was very much torn.
Ultimately, he made the wrong decision to go deeply into Vietnam, but it was not a decision that was made with absolutely no forethought, as many others have written about Johnson in those years.
GROSS: Anything else that you've totally reevaluated?
BESCHLOSS: I think another thing is that this was a man who actually meant what he said perhaps a little bit more than we had given him credit for. You know, presidents always like to sound idealistic in public, and the real question is whether there is a bottom line beyond which they will not go, and for which they're willing to take political risks.
And in Johnson's case, you see him expending an awful lot of political capital in 1964 for the War on Poverty and also for the civil rights bill. I just couldn't help but think when I was listening to this, if this were LBJ in the 1990s in the modern manner, he probably would have had focus groups and a lot of polls, and what they would have told him was: civil rights is a loser. You're going to give the South to the Republican Party for at least the next generation or more; and also the poor don't vote. So, don't spend your capital on that in an election year.
That's not advice that Johnson got, but if he did get it, he would not have heeded it.
GROSS: Did you hear anything in these tapes that if we heard them during the presidency would have caused a scandal?
BESCHLOSS: I think not so much in terms of, you know, business dealings or Watergate-type revelations, but I think one thing that would have been very damaging to Johnson, for instance in the spring of 1964, is if people had known how much he was wavering on the war in Vietnam, that was a time in which Democrats were very vulnerable to the charge of soft on communism, especially against an opponent like Barry Goldwater -- could have been very tough for him.
GROSS: Michael Beschloss, I thank you very much for talking with us and for playing some of these tapes for us.
BESCHLOSS: Thank you very much, Terry.
GROSS: Michael Beschloss is the editor of Taking Charge: The Johnson White House Tapes, 1963 to '64. There's also an audiobook version of the tapes.
Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Michael Beschloss
High: Presidential historian Michael Beschloss. He transcribed tapes, edited and provided commentary for the new book "Taking Charge: The Johnson White House Tapes, 1963-1964." When Johnson took office, he began recording his daily private conversations. This book is the first volume of transcripts and covers the aftermath of the Kennedy Assassination, the creation of the Warren Commission, the civil rights bill, and the Tonkin Gulf attack, and his thoughts about the Vietnam war. Beschloss has written three other books.
Spec: History; LBJ; Politics; Government; Civil Rights; JFK; Books; Authors; Taking Charge: The Johnson White House Tapes, 1963-1964
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1997 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1997 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Taking Charge
Show: FRESH AIR
Date: NOVEMBER 19, 1997
Head: Abuse of Power
Sect: News; Domestic
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Recently released Nixon White House tapes offer a more detailed picture than we've ever had of Nixon's involvement in Watergate. Now, the tapes have been transcribed and edited by historian Stanley Kutler for his book "Abuse of Power."
Kutler says these new tapes provide a massive, overwhelming record of Nixon's involvement in, and his instigation of, obstruction of justice and abuse of power. They expose a level of culpability far greater than imagined 25 years ago.
The first Nixon tapes, about 40 hours worth, were released in April of 1974. Nixon resigned soon after, in August. Nixon tried to prevent the release of the remaining tapes, but over 200 more hours detailing his abuse of power have been released as a result of a lawsuit against the National Archives and the Nixon estate, filed by Kutler and the group Public Citizen.
The tapes still can't leave the archives, so we can't play them on the radio. The tapes begin shortly after the New York Times published "The Pentagon Papers" -- the secret history of the war in Vietnam. The recordings detail how Nixon tried to destroy Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the papers.
The group of former CIA agents known as the "plumbers" broke into the office of Ellsberg's psychiatrist looking for incriminating information. The plumbers were later caught breaking into the Democratic headquarters at the Watergate, leading to a massive coverup which the tapes document.
One of the big questions about Watergate is: why did Nixon try to cover it up instead of letting other people take the fall?
STANLEY KUTLER, HISTORIAN, AUTHOR, "THE WARS OF WATERGATE," AND "ABUSE OF POWER": I think I've -- I've got another dimension to it. I think that the standard answer that I and others have often given for the institution of a coverup is because there was a need to protect the president from the -- any revelation of the so-called "White House horrors" of the first term -- that is, the existence of the plumbers which engaged in illegal break-ins and the Houston Plan, which also authorized illegal break-ins; the IRS abuses; the enemies list, and so forth.
Those are the standard reasons given for the coverup. But here in these new tapes, Nixon on two occasions -- once when he's talking about the plumbers break-in of Ellsberg's psychiatrist's office and one -- and one -- and a second when he's talking about the authorization of illegal break-ins under the so-called "Houston Plan." He says: "I cannot admit that the President of the United States authorized illegal acts."
It was a kind of psychological moment. Here was the man who for 25 years had championed himself as the advocate of law and order -- the man of high-tone moral principles -- is now going to go out and admit that he authorized second-storey men to engage in illegal break-ins for his administration? It was really more than he could bear to face.
Ironically, I would argue that had he said this, his supporters would have still supported him and he might still have gotten away with it. But he found himself -- that he couldn't bring himself to say those things because they -- such an admission clashed so violently with the self-image he had projected and nurtured so carefully through the years.
GROSS: You know, Nixon says in 1973: "the coverup is what hurts you..."
GROSS: ... not the issue. It's the coverup that hurts. So he seemed to, at the same time, order the coverup and be aware that a coverup is a really dangerous thing.
KUTLER: Oh, it was incredibly perceptive of him. He realized that the coverup was the truly dangerous thing that he was engaged in. And ironically, you find him talking quite often about the Alger Hiss case, and he says the thing that helped him -- Nixon -- the most in the Hiss case was the perceived attempt on the part of the Truman administration to cover it up. They really weren't trying to cover it up, but this is the way he interpreted it.
He understood the dangers of a coverup. He understood it very, very much because he understood that it involved an obstruction of justice which was a criminal matter.
GROSS: Nixon had been engaged in discussing break-ins of a couple of other places -- the Brookings Institution, the Washington, DC-based think tank, and the National Archives.
What were the proposals there? What did Nixon, or in the case of the Archives, Ehrlichman, hope to get?
KUTLER: Mm-hmm. Well, they were looking for secrets of past mis-deeds of other administrations. But you know, there are moments in these tapes, like talking about the break-in of the Brookings; or talking about the break-in of the National Archives; talking about wanting everybody in a certain institution fired within 24 hours -- this is the president venting his anger and his frustration. He says "I want this done, I want this done now" -- and of course, nobody did anything.
There was no break-in at the Brookings. There was no break-in at the National Archives. I -- I think that some of the newspaper stories that occurred shortly after the release of these tapes, they made a great deal out of those things. They did them without any understanding of context -- that this was just the president letting off steam. It's what went through his mind. There is no evidence that he ever acted on it; no evidence that any of his people followed up on this.
And I just take it at face value as the venting of a little anger and a little steam.
GROSS: Now how do you interpret this: Nixon said, after the New York Times published the Pentagon Papers, he said: "we're up against an enemy, a conspiracy..."
GROSS: "... they're using any means; we're going to use any means."
KUTLER: Right. Well, now there I take him very seriously. Nixon has always believed he was the victim of plots, of conspiracies, particularly when it came to the media; the establishment, they didn't like him, he believed. The fact is, throughout his presidency, throughout his career, he made great use of the media. In 1972, most of the media favored his reelection.
But you know, this is -- this is Nixon in what I always call his "Uriah Heep" mode -- feeling put upon. But he would, indeed, tell his aides "I don't want you to talk to the New York Times anymore; the Washington Post" -- and indeed, there would be some momentary expression of anger. As to the last part of that quotation "we're going to do something about them," it's not clear that he ever did anything. And indeed, he continued to court those newspapers by all means.
GROSS: What about Henry Kissinger? How does he come out looking in the tapes? I mean, Nixon...
GROSS: ... Nixon thinks Kissinger is leaking to the press at some point.
KUTLER: Oh, yeah, yeah. Well, you see -- you see this...
GROSS: So they have a quarrel between them about that. But what was Kissinger in on and what did he actively participate in?
KUTLER: Yeah -- well, you know, there is an obvious tension between these two men. Nixon is very unhappy, you know, when Kissinger gets a Nobel Prize. Why not me? After all, didn't Kissinger take his orders from Nixon? He would resent it if Kissinger became Man of the Year on Time magazine cover.
There was a rivalry there. Well, throughout these tapes, there is reference to Kissinger asking for wiretaps of his key National Security Council aides to find out who's leaking to the media. And Kissinger is up to his ears in that, and Nixon keeps reminding him of it.
There are conversations, though, that in the eyes of many people today don't serve Kissinger very well. He appears to be the ultimate toady, buttering up the president. There is a conversation on the night of April 30th, after Nixon has fired Haldeman and Ehrlichman, his key aides.
And Kissinger has his conversation with him, and reminds him -- tells Nixon again how great he is and that Watergate doesn't mean anything. History's going to remember Nixon as the great man of peace and so forth.
Yet in his own memoirs of the same time, his diary, which appears in his memoirs, Kissinger says for the night of April 30th that he knew that Nixon was dead in the water at that point; that the administration was paralyzed and probably on the way out.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Stanley Kutler, and he sued the National Archives for the release of the Nixon tapes, and those tapes have since been released. Stanley Kutler has edited them for his new book Abuse of Power.
I think one of the really interesting revelations from these tapes is how the Nixon White House tried to use government agencies for the Nixon White House's own -- you know, personal gain; wanted to use the CIA to thwart the FBI investigation of the Watergate break-in.
GROSS: But Nixon hated the CIA because...
GROSS: ... the CIA gave a briefing to Kennedy on Cuba during the 1960 presidential campaign.
GROSS: Nixon wanted the IRS to go after journalist Daniel Schorr and Mary McGrory, but he wanted retribution against the IRS for going after his buddy Billy Graham.
KUTLER: And John Wayne.
GROSS: So it's just -- yeah, it's just really interesting to read about how he was trying to manipulate these government agencies for his own gain.
KUTLER: Well, he's -- he's says very clearly, or you hear this very clearly, he's a man of passions; of pique; of anger; of hurt. He nurses grievances constantly. You know, his old speechwriter and aide, the columnist William Safire in the book that he wrote during the -- after the -- during the time, that's called "Before the Fall" -- he talked about Nixon and some of his advisers like Colson and Haldeman, sitting around rubbing scabs, rubbing swords -- sores. It's like they would like to fester -- they had these festering conversations.
And they'd say "get this guy, get that guy" and so forth. The tapes are filled with those sort of things. And as I say, it's a reflection of the man's anger and his pique and his anxieties.
GROSS: It's interesting to read some of Nixon's anti-Semitic language in his tirades. He says to Haldeman: "Bob, please get me the names of the Jews -- you know, the big Jewish contributors of the Democrats. Could we please investigate some of the -- expletives."
Then he criticized a reporter and FBI executive saying: "they're both Jews, and that has nothing to do with it, but it at least gives you a feeling of the possible motivation deep down of the liberal leftists."
GROSS: Did you find those kind of anti-Semitic language recurring a lot in Nixon's talk?
KUTLER: Well, it recurs a good deal throughout these tapes. There's a tie -- the people who leak in government are Jews; McGovern has a big Jewish contributors. Well, you know, Nixon did, too. He kind of ignores that.
Now, you know, on this subject, his defenders and his associates, some of whom are Jewish -- by the way, you know, one should point out that he did have an ample representation of Jews in the government -- Henry Kissinger, Leonard Garment, White House aide and so forth. They're -- want to point out that -- they'd like to point out that Nixon's anti-Semitism never became "operational."
Well, I never know quite exactly what to make of that. What do they mean? That Nixon never ordered a Holocaust? He never ordered the elimination of people? The fact is that he used this language.
It's used to express his anger, his frustration, his envy. It's not very becoming, and you know I don't see why it's difficult for people to admit that. It simply is not very becoming. It's very unpleasant and it recurs a great deal. There's not an isolated episode of it.
GROSS: The last tape that Nixon made in the White House -- the last tape that you've transcribed for your...
KUTLER: Well, I think it's the last tape that he made in the White House; the last recording we have. It's on July 12th, the day that Butterfield revealed the existence of the tapes.
GROSS: His final words -- Nixon's final words in a conversation with Kissinger are: "keep fighting."
GROSS: What's the context of that conversation and the significance of Nixon's words?
KUTLER: Well, it's a conversation which said -- he and Kissinger often engaged in these kind of mutual support conversations, of each trying to buck up the spirits of the other. And the word -- I find, I find that conversation fascinating, because the word "fight" runs through his memoirs like a red thread -- battle, conflict. He was a combative man. He saw life as a constant