Lyndon Johnson on the Record

Seven months after he left the White House, the former president sat down with his aides to work on his memoir. On only one occasion did he allow a tape recorder to run, and he spoke with surprising candor about the 1960 campaign, the Kennedys, the assassination, and Vietnam. The transcript of that session has never been published—until now.

Presidential historian Michael Beschloss is a regular commentator on ABC news and PBS’s The Newshour With Jim Lehrer and the author of the just-published Reaching for Glory: Lyndon Johnson’s Secret White House Tapes, 1964-1965. He is also the host and narrator of Lady Bird, a PBS documentary on Lady Bird Johnson that will air on December 12.

After Richard Nixon was inaugurated in 1969, former president Lyndon Johnson returned to the LBJ Ranch near Stonewall and set about writing his presidential memoirs, The Vantage Point, with the help of two of his speechwriters, Harry Middleton and Bob Hardesty, and a young political scientist named Doris Kearns, who had served as a Johnson White House Fellow. Middleton recalled that when they got Johnson to reminisce, he was “at his storytelling best … relating affairs of state as if they had happened in Johnson City.” He and his colleagues had hoped to capture LBJ’s language and idiom to give readers a sense of the appealing inner man. But not Johnson. As Kearns remembered, when he saw his words on paper, he said, “Goddammit! … Get that vulgar language of mine out of there. What do you think this is, the tale of an uneducated cowboy? It’s a presidential memoir, damn it, and I’ve got to come out looking like a statesman, not some backwoods politician.”

It was Johnson’s book, not theirs, and he got what he wanted. The result, published in 1971, was so leaden that much of it read like a parody of a presidential memoir. The New York Times observed that, from reading the book, LBJ’s life and administration must have been no more eventful than Calvin Coolidge’s. Johnson historians have always wished that some record of LBJ’s storytelling sessions while creating his memoirs had survived. I have always presumed that they must have had the flavor of the private Johnson I have been hearing on the secret White House tapes that I have been transcribing and editing since 1994.

As luck would have it, this summer Middleton found the transcript of one such session. He is retiring as the director of the LBJ Library in Austin in January 2002 and came across it while cleaning out his office. On August 19, 1969, at Johnson’s temporary office in the federal building in Austin, LBJ ranged over his whole life in front of a tape recorder. During later sessions, when Middleton and Hardesty tried to record him again, Johnson glared at the machine and barked, “Turn that thing off!” But thanks to this never-before-published transcript, we have an astonishing window on the real Johnson. Here are some of the best excerpts.1

Getting on the Ticket in 1960

More than forty years after John Kennedy chose LBJ as his Democratic running mate in Los Angeles, we still don’t know for certain how it actually happened. According to LBJ’s nemesis Robert Kennedy, JFK made a pro forma offer to Johnson, who was then the Senate

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