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Monday, October 1, 2012

Listening In: The Secret White House Recordings of John F. Kennedy

Listening In: The Secret White House Recordings of John F. Kennedy

JFK 'bugged' Oval Office

• From: The Times

• October 01, 2012 12:00AM

CAROLINE Kennedy was four years old when she wandered into the Oval Office in October 1962 to chat to her father, president John F. Kennedy. At the time he was preoccupied with the Cuban missile crisis and the threat of nuclear war with the Soviet Union.

Half a century later, his daughter's brief interruption can be heard on a set of Kennedy recordings that has once again thrust the US's most glamorous political family back into the spotlight.

Unbeknown to Caroline and all but a few of her father's closest aides, Kennedy had ordered the secret service to record all his telephone calls and Oval Office meetings. JFK amassed a huge archive of private recordings, many of which are to be made public for the first time.

Highlights from the tapes are being released with a book and CD set, Listening In: The Secret White House Recordings of John F. Kennedy, featuring a foreword by his daughter. She said last week he had wanted an "accurate record" of his conversations after disputes over who said what during an abortive CIA-backed invasion of Cuba shortly after he took office in 1961.

Caroline Kennedy said her father also intended to use the tapes to write his memoirs after he left office - a project that died with his assassination in Dallas in 1963. The tapes were removed from the White House by the Kennedy family and were eventually given to the US National Archive.

Early reports of the tapes' contents suggest they are low on scandal - there is no whispered flirting with Marilyn Monroe - but there are new details.

At one point JFK was appalled to learn that well-meaning military aides had built a maternity room at an airbase near his holiday home for Jackie, his then pregnant wife, in case she went into labour. The president had feared a PR debacle at a time when congress was squeezing the military budget and described the aide responsible as "a silly bastard" who should be posted to Alaska.

Lunar ambitions were ulterior. He just wanted to beat the Russians. "I'm not that interested in space," he said.


According to Caroline Kennedy, JFK "installed secret Oval Office recording devices after the Bay of Pigs disaster so that he could have an accurate account of who said what, in case of any later disputes as to the exact nature of conversations." The full 265 hours of taped conversations have now been made available by the Kennedy Library. Listening In presents transcripts from more than 60 of these conversations and two CDs which carry the audio from 36 of them.

The true value of this package is the CD which allows the listener to eavesdrop on "a president being president" as described by editor Ted Widmer. He claims that this is the closest to a JFK autobiography as we can ever get. While the audio quality on some of the entries is weak, on others the voice of the President is hauntingly clear and evocative. And the range of the selections is as wide as can be imagined. We hear the President finish a conversation with his daughter to be briefed by the CIA on their discovery of offensive missiles in Cuba. He argues with Mississippi Governor Barnett about how to restore order during the integration of the University ("How can I remove him, Governor, when there's a riot in the street and he may step out of the building and something happen to him?") JFK gives his regards to Yugoslavia Marshal Tito and chews out his assistant defense secretary for publicity about a costly furniture purchase ("You just sank the air force budget! You're crazy up there! Are they crazy? That silly bastard with his picture next to the bed?") In one call, he briefs former President Herbert Hoover about the Cuban Missile Crisis. Hoover emerges from a different world in which he was chief executive in 1928 and opens by observing, "It seems to me these recent events are rather incredible." The tapes capture the Joint Chiefs complaining about those same Missile Crisis plans after the President has left the room. ("You're screwed, screwed, screwed. And, if some goddamn thing, some way, he could say, that they either do the son of a bitch and do it right, and quit friggin around.")

There is much to learn in these tapes. In one transcript, JFK repeatedly tells his science advisor and the heads of NASA that "the whole thrust of the Agency, in my opinion, is the lunar program." He goes as far as to advise that the moon landing must remain the top priority, "otherwise we shouldn't be spending this kind of money, because I'm not that interested in space." Just 10 months later, however, another conversation shows that the President has fully galvanized NASA to pursue his goal. At that point, he can afford to be more reflective and to discuss if the manned moon landing is a good idea. This demonstrates JFKs transition from visionary leader to hard driving chief executive and, finally, self-critical manager.

In another tape, Kennedy dictates his reactions to the Saigon coup that deposed President Diem and his brother. He begins by criticizing himself for approving an initial communication that may have green-lighted the US role in the coup. JFK Jr enters to play with his father and at one point says, "Naughty, naughty Daddy." As his son exits, the President resumes his dictation by stating, "I was shocked by the death of Diem and Nhu." This kind of counterpoint seems far-fetched for a novel, let alone real life.

My only criticism is that many of the transcribed conversations are not included in the CDs, such as the NASA discussion cited above. I would have liked to receive all of them in audio form. The true value of this package is the tone and pace of the recorded audio conversations.

Caroline Kennedy refers to these transcriptions as a "legacy of strength in the face of conflict." Listening to the President talk calmly during the Missile Crisis that could have resulted in the death of a large percentage of the human race while hearing his fear that "by the end of next month, we're going to be toe-to-toe on Berlin, anyway" certainly supports her assessment. In any case, I found the recordings mesmerizing and instructive.

Listen to the CDs first. Hearing the actual conversation informs the written transcription in a way that makes other history seem colorless and barren. The President comes alive once again in these tapes. It is a fascinating and sometimes disconcerting listening experience.

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