Presidents and the irresistible urge to record themselves

Bill Clinton is the latest in a long line of presidents to be haunted by tapes of their presidential conversations.


What is it with presidents and tape recorders? You think they’d learn. But no, they’re like moths to a flame.

That’s Decoder’s reaction to news of the new oral history of Bill Clinton’s White House, based on 79 taped interviews with historian Taylor Branch. You just know there’s stuff in there that Mr. Clinton will be sorry he said. But he won’t be able to deny it if it’s on tape.
For instance, he reportedly talks about Boris Yeltsin, on a visit to Washington, getting drunk and wandering around Pennsylvania Avenue in his underwear. Maybe he can get away with that.

But describing Jimmy Carter as someone who “doesn’t have much positive to say”? There’s going to be an angry wind rising out of Georgia over that one.

Pretty much every US president from Franklin Roosevelt to Richard Nixon taped themselves at some point. Their motivation was to chronicle their actions for history. Problem is, most also chronicled some moments they probably would not have wanted history to know about.

• FDR’s Oval Office machine caught him lying to a delegation of civil rights leaders on Sept. 27, 1940, telling them he’d put a proportional number of African-Americans into US combat forces. He had no intention of doing that.

John Kennedy, on March 1, 1963, recorded himself ordering “one of those blue pills” from White House doctor George Burkley. Kennedy hid his dependence on medication from the public.

Lyndon Johnson, on Aug. 8, 1964, called the son of the president of Haggar clothing and belched while ordering up roomy pants.

• The Nixon tapes are a lesson in disaster unto themselves. They proved the president took part fully in the attempt to cover up Watergate.

But Roosevelt provides one of the most intriguing tape mysteries. He recorded himself for 11 weeks in 1940 and then stopped, though his tape machine stayed wired into his Oval Office lamp until his death in 1945.

Perhaps Bill Clinton is wishing he’d followed that lead.

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