The Man Who Saved LBJ

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

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

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