LBJ's Oval Office Tapes Reveal The Man Behind the Myth

In contrast to his reserved public demeanor, President Johnson's cajoling, cooing is heard on audio tapes.

They are just not the sorts of things you'd expect to hear a president of the United States talk about.

Caught accidentally by his own telephone-recording device, President Lyndon Johnson can be heard ordering a half dozen pairs of pants from the owner of the Hagar Clothing company in Texas. In earthy Texas-speak, LBJ requests that additional room be added to the inseam for greater comfort, comparing wearing the off-the-shelf versions to "riding a barbed- wire fence."

They may cause a red face for the Johnson family, but the 642 hours of audio tapes that he left behind - which are slowly being made public - are a historical treasure and a sharp contrast to the video tape of President Clinton's coffee sessions that Washington is currently buzzing about. They also point up the great long-term value - and short-term political risk - of recording intimate conversations in the nation's most powerful office.

"It shows that presidents are men, not demigods or machines. They have great emotions and frustrations, just like the rest of us," says Allida Black, a historian at George Washington University here. "And sometimes their clothes don't fit," she chuckles.

Some historians argue that tapes made by Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon are as crucial to discerning the character of the men who led the nation in the turbulent 1960s as are the papers of the Founding Fathers to understanding democracy.

"It reveals the most when you have a president whose method of operation is very different in private than it is in public," says historian Michael Beschloss.

In his newly released book, "Taking Charge: The Johnson White House Tapes, 1963-1964," Mr. Beschloss says the intimate nature of the tapes allows the listener to be behind the desk in the Oval Office. "In public we have this man appearing statesmanlike, sometimes almost wooden. Privately, there is this mesmerizing figure who is a master in using power. And you see him doing it in all sorts of ways," he says.

LBJ's ability to dish out the "Johnson Treatment" - to persuade and intimidate - was legendary. From lobbying lawmakers while swimming in the buff in the White House pool, to standing nose to nose in the Oval Office, pressing his great bulk against the target of his persuasion, he was hard to deny. "It's one thing to hear about it," says Beschloss. "It's another thing to hear it."

Franklin Roosevelt was the first president to record conversations in the White House. But John Kennedy was the first to extensively record conversations using a hidden microphone, opening a rare window of insight into the presidency that was abruptly shut after Richard Nixon's tapes incriminated him in the Watergate scandal.

"We only have this intensive record by tape of presidential action and decisionmaking for roughly a 10-year period. We never had it before, and we'll never have it again," says Harvard University historian Ernest May, co-author of the newly released "The Kennedy Tapes," about the Cuban missile crisis. "You are not going to get this kind of understanding from any other source, because official documents don't record how people learn things. You can hear that happening on the tapes," he says.

INDEED, the risks of recording a president's thoughts and private conversations today may be working against the chances of incriminating evidence - or any evidence at all - being caught on tape.

Mr. Clinton has encouraged examination of the belatedly found videotapes of himself sipping coffee with deep-pocketed Democratic donors. But these tapes will have far less historical value than recordings of Johnson anguishing over Vietnam and cooing to his wife, Kennedy playing cold-war chess, or Nixon plotting against his rivals. "You have on the Clinton tapes gatherings of 30 or 40 people," says Beschloss. "It's not going to induce the president to reveal confidences." Beschloss says Clinton has told him he's not taping his conversations.

But such tapes can have long-term value. Jack Valenti, a Johnson confidant, believes the LBJ tapes will boost Johnson's image as a great president spoiled by the Vietnam War. "There are a lot of things that show him in a different light," he says.

Such ongoing image development won't occur for those who don't leave intimate recordings or diaries, Valenti notes. "I think any president who does not tape is a fool."

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