News Scoops From Age of Leisure Suit

Tape Delay

Lyndon Baines Johnson, haranguing a hairdresser about his "patriotic duty" to make Lady Bird look good. Richard Nixon, insisting that any socialite who wants to be an ambassador must give his campaign $250,000. John F. Kennedy, buying the political support of Mafia boss Sam Giancana (or probably not, say many historians).

The past is strongly present in Washington this fall. A flurry of new presidential books about the 1960s and '70s - some based on extraordinary taped evidence, one extraordinarily controversial - make '90s politics look pretty dull in comparison.

They were giants in those days, with giant issues like the Cuban Missile Crisis and Watergate. We've got IRS reform, the transportation bill, and some Al Gore thing about a lack of controlling legal authority.

Then again, maybe it just takes the fullness of time, plus scholarship, for the rich dimensionality of our national leaders to emerge. Future descriptions of the Clinton White House may bear only a faint resemblance to the one produced by today's eye-blink journalism.

And if nothing else, the new historical material reminds us that our national leaders are not cartoons, but real people. Maybe not normal people, but complicated humans nonetheless.

"All presidents are flawed," says Jack Valenti, a former LBJ aide and longtime Washington lobbyist. "Anybody who wants to be president is not normal."

The nostalgia material can be roughly cleaved into two categories: documentaries and revisionism.

The documentaries are a series of books based on newly released or newly transcribed tape recordings from the '60s and '70s. They include a complete record of the tense deliberations of President Kennedy and his top advisers during the Cuban Missile Crisis, produced by Harvard historian Ernest R. May; scholar Michael Beschloss' new book on LBJ's White House tapes; and a coming book by Stanley Kutler dealing with 200 hours of just-released recordings from Richard Nixon's famous cache.

The Washington Post and other publications have already printed excerpts from the new Nixon transcripts, which all deal with "abuses of governmental power," according to their National Archives categorization.

The revisionism category is occupied by one book: Seymour Hersh's "Dark Side of Camelot," which claims, among other things, that JFK had prostitutes frolic in the White House pool. More on that later.

Critics have almost universally praised the documentaries that are based on taped evidence. The consensus is they offer a peek of the real dailiness of life at the pinnacle of power. Taken together they "give us a picture of the private world of the presidency that we have never had before and will probably never have again," wrote The New York Times.

And what conclusions do they come to?

* During the Cuban Missile Crisis, US leaders, and primarily the president, behaved exactly as the nation's citizens would have wanted. Discussions were focused, deliberate, and as somber as the stakes called for. Kennedy was a dove, but a skeptical one; at the height of the tension it was clear that he regarded the use of force as more of a last resort than the rest of the men in the room.

The book ends as JFK orders a Tiffany's silver commemorative for the crisis committee. "What I thought of was something that would have the month of October on it. And the 10 days [of the crisis] would have a line drawn around the calender," he said.

* LBJ was "mesmerizing," in Mr. Beschloss' words, a caricature of himself. He could switch in moments from discussion of wifely hair styles to complicated strategy for the passage of the civil rights bill. He was a master manipulator, and he was darkly ambivalent about the nation's growing involvement in Vietnam. But he felt that to do anything but escalate the war would expose him to withering political attack.

He had odd moments of pathos. "A little love. That's all I want," he said.


"When he was bad, nobody could be worse," says longtime Washington insider Robert Strauss.

* Nixon was similarly protean, a master politician. And some of the things he did were even worse than you remember (or read about in school, depending on your age).

Newly released White House tapes show that Nixon considered destroying the tapes much earlier than previously known. He talked openly about pardoning everyone in his administration convicted of a Watergate related crime, even "poor. . . dumb [attorney general] John Mitchell."

Nixon set a price tag on ambassadorships and explicitly linked a raise in federal milk-price supports to dairy-lobby contributions. His campaign-finance abuses were far more blatant than anything current evidence shows the Clinton administration did.

He still has Washington defenders. "Except for Watergate, the Nixon presidency would be viewed much differently today," says his former Defense Secretary, Mel Laird. And some point to JFK, or at least JFK's character, as context for Nixon's behavior.

In the decades since his tragic death, Kennedy has indeed been the subject of much revisionism. Many of the worst charges are summarized and amplified in Mr. Hersh's book, which has been denounced by some scholars as a hack job with poor sources, some of whom have already recanted their stories.

Hersh asserts that Ted Kennedy served as a bagman for his older brother in the crucial West Virginia primary, for instance, paying off county chairmen. Senator Kennedy himself denounces this as "fiction," and at least one of the chairmen at issue, publisher Charles Peters, has said Hersh wouldn't listen to his claims that the payoffs didn't happen - despite the fact that he interviewed Mr. Peters five times.

Still, the outline of JFK's personal character as a reckless womanizer is something many other writers now agree upon. Hersh does not balance the account with Kennedy's policy achievements - such as the superpower standoff of 10 days in October 1962.

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