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tv   The Presidency LB Js White House Tapes  CSPAN  June 1, 2022 4:46pm-5:46pm EDT

4:46 pm >> good evening. i'm associate professor and chair of the presidency program at the university virginia public affairs. on behalf of the center the lbj's foundation, like to welcome you to the lyndon b. johnson in the white house takes on the ground jewel in the archives. president johnson he declared it is all here, the story of
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history better than a 650 hours of telephone conversation that obedient tape during his time in office, covering the key issues of the day, he has recorded this, opening an exporting window into johnson building a great society, fighting a war on poverty, legislating for civil rights and struggling with policy toward vietnam. they also shed lights on johnson's approach to the presidency, to the press and to many other issues of the day. over the past 20 years, my colleagues and i at the miller center, with support from the national historical publications and records commission, have been transcribing and analyzing the lbj white house tapes and as of tonight, we are pleased to announce in with the lbj
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library and foundation, a new website that provides greater access to their contents, lbj tapes dot org. visitors will be able to hear some of the most significant and revealing conversations from the collection and to beat along with specially curated transcripts, each of which is embedded in a rich variety of historical resources. we think this will be of great value to students, teachers, scholars, the interested public and anybody who wants to know more about president johnson, the administration he led, and the america that he served. to celebrate the launch of the site and to commemorate the golden anniversary of the lbj presidential library, we are thrilled to host this evening's special conversation about the lbj tapes. please join me in welcoming melody barnes, michael beschloss, ryan williams and the director of the lbj library, mark willens. >> thank you, mark. thanks so much to the miller center for this wonderful partnership, that has resulted in this
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terrific new website that makes available more widely, and with more contacts than ever for these remarkable telephone recordings from the johnson presidency. i now have the huge privilege of welcoming three extraordinary individuals. who are going to help us think about these conversations and think about the 36 president of the united states and the times in which he lived. it is truly a dream team of commentators to help us with this task. i want, first of all, to welcome melody barnes, who is that dorothy danforth professor and co-director of the democracy initiative at the university of virginia. melody served as a senior domestic policy adviser to president obama, and in 2020, hosted the award winning podcast, lbj and the great society, a project that made very extensive use of the lgbt recordings. next, i would like to welcome michael beschloss, an emmy winning contributor to nbc news, and that pbs news hour. his ten highly regarded books on presidential history
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include to that die very deeply into the lbj recording. finally, i would like to welcome brian williams, the anchor of the 11th hour, with brian williams, which airs weeknights on msnbc. brian served as managing editor of the nbc nightly news for a decade, during which he earned just about every award that a broadcast journalist can earn. brian, michael, melody, welcome and thanks so much for being here. now, i want of course to play some of these tapes, and get your reactions to them. let's talk for just a moment about what these tapes are, why they were made, and how they have come to light over the years. michael, i think your experience with the tapes goes back at least to the 1990s, if not further back. can you talk a little bit about how you first discovered the tapes, and a little bit about how they
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came to light over the years that followed? >> yeah, i was having dinner with all of friends and harry middleton in the famous, and i always say, the joe dimaggio of presidential library directors. i think all of you would agree with that. this was about a 1993 or 1994. i was having dinner with him in the jockey club in washington with harry mcpherson, the honored longtime lbj aide and public servant in other ways. and harry began talking to me about these tapesa and he said, do you know they existed? i said, i had heard that he taped some of his conversations. how many could he have actually taped, harry? harry said, well, over 700 hours. they go from the beginning of the presidency to the end. i said, well, if these are real tapes, in other words, not just lbj saying, i am earnest for peace, i am doing this, and in other words, as
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long as they were not tapes made for the ear of a later historian, this is going to be an amazing contribution to johnson scholarship, to understanding him. number one, it is whatever historian dreams of. suddenly, you run into a cache of an original source that is so immense and all encompassing that it could change the way that we see a president and everything that he did. the other thing is, i would say, i said this to harry that evening, i would say it now, if you wanted a source on lbj, if you could only choose one, i would probably choose tapes of his private conversations. i sure wouldn't choose a letters, as we all know, he wrote these lovely letters. many of them are not written by him. some of the most heartfelt give you a real window on the heart, but it is the heart of jack valenti, who is someone else. lbj was not in the habit of pulling his innermost most feelings into a letter. some of the reminisces by aides who admired him were
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somewhat restrained. here's men wires was an oval effort, i don't think anyone would say that the vantage point is helpful as it is in certain ways, gives you a sense of lbj really talking and telling you what was really on his mind. to have these tapes, this is why you really want. as opposed to, let's say, dwight eisenhower. you wouldn't particularly want tapes because eisenhower was quite reserved and private, as he was in public. same with calvin coolidge. i said to harry, i am glad you have decided to open these things. this could be a revolution. why did you do it? and he said, we are doing it for two reasons. number one, the oliver stone, there was an effort after oliver stone was making his film jfk. to get files related to the kennedy assassination open. he said, i was advised by
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our legal people that we might not only have a lawsuit of that kind for any of the tapes that deal with the assassination, but also more generally for all the tapes. so, i talked to mrs. johnson. i said, you have got a recommendation for us, which is, should we keep these closed? or should they be opened? and she said, go ahead and open them. essentially, i am proud of what my husband did. i know that there will be things on them that i don't like because i haven't heard them. but i am
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confident enough and what lyndon did, the more people find out about what he did both his strength and his flaws, the better. which is just the kind of presidential relative you'd want. she showed amazing insight. not only changed history, i think really change the way that her husband is seen now by historians and other later americans. >> one of the questions that hangs around the table is why lbj made them in the first place. why would lbj havemade these? for that matter, why did american president from roosevelt to nixon make similar kinds of recordings? >> lbj, when he was a senator, used to make tapes, or used to make records of his private conversations, which was basically his close aide walter jenkins listening in on a dead key extension and making notes, very exact notes of lbj, for instance, getting a commitment from a senator. and there was one wag in the johnson entourage who referred to these notes as the dead key scrolls. but the reason why johnson did this was, if a senator double crossed him, and believe it or
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not, in the 1950s, occasionally that would happen, he would go back to the senator and say, you told me yesterday, and i quote, and then have the exact commitment that had been made. and the senator would wonder why johnson had such perfect recall. so, the technology had improved so that by the time he became president in november of 1963, he thought that not only would this be a historic period, it would also help them as a manager in the same way it had in the senate. and so, as a result from almost the moment he came to the white house from dallas, these tape machines began rolling. >> i would just remind everybody we have lbj to thank for huge portions of watergate. it was johnson who even at one time on his hands and knees walked incoming president dick nixon through the amazing
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recording system he was about to inherit. johnson put brackets around it at that time, saying, you will want this as a record of your conversations. what an incredible gift to historians like michael, that we have these. as michael correctly says in the introduction, the foreword to his first of the two books on the tapes, the only thing worse than anything bad that comes out of these tapes, anything bad we hear in johnson's comments, would have been, in johnson's view, to have been forgotten. this has kept him so relevant. it's so intimate, the experience of listening to these conversations. >> melody, in your work on this wonderful podcast that debuted last year, you use the conversations extensively. in your project, what was it that made these such a valuable tool? >> well, a couple of things. one, i will step back for a second and enter that question through the lens of my experience as a staff person. so, having been ted kennedy's chief counsel, having been
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president obama's domestic policy adviser, so much happens in the room, and so much happens on the phone. and written material can't capture that. what a memo looks like by the time it gets to a senator or a president has often been edited and re-edited and lots of people put their opinions in and they send things back, scribbles and notes. it will tell you something. but when you have those conversations, you get the nuance. you get the tone of voice. you get the humor. you get the anger. things that you can't necessarily interpret from the written word all of a sudden are very visible, or certainly the oratory is available to you. and it gives you a sense of the moment in a way that nothing else really can. and for the purpose of the podcast, i know those who listen to it and came back to me said, oh my gosh, i knew that lyndon
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johnson was a character. but i never knew that. i never had a sense of that. and i also know from some other experiences i've had working with other media companies, as they have interviewed civil rights leaders from the period, people who were negotiating with him, that after listening to the tapes, they said, i wish i had known that. i had no idea he thought that. so, it gives you a real window into what he was thinking and feeling, and the strategic mind. and for us, it takes us, it puts us in the room where it happened in a way that nothing else can. >> let's listen to some tapes. melody, i know that one of your favorites is lbj's conversation with sargent shriver, the head of the peace corps. this one comes from february 1st, of 1964. in this conversation, we hear lbj informing shriver and using all of his legendary per
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safest powers that driver is about to be named the new head of the war on poverty. let's roll the tape and then come back to you all for some thoughts. >> surge? >> good morning mister president, how are? you >> i'm going to announce your appointment at the press conference. >> a press conference? >> this afternoon. >> oh god, i think it would be advisable, if you don't mind, if i could have this weekend. i wanted to sit down with a couple of people and see what we could get in the way of some sort of a plan. because what happens, at least my thought, is that what happens is if you announce somebody or somebody, else and they don't know what they're doing, or the programs going be specifically and who's going to carry it, then you are in a year in a hole. because they all start calling you, when you going to do, and all that? >> just don't talk to them. go away, go to camp david. figured out, we need something to say the press. we've got to say to them, and i've got to tell them when i talk to you about
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yesterday. you can just take off, work out your peace corps in any way want to. you can be head of the committee and have some acting operator. if you want a bill to help you, let him do that, i'll do anything, but i want to announce this and get behind me. so i'll keep getting all these other pressures. and i think you're going to, you've got to do it. you just can't let me down. the quicker we get it behind us the better. -- you can talk to them at the peace administrator. if they want to talk to, you can tell them, you can tell and speak to me. >> melody, thoughts? what is it that makes this one here favor conversations? >> i love this conversation for so many reasons. some of them may not be apparent. as the conversation goes on, there are these humorous moments. johnson is imploring every tool that he has and that he so famously uses. he is goadng, he is
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bullying, he is charming, he is relentless. and he is doing this in furtherance of an objective, a big objective that he has. he has this idea with regard to the war on poverty. and he wants to move very quickly. he understands from his experience in congress that he has got to be able to feed the beast that is the press. no offense, brian! and assure them and the nation that he knows what he is doing and that he is moving forward. so he knows what he wants to accomplish and he rightly understands that sargent shriver is the right person to do this. he does not care that sargent shriver is grieving quite frankly. he cares, for his objective, he does not care. he is just lost some one, a family member, president kennedy. he does not care that he already has a full-time job running the peace
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corps. he does not care that he has a family he has just returned home from being overseas from a period of time. he is focused on what he wants to get done. the reason that i appreciate this tape is because it tells you what kind of leader he is. the good, the bad, the ugly. it tells you that he is relentless in pursuit of his large objective and that he understands that personnel is policy. that he has the right people in the jobs and moving. you see that throughout his administration. even as early as that first night when he tells jack valenti, just get on the plane. jack valenti is in texas, why am i getting on the plane, just get on the plane, he has got to get the right people night places in order to execute on this agenda that he has. that he wants to bring to fruition, knowing that the window is going to be narrow, as it is for every president,
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and he is going to execute. so, that's why i appreciate this moment. >> brian williams, i suppose even before we had the tapes, we knew that lbj was incredibly persuasive. we knew about the johnson treatment. but the tapes seem to provide so much more evidence of those persuasive skills. what was it, do you think, that made lbj so legendarily persuasive? >> i think it is so many contributing factors. a big one is the state of texas, his upbringing there. he was the personification of everything is bigger in texas. he would use all of his physicality, and michael knows this, in barnyard ways we can't talk about in polite society. but he had a huge physical presence. he had an enormous wingspan, he knew exactly what he was doing. he
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had a command of the language and could meld this marvelous mixture of washington talk and texas talk. and you wouldn't want to go up against him. and we know that for all of the kind hearted souls who tried and lost over the course of these tapes. >> and he's able to do it over the telephone, without his physical presence? >> that's right. >> it's easy to say many of the conversations showed different dimensions of these persuasive skills, the johnson treatment. but there are a few, a small number perhaps, of the conversations that wod reveal a different, even submissive side to lbj's personality. and what i would like to do now is to play a very different kind of conversation, this one between lbj and the first lady, lady bird johnson. this one comes march 7th, 1964, and it comes just after the president has given a press conference. and
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shortly thereafter, mrs. johnson calls up her husband and offers a critique of his performance during the press conference. >> mrs. johnson is calling, asking if she can speak to the president for a moment concerning his press conference. >> hello? yes? >> you want to listen for about one minute. >> yes, ma'am. >> -- my critique? >> yes ma'am, i am willing now. >> i thought that you looked strong, firm, and like a reliable guy. your looks were splendi. the close-ups were much better than the distance ones. >> well, you can't get them to do -- it >> well i would say this, there were more close-ups than they were distance ones. during the statement, you were a little breathless. there was too much looking down and i think it was a little too fast. not enough change of pace. a drop in voice, at the end of sentence. there
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wass a considerable pick-up in drama and interest when the questioning began. your voice was noticeably better, and your facial expressions were noticeably better. the mechanics of the room were not too good. although i heard you well, throughout every bit of it, i did not hear your questioners clearly. >> well, the questionnaires won't talk. >> some of them you could hear, but in general, you could not hear them very well. every now and then you need a good, crisp answer for change of pac and therefore, i was glad we answered one man, b and two, is no to both of your questions. i thought your answer on large was good. i thought your answer
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on vietnam was good. i really didn't like your answer on de gaulle, because i think i heard you say, and i believe you actually have said out loud, but you don't believe you ought to go out of the country this year. >> well. >> i don't think you could very well say that you'll meet him anytime that's continue for both people. >> well, you're right, i'm not going out of his country. i did not say where i would go. i didn't say i go out of the country at all, did i? >> no, i guess -- >> press says i reaffirmed that i wouldn't go. >> i see, well i guess i did not hear it. did not get the meeting of it that everybody else did. i think the outstanding things was that the close-ups were excellent. you need to learn. when you are going to have a prepared text, you need to have the opportunity to study it a little bit more, and to read it
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with a little bit more conviction and interest and change of pace. because you -- >> all the trouble is that they criticize you for taking too much time. they want to use it all for questions. >> michael beschloss, what do we learn from this conversation? >> well, what we learn is that it would have been impossible for lyndon johnson to be a great president if lady bird johnson had not been first lady. and the problem here is true of almost every first lady, i think both brian and melody would agree with this, is they always say, i have very little influence on the president, please give the credit to him, it was all he is doing. i would choose guests for state dinners or something like that. and lady bird was no exception. i remember a conversation both brian and i would have with her. she said the same thing. if you did not know any better,
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you would just think she was sort of this polite, minor figure in the entourage. but actually, one of the revelations of these tapes is that lbj taped his wife without her knowledge. i asked her, did you know he was taping you? she said no, but nothing would have surprised me. and this is a case of that. and the other thing is that he would talk to her maybe a little bit less on this phone call, but elsewhere, just beautifully. and my wife heard this and said, you know, you should really be writing books on these tapes, and talk to me much more the way that he talked to her. but the point is, for anybody who fell for lady bird's extremely polite and self restrained claim that she did not have much to do with those five and a half years as president, just listen to the call the way you just heard. he was very dependent on her opinion in a way, and very influenced by it, in a way that he was not by anyone else in his world. >> brian, is this one of those arenas in which the tapes have
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been really transformative, perhaps? enabling us to get that glimpse inside not just the white house, but the dynamics of the relationship between the president and mrs. johnson? >> he was absolutely indelible to me. there is a recording on which mrs. johnson says, miracle of the jet age. she is exclaiming about the wonder of being able to fly from coast to coast in the same day. it is an expression that i have used since the moment i first heard it. and what is exciting to me about the miller center, there are such wonderful contextualists, archivists, but i hope there is a room for a recording, a collection of them just called atmospherics. i hope we can hear the great recording of the president talking over the noise that gunsmoke was making on the tv, in the first residence. i hope we can hear all of those cans of diet root beer and fresca
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being opened by the president. i hope we can hear the exchange in conversation, when lucy baines comes into the oval office, and her dad greets her the way any dad would be happy to greet any daughter, obviously swelling with pride. these are the moments. you come for the history. you come for the news value. but what often stays with you is the family that you get to overhear on these tapes. >> beautifully said. and the other thing is, how many times i have felt -- and i'll bet you that melody and brian, i don't want to put words in your mouths -- but i bet you have both felt the same way. you will hear a conversation that, you know, it just knocks you out and shows you what's a human being lbj is, how funny he is and so interesting to be around. and then you realize, if lbj were around to see this thing published or played in public, he would be horrified.
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this brings me to the haggar slacks tape, when lbj, in 1964 describes, into granular detail, how he would like his trousers cut. he's talking with the head of hagger slacks. and after that first book came out, i was talking to mrs. johnson and said, were you happy with the way that the tapes in the book were received? and you know, she would always tell you what's she really thought. she said, well i was, but to tell you the truth, i could've lived the rest of my days, happily without hearing you play the haggar slacks tape on tv. but she says you should know, that tape is my grandchildren's favorite. and i've never quite figured out why that was, until a month later, i got a letter from old mr. haggar, who was still alive, offering me a free pair of custom-made haggar slacks. so that is an experience i never had before
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in this business. >> listening to the lady bird tapes, one of the things that i really appreciated, and i think listeners should appreciate, is that for a president in particular, there are very, very, very, very few people who will speak truth to power, who will tell you exactly what they think whether you like it or not. and i think the spouse is usually one of those people. and you hear that. i mean, she goes through a list. she did not even say, you know, a couple of things were good, and a few things were bad, we will work on them. she had clearly written them down, and ticked through them one at a time. and it was because she loved him. she wanted him to be the great president that he wanted to be, that the nation needed. but someone had to play that role, and i think that presidents rely on their spouses, their close family members, their are few key staff, who will say
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that to you. >> also, lbj, people always say he had mood swings, but you'd never really see or hear them. you really do on these tapes. case in point, democratic convention, 1964, when lbj is so upset by criticism of him, but more criticism in time magazine that lady bird, he says you know, i'm not sure i can accept this nomination. why don't we go back to texas? and he fell into what could only be called a depression, which he was subject to, i think, throughout his life. and lady bird, you hear it on these tapes, she's the one person who could pull him out of it. and she essentially says to him, if you do, that you will essentially be conceding what your critics are saying. >> i could not agree more with what i think all three of you are getting at. these tapes are wonderful for what they tell us about lbj's approach to policy,
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the policy making process. but the most memorable parts are often the bits of information, the bits of insight into his personal life, his personality, the way that he conducted himself day in, day out. one of the impressive things about the miller center site, is it calls attention to this dimension of lbj's leadership and life inside of the white house. and yet of course, the tapes also inescapably do shed light on policy questions. let's come to some of those policy questions. first of all, let's come to civil rights. and melody, i would like to come back to you and one of your favorite conversations here. let's listen to lbj speaking with martin luther king on january 15th, 1965. this is a couple of months before lbj was to stand
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before congress and announce, we shall overcome, in support of monumental legislation, known as the voting rights act of 1965. here is a really, i think, revealing conversation that sheds some light on lbj's approach, tactically, to the civil rights problem and also his relationship with one of the giants, clearly, of the civil rights movement. >> i think it is very important, that we not say that we're doing this, we're doing this but we take the position that every person born in this country, when they reach a certain age that they have a right to vote. just like he has a right to fight, and that we just extend it whether they are negro, mexican, or whoever it is. and number two, i think that we don't want special privilege for anybody. we want equality for, all we can stand on that principle. but i think that you can contribute a great deal by getting your leaders, and you, yourself, taking very simple examples of discrimination, where a man has got to memorize
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longfellow, or whether he has to quote the first, the first ten amendments, or he's got to tell you what amendment 15, 16, 17 is and then ask them if they know and show, what happens. and some people do not have to do that and we can just repeat, repeat and repeat. i don't want to follow hitler, but he had an idea that if you take a simple thing, and repeated often enough, even if it was not true, why, people would accept it. well now, this is true. you can find the worst condition that you run into in alabama, mississippi or louisiana, or south carolina, where i think one of the worst i ever heard of is the president of the school at tuskegee, or the head of the government department there or something, being
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denied the right to cast a vote. if you just take that one illustration, and get it on radio, get on television, get it in the pulpits, get it in the meetings, get it every place you can. pretty soon the fella that didn't do anything but followed a tractor, will say that's not right, that's not fair. and then that will help us on what we are going to shove through in and. >> yes, you are exactly right about that. >> if we do that, we will break through as, it'll be the greatest breakthrough of anything, not even accepting the 64 act. i think the greatest achievement of my asministration, i think the greatest achievement and foreign policy, i said that to a group yesterday, was the passage of the 1964 civil rights act. but i think this will be bigger. because it will
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do things that even at 64 i couldn't do. >> boy, there is so much to talk about in this conversation. let's start with what it tells us about lbj, the legislative tactician. melody, can we go to you first? >> sure, as a tactical matter, this moment has to be put into context. and he has got a lot of legislation up on the hill. he is trying to move his great society program, which is so broad. it touches every aspect of american life, to the chagrin of some. one of the things he had said to president kennedy when he was alive, advice that wasn't taken, you have got to get the order of these things right. if you stand all of this up at the same time, particularly at risk civil rights, and with the southern caucus, your legislation will sit behind it. they will not move anything. he started his administration
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following his head on advice. in part, but he is trying to do, is to move parts of the war on poverty legislation while he also wants to move forward with voting rights. so, he is trying to ultimately, he's trying to do several things. as the tape conversation goes on, he is trying to convince dr. king, just hold off a minute. we are going to move this. i have got these other things going. they are going to be good for african americans, people of color, my language of today as well. just give me a moment on this. at the same time, he is also telling him, there are ways we can try to build momentum. to create a sense of inevitability. to play into people's sense of justice and fairness if they only understand what is going on. if they only understand how unjust and how fair it is, and unfair this all is. i think he's thinking very tactically about how to create the momentum and the environment to move this
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piece of legislation. at the same time, move other parts of his legislative program. i think as a human matter, i love this, and i would love, as we would all, to talk to him today. to see what he would think and how he would feel. his sense that that feeling of fairness and justice existed in the body politic. if people only knew, if they could only see, they would come around. there is more to say, those are things that jumped out at me when i think about what he has tried to do strategically. also, what he believes is possible among and with the american people. >> these conversations, there are several with martin luther king junior. they shed so much
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interesting light i think on the relationship between lbj and the civil rights movement generally. of course, king and particular. brian williams, what is your sense of what these conversations tell us about that subject? >> something melody just touched on. this needs to be said, especially as a new generation of students during this time when often are younger folks feel that all history should match current sensitivities. you are going to hear figures of speech terminology and vocabulary that is at times specific. thankfully, our country does not talk the way some of the people on these tapes, notably our president, talks back then. i hope it is helpful to teach how our language standards and mores have migrated. remember the new york times used words to describe our japanese
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adversaries during world war ii that we would never dream of using in conversation or anywhere else for that matter in 2021. i think on the subject of civil rights, to me especially, when the president is talking to farragut marshall, he tips his hand. he tips his hand, especially late at night. this is a huge goal to him. listening to the specific recording with dr. king, you are reminded that everything old is new again. here we are and 2021, so many states are throwing the kitchen sink at the problem of these people wanting to come out and vote. they are putting up new barriers to voting. it's stunning and depressing to watch at the same time.
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>> michael bachelors, lbj's attitudes towards raise have been a subject of endless speculation and scholarship over the years. when did he become a true champion of civil rights, what were the sources of his empathy for the experiences of african americans and so many other categories of americans. what's in your view did the conversations tell us about some of the big questions that have long surrounded lbj and the question of race? >> the biggest question, mark, i think he would agree, the historian always asked about the president's, if he gave great speeches, as lbj certainly did, especially the road invites after the selma speech, in march of 1965. had he just hired a really -- did he really need it, was it coming from his soul? i would go so far as to say that if he had not made these tapes, they're probably by now would
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be several histories saying that lbj, he used terrible worlds in private, piled around dick russell another southern segregationist, was never really serious about civil rights but was persuaded to come out with a civil rights bill and a voting rights bill later on a fair housing bill by bobby kennedy. or other northern liberals. or because he was afraid of not getting the nomination in 1964. and that he was never serious about it. you listen to these tapes, you listen to the one we just heard of lbj and mlk, that is someone who is really serious. that felt it down in his gut. as i think all of you know, you talk to family members, where did this come from? many of them will say, cola, when he was teaching mexican american students in southern texas as a young man. this is someone that and 1948 had to run for the senate from texas which did not exactly give him a lot of leeway to be very pro integration or pro civil rights. the real question is, did he produce when he was president, he certainly did? more than anyone except for abraham lincoln. number two, did this come out of real conviction? i think the tapes
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clearly, for lbj, was the situation in vietnam. many of the conversations deal with this all important topic. let's listen to a conversation again. this one comes from may 27th, 1964. lbj is on the phone with his national security adviser, nick george bundy. this is at a point where lbj is trying to keep vietnam off the agenda and off the front pages. is well aware that major decisions are looming before him a few months down the road. >> i'll tell you, the more, i just ate way past late last night, the more i think of it, i don't know what's in the hell,
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it looks like to me we are getting into another korea. it just worries me. i don't see what we can ever hope to get out of there once we are committed. i believe the chinese communist coming into it. i don't think we can fight them 10,000 miles away from home and ever get anywhere in that area. i don't think it's worth fighting for. and i don't think we can get out. and it's just a big mess. >> it is an awful mess. >> what is laos worth me, what is it worth this country? now we have a treaty, we have a treaty, everyone else has a treaty out there, and they're not doing anything about it. of course, you start running from the communists, they -- >> yeah, that is the trouble. and that is what the rest of the half of the world is going to think of this come thing
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comes apart on us. that is the dilemma. that's exactly the dilemma. >> everyone i talked to that has any sense, they say, oh my god, please give this thought. course, i was reading man's field stuff this morning. it just as milk doses it can be, no step spine at all. this is a terrible thing we're getting ready to do. >> mister president, i just think the only big decision and one cents, this one is when we have need, we either reach up and get it or let it go by. and i'm not telling you today what i do in your position. i just think the most we have to do is to pray with it for another while. >> clearly, there are a few questions surrounding ella bj's, so -- de-escalate the american commitment there and 1964, and 1965. what does this conversation tell us about how lbj was processing this decision and would ultimately of course arrive at the decision to go ahead with escalation later in that year
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and in the early 1965? brian williams, should we start with you? >> well, it shows us the, obviouslu he says it out loud, the conflict within in him about the conflict in southeast asia. the american public would have been very curious to know that their president deep down perhaps after a bourbon or two in the evening, with one of the harvard, as he referred to the national security structure around him, he inherited largely, felt this. why i don't know how i would feel if i had lost a brother, son, or father
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in the vietnam war and suddenly stumbled across this recording, which gives new meaning to the word ambiguity. ambiguity is putting the best possible light on it. as the history of the vietnam war unfolds, we fold in westmoreland. we get into my lay. all of the issues that all of us who are alive and kicking back then remember and have read about subsequently. >> you had an interesting complexity in this conversation, perhaps others like. it we might listen to something like this and become more sympathetic to the very difficult bind that lbj was in. and yet, we also might find reason to be more critical of him for going ahead with an escalation that he knew would be very problematic and dangerous. how might we as people listening to this many decades after the fact wrestle with the complexities of lbj's legacy, where should we come down between sympathy for his
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bind and criticism of the decisions that he ultimately made? >> almost every thought you can have about lbj and vietnam would be true. he was ambivalent, as brian said, he was tortured by the knowledge, and he says it on these tapes, i could get involved in vietnam, we could have 50,000 american dead and eevery campus in this country could be in flame. that is my language, not his, it is pretty close to his language. i listen to this years later. you're absolutely right, listen to yourself, take your own advice. at the same time, he was being urged by an awful lot of people around him, this is not the only reason, but brings us to the secretary of defense, robert macnamara. robert macnamara wrote a famous book in the mid 1990s, the burden of
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the book is essentially, don't blame me for vietnam. i was only secretary of defense. blame president johnson who was gung ho for going into the war in vietnam. that shows one of the benefits of these tapes. unlucky for mcnamara, about a year or two later came out a lot of tapes on vietnam with lbj talking to mcnamara. far from telling lbj that vietnam has got a lot of problems that you should consider, mcnamara is there saying, i was president -- i can tell you he would have done this. i can tell you, essentially that it is necessary for us to win in vietnam in order for us to prevail or survive in the cold war. so i would like to think also, and i think this is probably true, that lbj knew that making tapes of these conversations would protect him against opportunistic advisers like mcnamara who tried to claim later on that they gave him advice that they actually did not give him. that was the
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basic inspiration that richard nixon has, as brian and i have talked about in doing his own tapes. he was worried that henry kissinger would claim credit for the opening with china, the détente with the soviet union, and the settlements in vietnam. nixon wanted tapes to make sure that the actual story would be shown on a real record, and i can't help but think lbj did too. the >> the tapes allow us a lot to hear something that we're allowed to talk about, is the loneliness of this job. and we talk about it a lot. there's the famous kennedy portrait, have you kind of looking down, you can get the sense of the burden of the office. and this gives you a sense of it in real
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time with real policy. and you know, how do i get out? not sure how we got in. you know, all of the issues that surround this -- and quite frankly, a staff person who's at the end tells him what we should pray on this. and i'm a person of faith, i believe in the power of prayer, but i also know that my former bosses would have wanted me to come forward with something in addition to that and suggestions. but i say all that to say that at the end of the day, the buck stops with that desk. and the weight of these decisions is enormous. and i think the tapes give you a sense of that. and it isn't as though there is one of these decisions every few weeks. there are multiple decisions like this every single day. >> and melody, as you pointed out earlier, lbj in this period is dealing with a whole array of different subjects. i wonder if you have any thoughts about to what extent lbj's comments about vietnam are shaped very profoundly by his calculations with respect to the domestic arena and his desire to pass the great society? >> absolutely. and there are many debates and michael and
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brian and other historians have talked about all the reasons why lbj moved forward as he did in vietnam but it is clear and he makes statements and he's angry and frustrated and, you hear that. many times because of vietnam, because of the massive resources, human and financial, that are going into vietnam, that could support and could fund is great society program. but instead, they're going into an effort that he doesn't even completely believe in, but doesn't know exactly how to bring to an end or bring to an end in a way that he would deem to be successful. so, there was a direct conflict between what he had to do as a matter of foreign policy and what he wanted to do as a matter of domestic policy. in fact, i think, i think there's a quote where he's comparing this to, kind of, his wife and
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the mistress, you know, who, in fact, he wanted to be faithful to. but here he was, and this awful adventure in vietnam. and at the same time, as time went on, the criticism that was coming from those with whom he had aligned himself with on the civil rights agenda, on the war on poverty agenda, for example. and luther king's very, very sharp critic at riverside church and that of others, which had to be painful, just a kick in the gut to someone who cared profoundly about this domestic agenda. >> we collected, over the last couple of weeks, questions from our friends of the library community. and many of them were directed at questions that have already arisen. but several of them point out that
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lbj was, of course, the subject of any number of biographies and histories, long before these tapes came along. and then the tapes come and give us all this new evidence to work with. in your estimation, what is the one -- if i can ask a slightly unfair question -- the one takeaway from the tapes that significantly alters what we thought we knew about lbj before this material became available? >> oh! i'm struggling with the one thing. because we talk about the complexity of him, we talk about the strategic -- his strategic sensibilities, his ability to get things done. i think that the tapes weave that together for us. while we've listened to individual moments, it's when you put all of this together that you get the sense of who he is and all of his strategic genius, his
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legislative appetite, and what fueled, maybe this is it, what -- i believe that his desire was to be, obviously he wanted to be president more than anything. he wanted to be a great president. and he knew great presidents had to do great things. and you can see in these tapes what fueled that and how he tried to meet that achievement in all of its -- in its most fulsome nature. >> to me, it [inaudible] it's a master class, to borrow from the social media fed vernacular of today, it's a lesson in how to do president. it's the granularity of some of these phone calls, these are not the sexy phone calls, these are not the phone calls that make
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headlines, get written about or talked about. when he talked calls the state department desk officer for a specific country, it makes you stop when listened to in 2021 and ask yourself, did our former president understand that there was a desk officer at the state department for each of the nations around the world? before we had the formalized situation room we have today, johnson, unable to sleep, calls down to the military office and asks about the air mission he knew was being carried out overnight u.s. time in vietnam. he wants an accounting of all the aircraft, did they all make it back safely? on and on and on. it is lobbying techniques. his granular knowledge of what's in certain pieces of legislation, how all the cabinet departments work. he
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gets doug dylan on the phone -- secretary of treasury, the man who signed the money when i was a kid -- and almost is better in terms of describing the work of the department of treasury. it's how to president. and that, to me, is one of the great unsung takeaways from these recordings. >> beautifully said, no surprise, by melody and brian. and i love the fact that brian mentioned lbj waiting up at night for those american flyers to come back from having bombed north vietnam and hoping that they had survived. and the fundamental question that i think the tapes really answer, that i think no other source could have done, did lbj have a soul? was he doing the civil rights and voting rights because it was politically smart? did he do what he did in vietnam because this was one of the master manipulators in transactional leaders of all
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time? he was those things about what the tapes show is, is someone with an enormous sensitivity and emotion and heart and soul. when he was doing civil rights here, was doing it because he could empathize with those who had been locked out in this country for centuries. when he fought poverty, the same thing. he had seen that back to the time that he was a child. and as brian says, when he was up late at night, hoping and praying, and he got more and more religious as the war went on, as you can see on these tapes, this is someone who -- lady bird once said in one of her diaries i, think that was not published, she said, i wonder if lyndon can really be an effective commander-in-chief, because he's too emotional, he cares too much. when those players go
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out and he cares too much whether they are going to come back or not. and she was saying that a real commander-in-chief has to distance himself at least a little bit. so, if you're asking, did he have regrets about the tens of thousands of young americans who died because of his decisions in vietnam, look at his last four years. those are not the last four years of a happy man. other people might have been able to con themselves condom selves into thinking that they had done everything right. it speaks very well for the kind of soul that this man had and above all the fact that that soul you can see at the center of every one of these major political decisions that we both honor and criticize. >> wow. beautifully put. i had mentioned at the outset that this was really a dream team of commentators about these tapes. and i think that you've absolutely lived up to that advance billing. i can't thank you enough. what a wonderful way to celebrate the lbj library's 50th anniversary, but above all, to help us think about these wonderful resources that we are making available through our partnership with the miller center. the site
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will be lbjtapes dot org, and we hope that everyone from scholars to anyone with a passing actions it rested the johnson presidency of the 1960s will visit the site and make extensive use of it in the years to come. melody, brian, michael, thank you so much again for all of your insight. really appreciate. >> thank you.
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let me introduce our wonderful panel tonight. last year and this year we've seen a reassessment of the presidency of jimmy carter through both films and books. as former vice president walter mondale said at the opening of the movie carterland, there -- very sorry -- there is a perception that jimmy carter is a wonderful former president and a nice guy, but a failed president. and mondale goes on to say that that is all wrong.


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