Listening in on White House conversations

Though the Watergate investigation made him the presidential poster boy for wiretapped phones and bugged offices, Richard Nixon wasn't the first American leader to covertly record the day-to-day operations of the White House. (And though there is no proof, there is a better than reasonable chance that he wasn't the last.) Evidence points to Oval Office bugs dating back to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and telephone taps as early as John F. Kennedy, and White House Tapes: The President Calling offers a chance to listen in on the conversations of three commanders-in-chief.

A production of American RadioWorks (the national documentary unit of Minnesota Public Radio), President Calling offers a streaming, one-hour recording of the program as broadcast in early November, as well as transcripts, additional audio excerpts and related documents. (The clips available at this site are only a small sample from a book and nine-CD boxed set co-created by American RadioWorks.) Broken into four 'chapters,' President Calling opens with some background on the practice of presidential bugging as well as a few introductory audio samples - ranging from a John F. Kennedy conversation with ex-president Eisenhower during the October Missile Crisis, to Richard Nixon's assessment of the Watergate crisis. ("It'll pass, it'll pass.") The next three chapters deal with the leaders individually, focusing on pivotal events during each president's time in office.

Kennedy tapes focus on the "Mississippi Crisis" - as Air Force veteran James Meredith fought segregation while trying to gain admission to the University of Mississippi. With more raw material from the Johnson administration to draw from (the president would sometimes work three phone calls simultaneously), RadioWorks offers three LBJ features, covering the days immediately following the Kennedy assassination, his work with Martin Luther King to facilitate passing of the Voting Rights Act, and decisions about the war in Vietnam. Nixon tapes also highlight three events - the appointment of William Rehnquist to the Supreme Court, "Bombing for Peace" in Vietnam, and of course, Watergate.

Naturally, the site offers more than just a chance to replay the radio broadcast. After an overview of the practice of covert taping in the White House (complete with floor plan of the Oval Office complex),The President Calling mirrors the broadcast audio with three online chapters - offering narration and commentary in text, while keeping the telephone exchanges available in RealAudio clips as well as transcript form. (This option may be preferable for those who may have unreliable audio streaming performance, or simply want to dedicate their bandwidth to the actual phone conversations.) And while most of the excerpts and texts of the online features match the radio broadcast (albeit with the occasional shuffling of some components), there are extras worth investigating even for those who have listened to the full program. Additional background documents include a chronological collection of letters between James Meredith, the registrar of the University of Mississippi, and such third parties as Thurgood Marshall, an entry from Lady Bird Johnson's diary for November 22, 1963, and a slide show of Nixon's last three days in office.

While secretly taping a conversation is never the 'polite' thing to do, the presidents' lack of phone etiquette has served to provide unique glimpses of these leaders (and politicians) as they reacted to critical events. Of course, on at least some occasions, speakers on one or both ends of the line may have been choosing their words with posterity in mind, but even this reveals something about the men involved - and in any case, these are exchanges that have escaped filtration through press secretaries or 'translation' by historians.

White House Tapes: The President Calling can be found at

(Surfers intrigued by this first-hand access to White House decision-making can find more at the National Security Archive, which is currently featuring documents on the Kennedy administration's support for a coup to remove South Vietnamese leader Ngo Dinh Diem, and more Nixon White House tapes published in conjunction with Mexico's Proceso magazine.)

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