Listening to Lyndon Johnson

The president's secret telephone recordings offer the world insight into his private views.

Library of Congress

Robert Caro's The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson has earned accolades and the bestseller status that befits this definitive study of Johnson. I have just finished listening to the book on 27 CDs, a total of 33 hours, on various spring and summer road trips. What an excellent way to use time in the car. In the case of Lyndon Johnson's presidency, there is another major dimension to savor as audio: the 800 hours of conversations, mainly on the telephone, that Johnson secretly recorded between 1963 and 1968, all of which are now readily available. (More about these in a moment.)

The reaction to Caro's four volumes has been overwhelmingly positive for his meticulous appraisal of this politician, who was, at his best, nonpareil. Johnson's flaws -- from the tinges of corruption in his early elections and business dealings to his escalation of the war in Vietnam despite private despair over its likely outcome -- have shaped his legacy. Caro's portrait in the four volumes already published -- and no doubt in the still to come fifth volume, which will focus, inevitably, on Vietnam -- has framed LBJ's reputation for insecurity (in his dealings with the Kennedys, for example, who treated him with disdain) as well as his mastery of the role of Senate majority leader. Lately, in large measure because of the attention to The Passage of Power's depiction of Johnson's superb handling of the presidential transition in the traumatic months after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, a revival of interest is under way about Johnson's record in domestic policy. His commitment to a Great Society agenda that included civil rights legislation, anti-poverty programs, and the establishment of Medicare and Medicaid has begun to balance the generally negative sense of Johnson's presidency that has been the main strain of popular perception. In ways that had stymied Kennedy, for all his glamorous persona, Johnson used his power to make government responsive to popular needs.

In March, Hunter College's Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute hosted a symposium called "Revisiting the Great Society: The Role of Government from FDR to LBJ to Today" that was especially valuable in re-igniting attention to the accomplishments of Johnson's tenure and his skill at maneuvering through the political obstacles of that era. A report on the conference, just released by the institute highlights a keynote address by Caro that captures the essence of this aspect of Johnson's genius. Caro said:

The life of Lyndon Johnson is a very complicated life, but two aspects of that life shine brightly through all the complications and dark episodes. One is the compassion, his sympathy and empathy for people--poor people, people of color, people "caught in the tentacles of circumstance." The other is the great gift--the talent beyond talent--to make compassion meaningful. Meaningful how? To help people fight forces too big for them to fight alone. This is the proper role of government.

Johnson's techniques for political persuasion in pressing his legislative priorities and his wonderfully vivid personal style come through magnificently in those 800 hours of taped conversations. All of them can be accessed through the University of Virginia's Miller Center. Pick a year and browse. (The Johnson Presidential Library also has a searchable data base, but the Miller Center seems the easiest to use.) Because so many of them are on the phone, they are clearer than office conversations (unlike the majority of Richard Nixon's Oval office tapes). According to Michael Beschloss, the presidential historian who prepared two sets of the tapes for sale with helpful annotations and says he is planning to do another, the decision to make them all available was made by Lady Bird Johnson. In his remarks to the Roosevelt House symposium, Beschloss said that it was "Mrs. Johnson's courage and respect for history" that made it possible "50 years earlier than LBJ intended for all of us to listen and learn from those tapes. It has changed the way that we see and understand him."

We can hear him, especially in 1964 and 1965, as he wrestles with the challenges of the Great Society, working to get those programs passed. He talks in private about poverty and civil rights. If anything, he is more radical here than he was publicly, saying, "I can't say these things in public yet because the time isn't right." For those who question Lyndon Johnson's true intent, I say, listen to those tapes and the question is settled.

The combination of Robert Caro's epic narrative and the hundreds of hours of LBJ's own words  gives us a degree of insight into Johnson's life and political career, enriching our sense of the man in a way that is riveting. Because of the enormous blunders of Vietnam policy and the tragic rifts it created in American society, the consequences of which are still felt today, Lyndon Johnson's was a blighted presidency. He died in 1973 at the age of 64, so there is no way to know whether he would have played a meaningful post-presidential role. But what we do know about Lyndon Baines Johnson is that he was exceptionally skilled at getting things done for people in ways that would be a huge asset amidst today's political enmities and deadlocks. And listening to Lyndon on the telephone is as good a guide to political technique as we are ever likely to get.

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Peter Osnos is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He is the founder and editor at large of PublicAffairs books and a media fellow at the Century Foundation.

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