In JFK tapes, history”s raw materials

Katharine Q. Seelye / New York Times News Service /


BOSTON — John F. Kennedy opened the newspaper one day in 1963 and learned to his horror that military aides had built a hospital bedroom for his pregnant wife at an air base on Cape Cod in case she went into labor. He thought the $5,000 spent on the furniture was wasteful and would be a public-relations disaster that would prompt Congress to cut his military budget. The angry president picked up the phone.

First, he took a press underling to task. He demanded that the furniture be sent back and that those responsible — including “that silly fellow who had his picture taken next to the bed” — be transferred to Alaska.

He then called Gen. Godfrey McHugh, his Air Force aide. “What the hell did they let the reporters in there for?” Kennedy thundered. “You just sank the Air Force budget!”

And he was not finished venting his rage about the aide who appeared in the newspaper picture. “He’s a silly bastard! I wouldn’t have him running around a cathouse!” Before hanging up, he characterized the entire episode with an expletive.

The story came straight from Kennedy himself.

Though even some of his closest aides did not know at the time, Kennedy recorded more than 260 hours of Oval Office conversations, telephone calls and dictation into his Dictaphone. The John F. Kennedy Library Foundation has culled the highlights into a new book of annotated transcripts and two audio CDs. Some of the audio portions will be available online.

The book, “Listening In: The Secret White House Recordings of John F. Kennedy,” with a forward by his daughter, Caroline Kennedy, and an introduction by Ted Widmer, a presidential historian at Brown University, offers “the raw material of history,” said Thomas Putnam, the director of the Kennedy Library.

“This is the memoir that President Kennedy never got to write,” Putnam said.

Insights and obsessions

In a meeting in November 1962, the president bluntly told James Webb, the NASA administrator, that putting a man on the moon was his top priority. Webb said it was more important to understand the environment of space, prompting Kennedy to say, “If we get second to the Moon, it’s nice, but it’s like being second anytime.”

Webb continued to push back, prompting the president to spell it out: “I’m not that interested in space,” he said, only in beating the Russians.

Kennedy’s obsession with the Cold War extended to the athletic rivalry with the Russians over hockey. In March 1963, he called up an old friend who had played hockey in the Olympics to complain about the U.S. men’s hockey team losing to Sweden, 17-2.

“Christ,” the president complained. “Who are we sending over there? Girls?”

Like Richard Nixon after him and several presidents before him, Kennedy installed hidden recording devices in the Oval Office. Almost no one knew about the practice until the existence of the Nixon tapes was revealed in 1973 during the Watergate hearings. This lifted the curtain on stealth self-bugging in the White House that began with Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Kennedy’s recording system was dismantled immediately after his assassination. The family kept the tapes until 1976 and then gave them to the National Archives. The Kennedy Library later acquired them and began to make them available to historians in 1983. Their release was a slow and laborious process because the sound quality was uneven and they had to be transcribed and declassified. The last 45 hours of tapes were released only this year.

Historians have turned to the tapes for insight into major events of the Kennedy presidency like the Cuban missile crisis, the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War. The value of this book, Putnam said, is that “it is the first time the material has been published in one collection with annotations and a serious historian providing context for each conversation.”

The book was published by Hyperion, which released a book last year of interviews conducted with Jacqueline Kennedy after her husband’s death.

Presidential recordings

The tapes reveal that Kennedy talked several times with his predecessors about pressing issues of the day, including with Dwight D. Eisenhower about the Cuban missile crisis. But one conversation with Harry S. Truman veered in a surprisingly personal direction as they wrapped up a call in July 1963.

“Well, you sound in good shape,” Kennedy said.

“All right,” Truman replied. “The only trouble with me is that the main difficulty I have is keeping the wife satisfied.” Both men laughed.

“Well, that’s all right,” Kennedy said.

“Well, you know how that is,” Truman went on. “She’s very much afraid I’m going to hurt myself. Even though I’m not. She’s a tough bird.”

The book also includes the transcript and audio of a tape made during a private dinner party that the Kennedys held in their Georgetown home on Jan. 5, 1960, days after he announced he was running for president. It was recorded by James Cannon, a correspondent for Newsweek, and was given to the Kennedy library to be released after Cannon’s death, which occurred in 2011. Other guests included Ben Bradlee, then Newsweek’s Washington bureau chief and later the editor of The Washington Post.

Kennedy openly discussed his desire for the thrill of being in the white-hot crucible of decision-making on the world stage, which would give him a rush “like playing Yale every Saturday,” he said.

He was, by turns, reflective, vulnerable and confident. He played down the role of money in his success, saying he owed more to the family name than to his wealth. He said the chief problem with losing an election was “being cut off from this fascinating life at mid-age.” He compared it to having a leg amputated.

Unlike the Nixon taping system, which was voice-activated, Kennedy’s had to be started by pressing a button, so he was obviously aware that he was being recorded. On a grim day in 1963, Kennedy turned to his Dictaphone to record his thoughts about a coup in Vietnam. He rued into the machine that his administration was responsible for the coup, and he was going over the blunders that had led to it, when suddenly a child’s voice chirped “hello.”

John F. Kennedy Jr., then not quite 3, had toddled into the Oval Office and, most likely, into his father’s lap. The president made a seamless transition from burdened commander in chief to doting father and began a nursery word play with his son.

Kennedy: “Why do the leaves fall?” John: “Because it’s autumn.”

After questions about winter and spring, the president asked: “When do we go to the Cape? Hyannis Port?” John: “Because it’s summer.”

“It’s summer,” repeated the youthful father, though it was November and in less than three weeks, he would be dead.