The Man Who Saved LBJ

Harry Middleton made the decision to release Lyndon Johnson's secret White House recordings. The rest is history.

August 2000By Comments

Thanks to Harry Middleton—who?—Lyndon Johnson is having a very good year, his best one since 1964, when he won passage of a civil rights act ending official segregation in the South and received Time’s accolade as Man of the Year. A panel of 58 historians assembled by C-SPAN recently ranked him as the tenth-best among America’s 41 presidents, a stature that could hardly be much better, considering that the competition includes Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, Truman, and a couple of Roosevelts. Two of his former nemeses—economist John Kenneth Galbraith and anti-war senator George McGovern—recanted their hostile views late last fall. Not bad for someone who has been dead for 27 years and was all but accused of conspiring to murder his predecessor in Oliver Stone’s film JFK in 1991. Middleton is not exactly a household name, not even in Austin, where he has been the director of the Lyndon Baines Johnson presidential library on the University of Texas campus since 1970. Unlike many Johnson hands, he had never known LBJ before becoming a presidential speechwriter in 1966. Born in Iowa and a graduate of Louisiana State University, the onetime AP reporter and magazine freelancer met Johnson while writing a report for a presidential commission. During the meeting, Middleton was dumbfounded when LBJ detoured into a discussion of the problems of South America; afterward, a presidential aide interpreted for him that Johnson had decided to hire him as a speechwriter, and his first assignment was a message to Congress on South America, for which, it turned out, the president had been dictating notes. Middleton wrote speeches during the last half of the Johnson presidency, but he wasn’t the main speechwriter, nor was he a member of the inner circle at the time. No one could have imagined then that of all the luminaries and loyalists who had toiled in the White House, he, more than anyone except Johnson himself, would determine how history would view his former boss.

Middleton saved Johnson with a single decision. In 1990, at about the time when biographer Robert Caro was coming out with his second unflattering volume about Johnson, Middleton opted to open to the public an extensive collection of secret recordings of Johnson’s telephone conversations in the White House—even though Johnson himself had decreed that the recordings be embargoed until fifty years after his death. As soon as the first tapes were released in 1993, they were an immediate sensation: a remarkably candid portrait of a master politician at work. As degrading as the Nixon tapes had been, the Johnson tapes were just as uplifting. Network newscasts featured them; historical works analyzed them; C-SPAN radio continues to broadcast them for two hours every Saturday afternoon. “The tapes have helped to reestablish Johnson’s hold on the historical imagination,” says Robert Dallek, the author of a well-respected two-volume biography of Johnson. “There’s no question of his sincerity about the big issues or his mastery as a politician.”To be sure, the resurrection of Johnson’s reputation owes a debt to the passage of time, which has allowed the Vietnam War that he so unsuccessfully pursued to recede into footnote status, and to budget surpluses, which have made the kind of government social programs he championed fashionable again. And his tormentors, the children of the sixties, who poured into the streets with their idealism and their drugs to chant, “Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?” don’t look so good in history’s mirror anymore. But without Middleton’s decision, a new appreciation of Johnson would have remained at least 23 years in the future, and his contemporaries would never have had the chance to reassess their opinions.

If Johnson had been given leave to come back from the dead to conduct his own defense, he could do nothing better than to play the recordings for a historical jury. They reveal not only his unmatched political skill but also the anguish and doubts about Vietnam that no one but a few intimates knew he had at the time. Here is Johnson talking to McGeorge Bundy, the special assistant to the president for national security, in May 1964: “I’ll tell you, the more that I stayed awake last night thinking of this thing, the more I think of it, I don’t know what in the hell—it looks to me like we’re getting into another Korea. It just worries the hell out of me. I don’t see what we can ever hope to get out of there with, once we’re committed. I believe that the Chinese communists are coming into it. I don’t think that we can fight them ten thousand miles away from home.” He ended with, “I don’t think it’s worth fighting for, and I don’t think that we can get out. It’s just the biggest damned mess that I ever saw.”

Johnson was famous for his power of persuasion, which has come to be known as “the treatment.” On tape it comes alive. He whines, he coaxes, he demands; he uses guilt, threats, appeals to patriotism; he sweet-talks women and gets away with it. “Hello, my sweetheart, how are you?” he asks recently widowed Katharine Graham, then the president of the Washington Post, a few days after he has become president, in 1963. “You know, the only one thing I dislike about this job is that I’m married and I can’t ever get to see you. I just hear that sweet voice and it’s always on the telephone and I’d like to break out of here and be like one of those young animals down on my ranch. Jump a fence.” To Jacqueline Kennedy he practically purrs: “I just want you to know that you are loved and by so many and so much and I’m one of them.”

But he could be relentless. In a conversation that is famous among LBJ tape connoisseurs, Johnson, knowing that his good friend senator Richard Russell of Georgia does not want to serve under Chief Justice Earl Warren on the commission investigating the Kennedy assassination, calls Russell to say that he has already released a statement saying that the senator is on the panel. When Russell protests, Johnson says, “You’ve never turned your country down. This is not me. This is your country!” He adds, “You’re my man on that commission and you’re going to do it!” Russell did it.

Harry Middleton never knew that the recordings existed when Johnson was alive. He had moved to Texas after the president’s term expired, in January 1969, to help work on Johnson’s memoirs. “The preliminary talks were usually delightful,” Middleton wrote in his 1990 book, LBJ: The White House Years, “[b]ut transferring these reminiscences to paper rarely survived his final review. Such informality, he felt, was demeaning to the office. So the prose became less vivid and more stately, and we watched helplessly while Lyndon Johnson disappeared behind it.” The library was under construction at the time, and its initial director was a California academician whom Johnson called “Doctor”—a sure sign that their personalities did not mesh. In 1970 the director returned to California, and Johnson wanted Middleton to take the job. In theory, the head of the National Archives selects the directors of presidential libraries, but in practice, living ex-presidents get what they want. “I was a new kind of animal,” says Middleton. “The typical director of presidential libraries at the time was an archivist. I was a shock, no question about that.”

Following the library’s dedication, in 1971, Middleton had a conversation with Johnson that years later would influence his decision to open the recordings. The library had planned a symposium on education in 1972 that would include the opening of presidential papers on the subject. A few days before the symposium was to begin, Middleton told Johnson that some papers couldn’t be released because archivists followed a rule that anything unduly embarrassing or harmful to living persons should remain closed. Johnson was skeptical. “You’re being too cautious,” he said. And then, as Middleton recalls, he went on, “Harry, good men have been trying to protect my reputation for forty years and not a damned one has succeeded. What makes you think you can?” When Middleton decided to move forward with making the recordings public in 1990 (a time when Johnson’s reputation was, as Middleton puts it, “in the basement”), the memory of this conversation spurred him to go through with it.

He had learned of the recordings shortly after Johnson died, in January 1973. Mildred Stegall, a former secretary in the White House, told him that she had seven boxes of Dictabelts from telephone conversations. Johnson had left them with her on the condition that if they were still in her care when he died, they were to be given to Middleton with instructions that they not be opened for fifty years. For three years they remained in storage, until Middleton decided that they couldn’t just sit around and turn to dust; they had to be preserved. But by 1976 the Dictabelt technology was already obsolete. The staff couldn’t even locate a Dictabelt machine; the library had to build one from scratch so that the recordings could be transferred to a reel-to-reel tape before going back under seal.

Years went by. In 1982 CBS subpoenaed the library for any materials that might relate to its defense of a libel suit brought by the former commanding general in Vietnam, William Westmoreland. Middleton learned that somebody had made transcripts of some of the recordings, but they turned out to contain errors; a Johnson comment about having a “pack of bastards waiting on me,” for example, turned out to be “a Pakistan ambassador.” The library did an inventory and sent some transcripts. The idea slipped into Middleton’s mind: “We’ve broken the seal now, why not open them?” But it wasn’t until 1990 that he went to see the lawyer for the National Archives to ask if it was legally permissible to breach the fifty-year restriction. When he got a favorable reply, he met with Lady Bird Johnson. “I believe if the president were alive, we could persuade him to open them now,” he told her. When she agreed, the library started duplicating the tapes for subsequent release.

Middleton is 78 now, still spry and enthusiastic but definitely ready for retirement; friends say that he stays on because Lady Bird wants him to. He looks anything but scholarly; his face almost always wears an impish expression that is exaggerated by lines that travel across his forehead in waves like complex mathematical functions. In conversation, he hunches forward, knees splayed, eyeglasses dangling between them from a cord around his neck. But if he were more like the typical archivist, chances are that he would have regarded himself bound by the fifty-year injunction and the tapes would have remained closed.

Middleton is delighted with “the return of LBJ,” as he puts it, but his library has never been protective of its namesake. Through the long years when Johnson was regarded as one of America’s worst presidents, Middleton rarely spoke out in defense of his patron—with two notable exceptions. In a 1983 article in the Friends of the LBJ Library newsletter, he panned the first of Caro’s two volumes, The Path to Power, by citing “the extent of his hatred for his subject, a loathing so deep it coats a steamy sheen over his prose.” The second time was a 1992 speech in which he said of Stone’s JFK, “As theater, the film is powerful. As propaganda, it is highly effective. As history, it is destructive and malicious nonsense.” He regrets the former—“It was indiscreet,” he says of his criticism of Caro (he declines to discuss the second volume)—but not the latter. What about the tapes? Did he release them with the idea of saving Johnson’s reputation? “Consciously, no,” Middleton says, “I just thought that these were important historical records that should be open. Subconsciously, maybe so.”

Related Content