Johnson tapes show history’s many possibilities

As a student of history, it’s hard not to marvel at stories like this (“The Lyndon Johnson Tapes: Richard Nixon’s ‘treason’“).

It was President Lyndon Johnson who installed the famous policy of recording everything that happened in the Oval Office. His idea was that the tapes would provide the historical record to correct the speculations of the times. His successor President Nixon continued the practice, which ended up being his undoing as tapes revealed his connection to the Watergate break-in scandal and cover-up. After that, no American president has dared allow recordings of sensitive matters in the White House.

But these original Johnson tapes continue to provide fascinating historical understanding of events of that time, including this: Johnson was planning to jump into the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago to wrest the nomination from the two competing Minnesotans, Johnson’s vice president Hubert Humphrey and Sen. Eugene McCarthy. The plan was undone by the fact that Johnson could not safely land on the roof in a helicopter.

Further, Johnson had evidence that then-candidate Richard Nixon had secretly sabotaged the Vietnam peace talks, continuing the bloody war that Johnson privately wanted to wind down. But a false sense of confidence that Humphrey would win prevented him from revealing the scandal.

Mostly, this story reminds me that since Nixon presidents have sought to reduce the number of records showing how they thought or what they talked about privately. There are few letters. Few annotations. E-mail is stripped of all sensitive content. Conversations are not recorded. The whole enterprise is left to interviews after the fact, in which facts are spun by officials who each may have a different motivation in explaining how the story played out. Indeed, sometimes memory is just plain faulty.

In this context, Johnson’s efforts to record history represent a mind-blowing act of courage … and ego, of course … but net courage.

Of course, Johnson’s tapes also provide some lighter conversations that show more about the man himself. See below the jump for two such chats, one a candid conversation between two dead presidents, and another between Johnson and the man who tailored his favorite pants.

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. meets with President Johnson.

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