Taking Charge: The Johnson White House Tapes 1963 1964

Taking Charge: The Johnson White House Tapes 1963 1964

by Michael R. Beschloss

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Lyndon Johnson's secretly recorded tapes offer us the only chance we are ever likely to have to eavesdrop on an American President from his first moments in office until the end. This universally acclaimed volume captures LBJ's private passions and bedrock beliefs as he takes command after John Kennedy's assassination; makes his first fateful decisions on civil


Lyndon Johnson's secretly recorded tapes offer us the only chance we are ever likely to have to eavesdrop on an American President from his first moments in office until the end. This universally acclaimed volume captures LBJ's private passions and bedrock beliefs as he takes command after John Kennedy's assassination; makes his first fateful decisions on civil rights, poverty, and Vietnam; and runs against Barry Goldwater for President. Michael Beschloss's observations and annotations enhance our understanding of Johnson, his era, and his lasting impact on American politics and culture.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Alan Brinkley The New York Times Book Review [Taking Charge] gives us an incomparable picture of the character and style of one of the most remarkable personalities ever to inhabit the Presidency.

Albert R. Hunt The Wall Street Journal When it comes to sheer marvelous history, Taking Charge is unbeatable. Anybody who cares about presidential elections or about American history — or who simply wants to have fun — should read these Johnson tapes.

Michiko Kakutani The New York Times Compelling...as expertly selected, edited, and footnoted by Beschloss, the conversations form a fascinating record of the first nine months of Johnson's administration, providing new insights into his character and a revealing look at the day-to-day workings of his presidency and the crucial decisions he would make on Vietnam and civil rights.

Richard Barnet The Washington Post Book World A fascinating portrait of an imposing, manipulative, driven, conflicted, and surprisingly vulnerable character whose political ambitions had suddenly been achieved under frightening circumstances.

Steve Neal Chicago Sun Times An extraordinary study of one of the more extraordinary characters in American history. Johnson the man is brought vividly to life in Taking Charge.

Hugh Brogan The Spectator No one seriously or frivolously interested in American history and politics should leave this book unread....A stupendous, unstudied self-portrait....If [later volumes of The Johnson White House Tapes] are the equals of this one for insight into the very heart of high politics, then a classic is in the making.

The Barnes & Noble Review
October 1997

As seen on "Nightline" and "Larry King Live," and excerpted extensively in Newsweek, the presidential tapes of Lyndon B. Johnson have been unsealed. They are examined in Michael R. Beschloss's Taking Charge: The Johnson White House Tapes, 1963-1964.

The only president to record his private conversations from his first day in office, LBJ ordered the tapes to be locked in a vault until at least the year 2023. But that request has been preempted and the tapes unsealed, providing a close-up look at a president taking power in a way we have never seen before, beginning with John F. Kennedy's murder in November 1963 and continuing through Johnson's campaign for a landslide victory. In Taking Charge, Beschloss, whom Newsweek has called "America's leading presidential historian," has transcribed and annotated the secretly recorded tapes, providing historical commentary that allows us to understand fully the people, crises, and controversies that appear on them.

Significant events and revelations chronicled in Taking Charge include:

  • The aftermath of the Kennedy assassination, including Johnson's conversations with FBI director J. Edgar Hoover about the killing. Although he publicly endorsed the Warren Commission's lone-gunman findings, LBJ privately suspected that President Kennedy was killed by a conspiracy, probably backed by Fidel Castro.
  • As early as the spring of 1964, while he prepared for possible military action in Southeast Asia, LBJ privately expressed doubts that theUnitedStates could ever win a land war in Vietnam.
  • Johnson feared, after signing the Civil Rights Act, that blacks — inspired by Communists and the man he called "Muslim X" (Malcolm X) — might riot and bring about a national white backlash against civil rights.

The Johnson White House tapes provide us with an intimate look at Johnson's complex, changing relationships with Lady Bird and the rest of his family, Jacqueline Kennedy, ex-Presidents Truman and Eisenhower, and members of the White House staff. Taking Charge is not only a unique exploration of a momentous presidency but also a highly personal look at the private man who took office after an American tragedy and led the nation into some of its most tumultuous years.

Michiko Kakutani
A masterful job. A remarkable intimate portrait of a working President, while at the same time revealing the man behind the myth. —The New York Times
Alan Brinkley
Riveting. . . .An incomparable picture of the character and style of one of the most remarkable personalities ever to inhabit the Presidency. -- The New York Times Book Review
Albert Hunt
Anybody who cares about Presidential elections or about American history. . .should read these Johnson tapes. -- The Wall Street Journal
Richard J. Barnet
A fascinating portrait of an imposing. . .and surprisingly vulnerable character. . . Engrossing. -- The Washington Post Book World

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Simon & Schuster
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1.27(w) x 6.14(h) x 9.21(d)

Read an Excerpt


Three years after John Kennedy was murdered in Dallas, Lyndon Johnson was alarmed by early reports about the soon-to-be-published book The Death of a President, by William Manchester. Inspired by Jacqueline Kennedy, who wanted a single authorized history to overshadow other books being written by authors she distrusted, Manchester's book was said to show a Johnson eager to seize power and insensitive to the dead President's family. While privately asking for advice on how to muffle the political damage of Manchester's book, LBJ offered his own memories of November 22, 1963, and its prelude.

In Manchester's narrative, the fatal trip to Texas is foreshadowed when President-elect Kennedy visits the LBJ Ranch eight days after he and Johnson win the 1960 election.

LBJ: I didn't force him to come to Texas. Hell, he wanted to come out there him-self! Called up and he came. He didn't bring Miz Kennedy, and he may have told her that he didn't want to come because he brought some other people. [chuckles darkly] But it is a hell of a note.

Manchester writes that although Kennedy believed that "all killing was senseless," Johnson cajoled him into a deer hunt at dawn, during which Kennedy "looked into the face of the life he was about to take...fired and quickly turned back to the car."

LBJ: Forcing that poor man to go hunting? Hell, he not only killed one deer. He insisted on killing a second! One took two hours and then, by God, he insisted on killing one for Torby O'Donnell and we just worked so hard. It took three hours and I finally gave up. I said, "Mr. President, we just can't do it."

Poor little deer — he saw it in his eye and he just could not shoot it? Well, hell, he wasn't within 250 yards from it....He shot it and he jumped up and hoorahed and put it right on the fender of the car so he could kill another one....Most of them have got a rule — they will not let you kill but one. But he was the President ...and we wanted him to have whatever he wanted....He wasn't competent to be President if he — I think it is the greatest desecration of his memory that an "impotent" Vice President could force this strong man to do a goddamned thing.

As Manchester had it, based on his interviews with Jacqueline, Kennedy told his wife the "distressing" story in order to "rid himself of the recollection" and "heal the inner scar." Johnson had the deer's antlers and head mounted. After Kennedy became President, Johnson persistently suggested that JFK display his trophy in the Oval Office. Although "inwardly appalled," according to Manchester, the President, as a "favor" to Johnson, allowed it to be hung in the nearby Fish Room.

LBJ: My calling him up and making him put a deer head in his outer room and he didn't want to? I never called him in my life on it. He had his fish up there that he caught on his honeymoon. He put his deer head up there.

[sarcastically:] But even if we had made the tragic mistake of forcing this poor man to put up a deer head here along with his fish — I do not know who forced him to put up the fish in the Fish Room that he caught on his honeymoon, but I damned sure didn't force him to put up anything. It is just a manufactured lie.

Manchester wrote that Kennedy came to Texas in November 1963 because Johnson had failed to resolve the "petty dispute," which threatened the 1964 Kennedy-Johnson ticket in Texas, between LBJ's old protégé, Governor John Connally, and their political enemy, the liberal Democratic Senator, Ralph Yarborough.
LBJ: My forcing him to go to Texas! I never heard of it. Matter of fact, I tried to postpone it. Told him our popularity was too low.

Kennedy insisted for two years that he come and make five money-raising speeches and he finally told him in my presence, said, "Mr. President, they are going to think that all the Kennedys want out of Texas is money...I would suggest you make one money-raising speech and whatever else you do totally nonpolitical." And he told him that in the spring — April — and he told him that in June, and then, because I would not encourage it, by God, he called him up and would not let me know he was calling him and he came up here and had a secret meeting with him....And he told John the reason he didn't tell me: "The Vice President is not enthusiastic."

That's a great myth, that he came here to settle things for me. He came down here because he wanted to raise a million dollars and try to improve himself. And he'd been to Massachusetts and done the same thing. I put him off several months and Connally put him off several months. Didn't want him to come. Told him it was a mistake for him to come. And he finally called Connally...secretly to the White House, and he didn't tell me a thing about it. And Connally agreed that if he'd wait two or three months, he would help him with a dinner. And he didn't want to....And I...had to call my personal friends long distance to get them to put up in order for 'em to even have a respectable crowd.

At the Rice Hotel in Houston, on Thursday evening, November 21, 1963, Johnson had his final private meeting with Kennedy. In the next room, Jacqueline was rehearsing her Spanish, preparing to speak downstairs to a Hispanic-American group. According to Manchester, the First Lady heard "raised voices" — Kennedy complaining, "expressing himself with exceptional force," about LBJ's treatment of Yarborough in Texas — and that when Johnson departed, the hotel manager thought that he "looked furious."

LBJ: This Manchester stuff about Kennedy and I having an argument — I never had an argument with him in my life.

All I can remember was Miz Kennedy was practicing, talking about her Spanish and about...whether she would go or not to this Spanish thing. The President...told me that he just thought that it was an outrage, that he had heard what Yarborough had done, that he had told him that Yarborough had to ride with us or get out of the party. There was no disagreement of any kind and no violence of any kind. A very friendly thing. And he and I had a drink together, and he sat there with his shirt off and left. We had no debate or no argument or no report and I had not asked to see him anyway. If she heard anybody having a disagreement of any kind, it was the President talking about Yarborough.

The next day came the assassination. According to Manchester, after Kennedy's death was announced at Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas, Johnson's "slumped figure" was seen "sniffing from a vapor inhaler." Manchester wrote that a "dazed, silent" LBJ was "far readier to take orders than issue them." Presented a choice between flying back to Washington on Air Force One or the vice presidential backup plane, Johnson chose the President's aircraft and was taken in an unmarked car to the Dallas airport, Love Field.

LBJ: One place they say I slumped, had a vapor inhaler, and would not take any leadership, and the next day I was so arrogant I was bossing everything.

What raced through my mind was that if they had shot our President, driving down there, who would they shoot next? And what was going on in Washington? And when would the missiles be coming? I thought it was a conspiracy and I raised that question, and nearly everybody that was with me raised it.

And the thought that I should go to a plane that did not have the Bag and did not have the communication — by God, after this terrible thing had happened — is inconceivable to me.

At 1:33 P.M., heeding a Secret Service agent's shouted order, Johnson ran up the steps to Air Force One, where he prepared to take the oath as President.

LBJ: The reason I went to the airport and didn't take it in the hospital was, first, I wanted to be able to talk to the Attorney General and get the oath. And the second thing was McNamara had always told me that...if you got a warning [of possible nuclear war]...the thing they ought to do is get as high in the air as you can because you was least vulnerable there. Flying, a missile doesn't get you. A plane doesnt get you. You have time to think and you have adequate communications.

With the shades on the plane yanked shut, Johnson sat in the Presidential bedroom on Jacqueline Kennedy's bed and made telephone calls. One was to the late President's brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, at his home in Virginia. Johnson later insisted that RFK advised him to take the oath immediately. According to Manchester, drawing on interviews with Robert, no opinion was offered by the Attorney General, who would have sentimentally preferred that Johnson wait until he landed in Washington so that John Kennedy could return to the capital one last time as President.

LBJ: I thought the most important thing in the world was to decide who was President of this country at that moment. I was fearful that the Communists were trying to take us over...I think that Bobby agreed that it would be all right to be sworn in. He said he wanted to look into it and he would get back to me, which he did.

There's also an implication that Bobby didn't want us to take the oath, when the implication made to me was that he thought it was better to take it there, that he would have somebody call me to give me the oath, and he did.

"He sprawled out on the bunk"? I didn't sprawl. I sat and talked on the phone.

According to Manchester, when Mrs. Kennedy boarded the plane, she found Johnson reclining" on her bed and "came to a dead stop." LBJ "hastily lumbered past her," followed by his secretary, Marie Fehmer, while "the widow stared after them." Then Johnson returned to offer condolences and "called her 'Honey!'"

LBJ: "He lumbered out of the room as she came in"? Well, now, lumbering — I don't know, I guess that's their way of saying I walked out. But he didn't see me walk out or he doesn't know whether I lumbered or trotted or walked or anything else.

You know, if I call some guy's office to get him, I say to his secretary, "Honey, have him call in." I don't think that I said that to anybody. And I don't think that I called Miz Kennedy "honey." I think that's their idea of "you-all" and "comin'" — C-O-M-I-N — and this stuff they write about Texas.

I think I would call people "honey" if I felt they were "honey." And I might have very well said that to Miz Kennedy, although I never felt that way about her and never believed it. I have held her kind of up on a pedestal and been very reserved with her, as her letters to me will indicate — very proper, very appropriate, very dignified, very reserved.

On Manchester and his book:

LBJ: I took the position when Manchester was selected that he was a fraud. I refused to see him. I asked my people not to see him....Just as I asked them not to see Teddy White. I think they're agents of the people who want to destroy me. And I hate for them to use my friends to do it....My friends don't know it, and they want to be popular and they just do it. And I don't say it's so much popularity. I don't think my wife wants to be popular. But I think she wants to be — accommodating would be a good word.

I am just going to keep my counsel and try to endure it. But it is vicious, mean, dirty, low-down stuff.

All of it makes Bobby look like a great hero and makes me look like a son of a bitch.

My feeling on the Manchester book is...that we are not equipped by experience, by tradition, by personality or financially to cope with this. I just do not believe that we know how to handle public relations and how to handle advertising agencies, how to handle manuscripts, how to handle book writers....So I think they're going to write history as they want it written, as they can buy it written. And I think the best way we can write it is to try to refrain from getting into an argument or a fight or a knockdown, and go on and do our job every day, as best we can.

Copyright © 1997 by Michael R. Beschloss

Meet the Author

Michael Beschloss has been called "the nation's leading Presidential historian" by Newsweek. He has written eight books on American Presidents and is NBC News Presidential Historian, as well as contributor to PBS's The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. He lives in Washington, D.C., with his wife and two sons.

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