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Book Review: Listening In

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

selected and introduced by Ted Widmer

Hyperion, 2012

The Foreward provided by Caroline Kennedy for the new book Listening In: The Secret White House Recordings of John F. Kennedy, although as clear and winning as the woman herself, could scarcely be more damning: “Our family and the Kennedy Library are committed to making the record of my father’s presidency widely accessible, so we decided to compile significant excerpts and make them easily available to the public,” she writes. “We are fortunate to have Ted Widmer as our editor and guide through this material.” There’s an adorable accompanying photo from 1962 of Caroline as a little girl, hiding in the kneehole of the Resolute desk. The easy use of that ‘we,’ the unthinking distance from the  ‘public,’ the equation of individual and institution (the book’s copyright is held by the John F. Kennedy Library); the effect couldn’t be any more sacerdotal if she’d opened her remarks with “O come, all ye faithful.”

Widmer, a former speechwriter (and history buff sounding-board) for President Clinton, certainly pitches his Introduction for the faithful, though not without a justifiable pride in the herculean task of deciphering and transcribing he’s done in creating this volume. There’s also been a vast amount of editing, so Widmer’s breezy assertion “After so many words have been written about John F. Kennedy, it feels right to let him speak for himself” should be taken for what it’s worth. The Kennedy Library has made some 265 hours of these recordings public. It’s cagey about how many hours of recordings it actually possesses, and even that number will be far smaller than the total that were made. Installed in July of 1962, the taping system was dismantled after JFK’s assassination, and the tapes were boxed up and scattered to various warehouses and federal storage facilities (and to an unknown number of private collections) – it’s amazing so many of those recordings survived in any kind of audible condition. And Widmer’s right about their value:

The Kennedy tapes are different – this is a president being president. There is no chisel in sight; he simply thinks, and talks, and argues, in the heat of the moment.

There are plenty of heated moments. Indeed, Widmer’s section headings – “Politics,” “Civil Rights,” “Cuba,” “The Bomb,” “Space,” “Vietnam,” etc. – serve to underline just how crowded Kennedy’s term in office was. Crisis seemed to follow crisis, and the tempo made it tempting to think about history being made – and needing to be recorded. The President’s secretary, Mrs. Lincoln, thought Kennedy was spurred to start secret recordings of Oval Office and cabinet meetings by the Bay of Pigs fiasco in April, 1961 – but Widmer is certainly right that the part of JFK’s nature that was always a detached observer of history also played a part; it was a new era, filled with new technological gadgets, and it was tempting to the vanity of the presidency to have these tapes whirring away down in the basement, recording every word.

It’s the curious thing about tape-recording (and Kennedy’s was the first generation to learn it casually): hitting the ‘record’ button feels like the most laughably self-conscious act in the world, but after only a short while, sometimes only a quarter of an hour, the self-conciousness tends to disappear – as does the active remembering that tapes are running at all. The technology rapidly becomes invisible again (witness the ubiquitous video surveillance cameras of the 21st Century), and what should be a silly exercise in play-acting and histrionics often becomes just what Widmer calls it: a vital – and vitally true – historical record.

Certainly it’s endlessly interesting history, although even with Widmer’s best efforts, it doesn’t always make interesting reading. A big part of the reason is President Kennedy himself, who’s frequently telegraphic and often monosyllabic on the tapes, impatient, as Widmer accurately points out, for things to keep moving. He’s scarcely ever eloquent, always straightforward, almost always the only person in any conversation who’s willing to ask flat-out informational questions (not just because he’s often dealing with the pompous and the small-minded, but also because presidents get to ask direct questions – aides are supposed to provide answers). The result can be weirdly somnolent at times, never more so than in conversations between JFK and his brother Bobby – the two might not ‘complete each other’s sentences’ as Widmer suggests, but they readily lapse into a kind of semaphoric reciprocal provocation that will be familiar to any pair of close siblings:

RFK: Well, then, did you see the story about him [Nelson Rockefeller] in …

JFK: Wall Street Journal?

RFK: Wall Street Journal. That’s not a complete plus.

JFK: Yeah.

RFK: I think he’s really having his problems. Troubles.

JFK: Yeah.

RFK: You’re not. I’ve seen you on television.

JFK: We’ve dropped 6 percent in a month, have we?

RFK: Since January.

JFK: Oh, since that Congress has been back.

RFK: Yeah, and it gets a little bit partisan, but imagine 70 percent?

JFK: Yeah.

RFK: Better than you were in ’60.

JFK: OK.

RFK: Righto.

Imagine dozens of pages of that, and you get a sense of what awaits you in Listening In. There are many exceptions, of course – JFK exercising tight control over balking governors in the racially torn South, JFK threading his way through the tense back-and-forth of the Cuban Missile Crisis (including a fascinating moment when he leaves the room and the tapes capture two of his generals griping about him), even a retrospectively hilarious incident in which JFK chews out his assistant secretary of defense for an ill-advised photo-op (“Why, sir, this is obviously …” “Well, this is obviously a fuckup.” “That’s right.” “That’s right.”).

There are also quick and telling little premonitions of days to come. Governor George Romney is mentioned at one point as a key player on the political scene, and California governor Pat Brown briefly puts his young son Jerry on the phone to say hi to the President, right before Brown pronounces his verdict on Richard Nixon: “I really think he’s psychotic. He’s an able man, but he’s nuts.” JFK’s response? “Yeah.”

Listening In includes a disc of excerpts from the recordings themselves, and the well-restored audio quality is both a revelation and a heartbreak: these people are too passionate, too engaged, simply too busy to stop and think about being part of history, which makes eavesdropping on them all as jarring and educational an experience as if we had phonograph recordings of Lincoln grousing and joking in his office. Something of the momentousness was inevitable, as Widmer puts very well:

Kennedy continues to do very well in those [presidential] rankings, but for reasons that would probably irritate him, or at least touch upon his finely honed sense of irony. He deplored helpless sentimentality, which is exactly what we bring to the memory of our presidents, and to him in particular. He admired unblinking realism, which is in as short supply now as it was then.

Mrs. Lincoln – as wise a woman as ever worked in the White House – was of the opinion that JFK never really gave any thought to the tapes and never listened to them. The implication is that he was merely storing them away as aids to the memoir he never got a chance to write. If so, he might have used them less cosmetically than they’re used in this Kennedy Library production – but it’s an amazing thing just the same.

 

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