Skip to main content

Presidential Historian Michael Beschloss

Presidential historian Michael Beschloss' second volume on the LBJ tapes is called Reaching for Glory: The Secret Lyndon Johnson Tapes, 1964-1965. Beschloss talks about the tapes and we hear excerpts — including recordings of conversations about Vietnam and the Civil Rights movement. We also hear Johnson speaking with Jackie Kennedy. Beschloss has written five previous books on American presidents and is a regular contributor to The News Hour with Jim Lehrer.



DATE November 7, 2001 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Interview: Michael Beschloss discusses President Lyndon Johnson's
secret recordings made in the White House in the mid-'60s

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Today we're going to listen to some of the tapes that President Lyndon Johnson
secretly made of his conversations with aides and officials, including tapes
that reveal his fears about the escalating war in Vietnam.

(Soundbite of tape)

President LYNDON JOHNSON: The psychological impact of `The Marines are
coming' is going to be a bad one. And I know enough to know that, and I know
that every mother is going to say, `Huh-uh. This is it.' And I know what
we've done with these B-57s is just going to be Sunday school stuff compared
to the Marines, and all they're going to do is be a policeman. And damned if
I don't know why we can't find some kind of policeman besides a Marines,
because a Marine is a guy that's got a dagger in his hand and it's going to
put the flag up.

GROSS: That's LBJ speaking to Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara in March
of 1965. Ever since Watergate, American presidents have known that if they
taped their conversations, it could be used against them. But in the years
before that, LBJ left a remarkable behind-the-scenes history of his presidency
through the conversations, mostly phone calls, that he recorded on his hidden
tape system. The system was intended to give Johnson a reliable record that
could be used in his daily business. All but about 4 percent of the tapes
have been declassified.

My guest is presidential historian Michael Beschloss. He's just completed the
second volume in his trilogy of Johnson's edited tapes. The new book is
called "Reaching for Glory," and it covers the years 1964 to '65. There's
also a companion CD. In addition to writing five previous books on the
American presidents, Beschloss is a regular commentator on ABC News and "The
NewsHour with Jim Lehrer" on PBS. He's also a trustee of the White House
Historical Association.

Michael Beschloss, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Give us an overview of the
period covered in the second volume of your book on the LBJ tapes.

Mr. MICHAEL BESCHLOSS (Presidential Historian; Author, "Reaching for Glory"):
Well, this is 1964 and 1965, and it was action-packed because it begins in the
fall of 1964, where Lyndon Johnson was running against Barry Goldwater to
become president in his own life, then the second he's elected, he's dealing
with Vietnam, civil rights, riots in the street and also the Great
Society--Medicare and all those other programs. So you see a president
dealing with all these things almost at once.

GROSS: Let's start with a conversation between LBJ and Jacqueline Kennedy
from December of 1963. At this point she's still living in the Executive
Mansion with her children. Set the context for this.

Mr. BESCHLOSS: Well, this is right after John Kennedy's assassination, and
Mrs. Kennedy, as you might imagine--you'll hear on the tape--is absolutely
distraught. Her voice is almost otherworldly. She's not sleeping. She's,
needless to say, terribly depressed. And Johnson calls her up, and on one
level Johnson is being wonderful because he almost flirts with her. He's
trying to make her feel better. But at the same time, as always with Johnson,
he's got a political motive, and the political motive is he felt illegitimate
as president. He had suddenly come in after John Kennedy was assassinated in
his home state, and Johnson felt that the best thing he could do for himself
politically was to keep Jackie Kennedy as close to him as possible. So he
keeps on calling her up, making her feel better, but also asking her after she
leaves the White House to come back, be photographed with him. He even says
that he wants John and Caroline to be his surrogate children, and she recoils
from this.

GROSS: Well, let's hear one of the early conversations in this series. This
is from December 2nd of 1963.

(Soundbite of audiotape)


Pres. JOHNSON: I just wanted you to know you are loved by so many, and so

Mrs. KENNEDY: Oh, Mr. President...

Pres. JOHNSON: ...and I'm one of them.

Mrs. KENNEDY: ...I tried. I didn't dare bother you again, but I got Timmy
O'Donnell over here to give you a message if he ever saw you. Did he give it
to you yet?

Pres. JOHNSON: No.

Mrs. KENNEDY: About my letter...

Pres. JOHNSON: No.

Mrs. KENNEDY: ...that was waiting for me last night.

Pres. JOHNSON: Listen, sweetie, now first thing you gotta learn--you got some
things to learn, and one of them is that you don't bother me. You give me
strength and...

Mrs. KENNEDY: But I wasn't going to send you in one more letter. And I was
just scared you'd answer it.

Pres. JOHNSON: Don't send me anything. Don't send me anything. You just
come over and put your arm around me. That's all you do. When you haven't
got anything else to do, let's take a walk. Let's walk around the back yard
and just let me tell you how much that you mean to all of us and how we can
carry on if you give us a little strength.

Mrs. KENNEDY: But you know what I wanted to say to you about that letter? I
know how rare a letter is in a president's handwriting. Do you know that I've
got more in your handwriting than I do in Jack's now?

Pres. JOHNSON: My mother and my wife and my sisters and you females got a
lot of courage that we men don't have. And so we have to rely on you and
depend on you, and you got something to do. You got the president relying on
you. And this is not the first thing you had, so there are not many women you
know running around with a good many presidents. So you just bear that in
mind. You got the biggest job of your life.

Mrs. KENNEDY: `She ran around with two presidents.' That's what they'll say
about me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mrs. KENNEDY: OK. Any time.

(Soundbite of kissing noises)

(End of audiotape soundbite)

GROSS: Jackie Kennedy sounds to be alternating between crying and laughing in
that conversation.

Mr. BESCHLOSS: Yes, and you could even hear Johnson making those kiss sounds
at the end, and that's what she was feeling, because, you know, she was
devastated. Her husband had been murdered in her arms in Dallas, and at the
same time, she appreciated the fact that LBJ was trying to buck her up. And
they had had a pretty good relationship when Lyndon Johnson was vice
president. Johnson said, `She was the only one on the Kennedy White House who
treated me like a human being.'

GROSS: Now later, Johnson offers her an ambassadorship, which she declines.
Why did he want to give her one? Why did she decline?

Mr. BESCHLOSS: He kept on worrying that she was going to be turned against
Johnson by her brother-in-law Robert Kennedy, whom she adored, and he was
absolutely right in worrying about this because during the time that that tape
we just heard was made, RFK was saying to Jackie, `He's going to use you. Be
careful. Don't get taken in,' and so Johnson felt that the way to keep her on
the reservation would be to give her a job in the administration, perhaps
ambassador to Mexico or ambassador to France. Both of these she turned down.

GROSS: My guest is presidential historian Michael Beschloss, who's just
published the second volume of his edited transcriptions of the LBJ tapes.
This volume is called "Reaching for Glory: White House Tapes, 1964-1965."

Let's move on to a tape from September of 1964. This is during the period
where LBJ is campaigning for the presidency against Barry Goldwater. And
Goldwater has been attacking LBJ, and LBJ wants to get back at him. This is a
tape with William White, a syndicated newspaper columnist. Tell us about what
this tape is about.

Mr. BESCHLOSS: Well, White was probably the columnist who was closest to
Johnson. He was almost hagiographic about Johnson. And what Johnson is doing
is he wants White to take confidential FBI information that Johnson has gotten
from J. Edgar Hoover and get White to publish it. This is information that is
very damaging, he thinks, to Barry Goldwater, and Johnson wants to sling this
mud in a way that will not let people know that White's source is the
president and the FBI.

GROSS: So let's hear LBJ's 1964 conversation with William White in which LBJ
is trying to get even with Goldwater.

(Soundbite of tape)

Pres. JOHNSON: Well, we got a bunch of goddamn thugs here taking us on. Now
this Goldwater--we talk about morality. When if we wanted to deal in
morality, what we could show on that guy. I got the record in front of me
where his 89-year-old mother is drawing a tax deduction from the Goldwater
stores that are owned by Associated Dry Goods for 4,900 a year and she's too
damn old to even get to the store. And when they raised hell, he agreed to
reduce it to 1,200, so it just let them take a tax-deducted pension of 100.

Mr. WILLIAM WHITE (Syndicated Columnist): Yeah. I'll be damned.

Pres. JOHNSON: And then they talk to me about morality.

Mr. WHITE: I know that. I agree with that.

Pres. JOHNSON: He's lined up with every one of these gambler thugs, this
Bill and the whole outfit, flew them back and forth to Nevada; played with
them all the time, had them in his home; all that kind of stuff. Just
unthinkable. But we haven't brought any of that out and I hope we don't have

Mr. WHITE: ...(Unintelligible).

Pres. JOHNSON: But I'm tired of him telling me about morality.

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: So did the information about Goldwater's mother drawing a tax
deduction from the Goldwater stores ever get out? And what about the
allegations of Goldwater being involved with gambler thugs? Did LBJ ever do
anything with that?

Mr. BESCHLOSS: It was published, but people were not terribly interested.
As well they might not have been because that wasn't really very serious or
reliable information. But it shows you a lot about Johnson, because this was
a time when Barry Goldwater and his running mate, William Miller, were saying
the problem with LBJ is, `He may have taken over decently after the Kennedy
assassination, and you may agree with his policies, but,' they said, `this is
an immoral man. He doesn't have character,' and Johnson worried about this
because he was running at this point about 30 or 40 points ahead of Goldwater
in the presidential campaign. He thought that the one thing that could bring
him down would be if voters concluded that Johnson was immoral. This is why
he was so desperate to sort of release stuff on Goldwater to make Goldwater
look as if he was the one who was immoral.

GROSS: My guest is presidential historian Michael Beschloss. He's just
edited the second volume in his trilogy of LBJ's secret White House tapes.
The new book is called "Reaching for Glory." More after a break. This is

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is presidential historian Michael Beschloss. He's just
edited the second volume in his trilogy of LBJ's secret White House tapes.
The new book is called "Reaching for Glory." It covers 1964 to '65.

Now in your new collection of LBJ tapes, you also deal with some of the
scandals or potential scandals, sex scandals of his administration. And one
of them has to do with somebody in the administration who is gay and closeted.
He is discovered. And this is for the time, 1964, a potentially really
explosive scandal. The person in question was Walter Jenkins. Who was he and
what was he alleged to have done?

Mr. BESCHLOSS: Well, it's a pretty amazing part of the book. Walter Jenkins
was Lyndon Johnson's closest aide in the White House; had worked for him since
1939; was a devout Catholic; had six children, but as you say, at the same
time, had another life that was secret. He was a closeted gay, and this was
1964; it was something he was very ashamed of. And the result was that in
mid-October of 1964, just a few weeks before the election, Jenkins was at a
party in Washington that was given for the opening of new offices for Newsweek
magazine. Jenkins got drunk. He went over to the YMCA a few blocks away,
which was at that point a well-known place where gay people could meet. And
he was arrested while having sex with another man in the men's room
downstairs. He was hauled into the police station, paid his fine, and
amazingly enough he went back to the White House and began working again;
didn't tell anyone what had happened, and that did not become known.

About a week later there was a Republican operative who discovered this, gave
the word to various newspapers and then what happened was Lyndon Johnson
himself was notified that, to his shock, his closest aide not only had been
arrested, but arrested just a couple of weeks before the election. So since
Johnson was worried that Goldwater could only win by pinning on him a charge
of immorality, Johnson thought he was suddenly vulnerable, because in those
times people might have charged that here was someone very close to the
president who might have been compromised.

GROSS: So I'd like to play a conversation that LBJ had with Billy Graham on
October 20th of 1964. And this is while LBJ is still reeling from this
potential scandal, and there's a lot of other problems that he's having. What
are the other problems?

Mr. BESCHLOSS: He's trying to deal with, needless to say, beating Barry
Goldwater, but the other part of it is that Jenkins, at this point, has been
hospitalized and the scandal has somewhat passed, but he's worried that there
will be other scandals. He's heard that the Republicans are looking for other
people in his midst who either might be gay or have marital problems, or that
they might be able to pin something on LBJ.

GROSS: So here's LBJ and Billy Graham in a phone conversation in October
20th, 1964.

(Soundbite of tape)

Pres. JOHNSON: Hello, Billy. How are you, my friend?

Reverend BILLY GRAHAM: Well, God bless you. I was telling Bill that last
night I couldn't sleep. And I got on my knees and prayed for you that the
Lord will just give you strength.

Pres. JOHNSON: I told my sweet wife last night--we got mental telepathy. I
said, `If I didn't think I'd embarrass him, I'd say, "Please, dear Lord, I
need you more than I ever did in my life. I've got the Russians on one side
of me taking ...(unintelligible), the Chinese are dropping bombs around,
contaminating the atmosphere, and the best man I ever knew had a stroke and
then disease hit him, and I've been tied in here with my Cabinet all day, and
I'd have him--just make him come down and spend Sunday with me."'

Rev. GRAHAM: Well, bless your heart. I'll be glad to. I told Bill that
there were two things. One was I just felt terribly impressed to tell you to
slow down a little bit. I've been awfully worried about you physically.

Pres. JOHNSON: Well...

Rev. GRAHAM: And then the second thing--you've got this election, in my
opinion, wrapped up. And you've got it wrapped up big. There's no doubt in
my mind about that. You know, when Jesus dealt with people with moral
problems like dear Walter had--and I was telling Bill, I wanted to send my
love and sympathy to him...

Pres. JOHNSON: Thank you.

Rev. GRAHAM: ...he always dealt tenderly, always.

Pres. JOHNSON: Yep.

Rev. GRAHAM: Because I know the weaknesses of men. And the Bible says we're
all sinners, and we all are involved one way or another. and I just hope if
you have any contact with him, you'll just give him my love and understanding.

Pres. JOHNSON: That'll mean more than anything. Come around here Saturday
evening and have dinner with us and let's have a quiet visit, and maybe have a
little service Sunday morning in the White House at 7.

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: A very interesting conversation; Billy Graham and LBJ in 1964. My
guest, Michael Beschloss, is a presidential historian. His new book is volume
two of LBJ tapes. It's called "Reaching For Glory."

What ever did happen with the Walter Jenkins story? How--what kind of impact
did it have on LBJ? How was it resolved?

Mr. BESCHLOSS: It turned out to have no effect on the campaign because
Johnson was very lucky. Within 48 hours after the revelation, a number of
things happened to take the news away. There was an ouster of the British
government, an ouster of the Soviet government of Nikita Khrushchev. The
World Series was on. Plus, the Chinese fired off their first atomic weapon.

The other thing was that Johnson was able to get the campaign away from this
question of morality. And one way he did it, we've just heard, is by
inviting Billy Graham to the White House, which he was not doing just because
he wanted a little bit of moral advice. He knew that was going to be very
helpful for a president who was under the attack of people saying that
`You're immoral,' to have Billy Graham, the best-known evangelist in the
United States, staying in the White House and, essentially, giving his
blessing to President Johnson.

GROSS: Yeah, but at the same time there's this story breaking that, you know,
Walter Jenkins, a close aide to LBJ, had a homosexual relationship. There's
rumors that the Republicans are going to start spreading photos of LBJ in a
compromising position with a woman who wasn't his wife. What happened with

Mr. BESCHLOSS: That was one of the worries that Johnson had. Just about two
weeks before the election, George Reedy, his press secretary, walked in and
said, `There's a rumor that there's a photograph of you in a compromising
position with this woman who lives in Louisiana and who does not live the
proper sort of life.' That's my language and not his. And Johnson was
terrified that something like this might happen just before the election; an
October surprise that would hand the election to Goldwater.

GROSS: Did that ever happen?

Mr. BESCHLOSS: It didn't happen, but what you hear and read in the
book--these conversations, you know, the last few days before the election,
Johnson was terrified that it would. He was on the telephone all the time to
J. Edgar Hoover saying, `Make sure this does not happen and cause my defeat.'

GROSS: Well, speaking of Hoover, you include a tape with J. Edgar Hoover.
And I think at this point LBJ is worried that somebody else in his Cabinet is
going to be exposed as gay. And they're--Hoover and LBJ are having a talk
about, `Well, how do you know if somebody's gay or not? How can you spot
'em?' Did you want to say anything else about this conversation before we
hear it?

Mr. BESCHLOSS: This is Johnson. You know, he always operated at about 10
different levels. And in the one we're about to hear, the top level is he's
just asking his FBI director, you know, how you spot a secret homosexual in
your entourage, which, in those horrible, prehistoric times, would have been
politically damaging. But at the same time, Johnson knows privately of the
rumors that Hoover, himself, is gay, so, in a way, he's sort of playing with
him by saying to Hoover, `Tell me. How do you spot a secret homosexual?'

GROSS: OK. Let's hear the conversation. LBJ and J. Edgar Hoover, head of
the FBI, recorded on October 31st, 1964.

(Soundbite from vintage audiotape)

Mr. J. EDGAR HOOVER (FBI): Now we took over that investigation yesterday.

Pres. JOHNSON: Yeah.

Mr. HOOVER: They said that this particular man had been under surveillance
and that they were going to explode this bomb today. Now the only person I
know of who's been under surveillance by any agency has been this man over in
the Navy Department.

Pres. JOHNSON: No. I read that. What they said was--that they raised the
question--the way he combed his hair, the way he did something else, but they
had no act of his or he had done nothing.

Mr. HOOVER: Exactly. Well, it just the suspicion that his mannerisms and so
forth were such that they were suspicious.

Pres. JOHNSON: Yeah, he worked for me for four or five years, but he wasn't
even suspicious to me, but I guess you're gonna have to teach me something
about this stuff.

Mr. HOOVER: Well, you know, I often wonder what the next crisis is gonna be.

Pres. JOHNSON: I'll swear. I can't recognize them. I don't know anything
about it.

Mr. HOOVER: It's a thing that you just can't tell. Sometimes, just like
in the case of ...(unintelligible)...

Pres. JOHNSON: Yeah.

Mr. HOOVER: ...there was no indication in any way.

Pres. JOHNSON: No.

Mr. HOOVER: And I knew him pretty well and Deloche did also and there was no
suspicion, no indication. There are some people who walk kind of funny and so
forth that you might kind of think are a little bit off or maybe queer.

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: What is the historic value of listening back to that, Michael
Beschloss; of hearing the head of the FBI and the president of the United
States speculating on how can you tell, as Hoover put it, `if somebody's

Mr. BESCHLOSS: Well, one thing is to show how far we have come from those
times. And it's a good thing, too. The other thing is it shows the way that
business was oftentimes done by presidents in those days, which was if you've
got a problem, if a scandal threatens you, you call the FBI and quash it.

GROSS: How far have we come since that time? It seems to me there's still...

Mr. BESCHLOSS: Still a lot of ways to go, but that was a time where if you
appointed a gay man or a gay woman to a prominent place in your administration
that would have been politically, very hard to do. Thank God things have
changed since then.

GROSS: Well, as recently as the Clinton administration there were still
people shot down who never got their position because they were gay.

Mr. BESCHLOSS: Yes, but in the Johnson times it wouldn't even have got as
far as a president making the appointment to be shot down.

GROSS: Right. Getting back to Walter Jenkins, who was forced out of the LBJ
administration because he was found having a gay relationship, a closeted
relationship, Jenkins was replaced as special assistant to the president by
Bill Moyers.

Mr. BESCHLOSS: Bill Moyers--and we know him now, of course, as the
television commentator, but got his start not only in the Johnson White House,
but actually working for Lyndon Johnson's television station down in Austin.

GROSS: Presidential historian Michael Beschloss. He's just edited the second
volume in his trilogy of LBJ's secret White House tapes. The new book is
called "Reaching For Glory," and it covers the years 1964 to '65. Beschloss
will be back in the second half of the show.

I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with presidential historian
Michael Beschloss. He's just edited the second volume in a trilogy of
President Lyndon Johnson's secret White House tapes, tapes of conversations
with Cabinet members, aides and officials made on his hidden recording system
in the Oval Office, tapes intended to give LBJ a reliable record that could be
used in his daily business. The new book is called "Reaching for Glory," and
it covers the years 1964 to '65. There's also an audio version of the book.

One of the things LBJ was known for having is a big ego, an ego that was
sometimes bruised. And I think we can hear what that was like in a
conversation that he had with his adviser, Edwin Wiesl, after LBJ won the
election against Barry Goldwater, and winning wasn't enough. He was
complaining that the TV commentators were saying that he only won because
people saw him as the lesser of two evils. What should we listen for in this

Mr. BESCHLOSS: Well, you know, Terry, when I was listening to these tapes and
putting them in the book, you know, I told my wife, you know, `I'm learning so
much about Johnson, but I'm learning a lot about life, too.' And one of the
things I learned about life was that in Lyndon Johnson's case, this was a guy
who had an awful lot to be thankful for: a wife who loved him, children,
friends. He was president of the United States, which he had always wanted to
do. But it was never enough. He was always unhappy. Rather than saying,
`Let me enjoy the blessings I've got,' he was always looking for the enemy
around the door or the danger behind the curtain. And the result was that he
never allowed himself to enjoy himself. And the moment that really brought it
home to me was election night 1964. He's elected by just about the largest
landslide in history, and I said to myself, `Aha, I'll finally hear this guy
actually happy.'

And you listen to him election night, and the first half of the night, he's
complaining that Robert Kennedy, who was just elected senator from New York,
had not thanked him enough in his acceptance speech, and the second half of
the night, he's complaining that the TV commentators are saying this was just
an anti-Goldwater election, not a pro-Johnson victory. And so in the tape
that we're about to hear, you hear him complaining to this close lawyer friend
of his, Ed Wiesl, that `We've got to do something about that.'

GROSS: Well, let's hear the tape, recorded in November of 1964.

(Soundbite of audiotape)

President LYNDON JOHNSON: We don't have any propaganda machine and we don't
have anybody who can get out our stuff. Now Ray Mullah(ph) started this story
that they're just voting against Goldwater and they didn't like either one of
us and that Johnson didn't have any rapport and he didn't have any style, and
he was a buffoon and he was full of corn, and every place I went in this
campaign--and I went to 49 states with Lady Bird and two girls; I was 44
myself--I had the biggest crowd they'd ever had before and I got the biggest
vote anybody ever got before and I had the greatest affection that's ever been
demonstrated before and the greatest loyalty and more big businessmen and more
labor men and more Negroes and more Jews and more ethnic groups, more
everybody. But they say, `Oh, that doesn't amount to anything.'

So the Bobby Kennedy group, they kind of put out this stuff and the little
Kennedy folks around--yeah, nobody loves Johnson. And they're going to have
it built up by January that I didn't get any mandate at all, that I was just
the lesser of two evils and people didn't care. And I think that you've got
to point out that Dick Daley says that he figured we'd run 750,000 in Chicago,
and now we're going to run 850 to nine. And we saved the governor and we'll
run over a million in the state. It's the greatest candidate that he's ever
seen, "the greatest political candidate," and I think you've got to quote him
because that's what he told me a dozen times.

I had twice the crowd Eisenhower ever had. Now they wrote about Eisenhower
for eight years, but they've never written one word about us, and they've got
to say something about the auditorium in Austin, Texas, being filled at 2:30
in the morning just waiting to see me, the people that knew me best, and that
they voted for me six and eight to one in the home box--is that Miller was
losing, and the love and the affection they had for 30 years. And all they
write about is not love and affection. They write, `Well, the lesser of two
evils, cornpone, Southern.'

Now let's get busy on this, Eddie, before they ruin us and make a Harding out
of us, and we've got to be thinking what we can do about this attorney general
now. We've got to get the ablest, strongest, finest, most respectable man
that we can get because they want to make a bunch of crooks out of us.

GROSS: Well, it sounds like he not only wants to win, he cares about his

Mr. BESCHLOSS: Not only cares about his image; you know, if you heard this,
Terry, and you didn't know what this was, you'd think this was the talk of
someone who had just lost the election.

GROSS: Right.

Mr. BESCHLOSS: He's angry, he's upset, he's suspicious. This is just after
he's gotten the biggest landslide in modern times, and he sounds miserable.
And the other thing is that he keeps on saying `They want to make a Harding
out of us, they want to make a bunch of crooks out of us.' He kept on
focusing on the danger that he thought that these enemies of his, whether it
was Robert Kennedy or maybe, as he came to feel, hidden enemies on his own
White House staff, wanted to send him to jail, have him impeached as
president. And this was a guy who was much too suspicious for his own good.
And as we will hear, as time went on, it only got worse.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is presidential historian Michael
Beschloss, and he's just published the second volume of his LBJ secret White
House tapes. This volume covers 1964 to 1965. It's called "Reaching for

Your book made news this week in The New York Times, which reported that your
book reveals the story behind the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. That's the
resolution that gave LBJ the authority to fight the war. This was in 1964.
What did you learn about the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution from the LBJ secret

Mr. BESCHLOSS: Well, you know, that resolution was August of 1964, and
Johnson had gone to Congress after there was, he thought at the time, an
attack on an American vessel in the Gulf on Tonkin. That evening, August '64,
Johnson, as he says, bombed hell out of the North Vietnamese. And then he
went to Congress and said, `Give me a resolution that allows me to repel any
further such attacks.' Almost everyone in the House and Senate voted for it.
That was what Johnson used as his congressional basis to fight the whole war
in Vietnam. He never went back for another resolution, certainly never asked
Congress for a declaration of war. And what the book shows from these tapes
is that, as early as a month after the Gulf of Tonkin incident took place,
Johnson realized that there had never been any North Vietnamese attack on an
American vessel at all, so it made even the basis for the whole Vietnam War
even more flimsy, but he did not tell the public.

GROSS: He must have had so many burdens to bear since he was so torn up about
the war. Plus, he knew that he was withholding really important information
from the public. In fact, he was lying to the public.

Mr. BESCHLOSS: And that's the problem. Because, you know, you always hear
that people who have a lot of secrets have a pretty miserable life, and that's
one of the stories here, because Johnson was full of secrets, and some secrets
that we would not have found out if he hadn't made these tapes and if we
weren't able to actually hear his voice and hear what he was actually saying
in private.

GROSS: Well, it's amazing he made the tapes. When you want to keep a secret,
making a tape isn't the best way of keeping it.

Mr. BESCHLOSS: Well, Johnson was perhaps the ultimate control freak, and his
feeling was that if he made these tapes, he could go back with them to Texas
and go through them and take out the ones that showed him as an heroic
president. And my guess is that he felt that the ones that did not show him
as a heroic president, he could either destroy or take out so that someone
like me would not hear them years later. What he didn't bargain for was
that when he hit Texas in 1969 after being president, the last thing he wanted
to do was relive the tortures of Vietnam and what he had just been through, so
the result was that the collection was intact and was not opened until very

GROSS: My guest is presidential historian Michael Beschloss. He's just
edited the second volume in his trilogy of LBJ's secret White House tapes. The
new book is called "Reaching for Glory." We'll talk more after a break. This

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Presidential historian Michael Beschloss is my guest. His new book is
called "Reaching for Glory: Lyndon Johnson's Secret White House Tapes,
1964-1965." It's his second collection of LBJ tapes.

There was a lot of speculation while LBJ was president about what would have
happened in Vietnam had President Kennedy lived. Would we have gotten in
deeper? Would he have pulled out sooner? And LBJ was worried that some
people were saying that LBJ was blaming the war on Kennedy and he was making
it his responsibility. And LBJ was denying that he was trying to lay the
blame on Kennedy. And he talked about that in a conversation with his
secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, in January of 1965. What should we be
listening for in this tape?

Mr. BESCHLOSS: Well, I put this one in the book because what it shows is that
Johnson felt that Kennedy was not only--John Kennedy committed to defend South
Vietnam, but Johnson in January of '65 felt that if he betrayed that
commitment, the person who would go after him would be the late president's
brother, Robert Kennedy. Because in January of '65, Robert Kennedy was not a
dove but a hawk. And so LBJ felt that if he pulled out of Vietnam, one of the
big penalties he'd pay would be that RFK would make his life miserable and
say, `You betrayed my brother's commitment.'

GROSS: Let's hear this recording between McNamara and LBJ in January of '65.

(Soundbite of vintage audiotape)

Pres. JOHNSON: They have these little parties out in Georgetown, and Bill
Moyers tells me they had a party last night and Joe Olsen(ph) called up very
excited today and said that he and Kraft and Evans and the Kennedy crowd
decided that I had framed up to get Armed Services in the Senate to call
McCone to put the Vietnam War on Kennedy's tomb and that I had a conspiracy
going on to show that it was Kennedy's immaturity and poor judgment that
originally led us into this thing; that got us involved and that his execution
of it had brought havoc to the country. Well, now, of course, I have never
laid any blame on Kennedy.


Pres. JOHNSON: Have you ever heard me blame Kennedy for anything?

Mr. McNAMARA: None. None. Absolutely not. Now I mentioned this to Jackie
several times. I was very impressed by your attitude on that while the
president was alive, as a matter of fact.

Pres. JOHNSON: I may not have anything else in my life, but I've got
loyalty. I think that if any of this crowd is in your vicinity or in your
associates' vicinity, I think what you ought to say to them is this: that I
assume full responsibility for everything. And don't ask anybody else to take
it, including President Kennedy.

Mr. McNAMARA: Mm-hmm.

Pres. JOHNSON: And during his lifetime, what ever he did, I was for. And in
his death, it's my complete responsibility and I don't want--I don't shove it
off on anybody else.

GROSS: LBJ and Robert McNamara, recorded in January of 1965. And, Michael
Beschloss, at this point is Johnson starting to think that Bobby Kennedy is
becoming an enemy instead of an ally?

Mr. BESCHLOSS: As early as the beginning of Johnson's elected presidency
after the election of 1964, Johnson figured that RFK wanted to do him in and
also probably run against him for president in 1968.

GROSS: And what happened to their relationship as time went by?

Mr. BESCHLOSS: It went only south, Terry. Kennedy, within a few months
after this tape, came out against the Vietnam War and began thinking
seriously about running against Johnson in 1968 and, of course, RFK finally
did in March of 1968, only a couple of weeks before LBJ pulled out.

GROSS: Let's hear one more conversation between LBJ and Robert McNamara, this
one recorded in June of '65, in which LBJ is confessing some of his fears
about the war.

(Soundbite from vintage audiotape)

Pres. JOHNSON: It's gonna be difficult for us to, for very long, prosecute
effectively a war that far away from home with the divisions that we have
here, and particularly the potential divisions. And it's really had me
concerned for a month and I'm very depressed about it 'cause I see no program
from either Defense or State that gives me much hope of doing anything except
just praying and gasping to hold on during monsoon and hope they'll quit.
And I don't believe they're ever gonna quit and I don't see how we have any
way of either a plan for a victory, militarily or diplomatically.

GROSS: Well, that's as early as '65. And he thinks it's pretty hopeless.
Michael Beschloss, what did you learn about how LBJ managed the war in Vietnam
and what his role was in the execution of the war?

Mr. BESCHLOSS: Well, the saddest revelation was that, as he began the war,
he didn't feel that we could win, that there wasn't a way to win and that he
did not tell that to people. And one of the things I worried about when I was
working on this book and having it published just this week is that American
vets are going to hear this, and their families are. And what are they going
to say? They're going to say, you know, `Our loved one or I was sent to
Vietnam to fight and probably lose my life in a war that the president never
felt that we had a chance to win. He was sending us into harm's way. Why did
he do this?' And so I think the basic thing you have to say is--I think
Lyndon Johnson was a good man with wonderful intentions in many ways, but one
of the most basic things an American president should never do is send
American human beings into harm's way while, in private without telling them,
thinking that they have no chance to win.

GROSS: How did he manage to keep getting in deeper when he was so pessimistic
about the outcome all along?

Mr. BESCHLOSS: This is the Alfred Hitchcock element. He felt that he had
absolutely no alternative. He felt that the only alternative open to him was
to somehow try to fight this war in a way that would perhaps hold off the
Communists, not let the Republicans call him soft on communism. And then the
other side was he felt that he shouldn't escalate the war so much that he'd
risk a nuclear war with the Russians and the Chinese. Johnson said when he
left the presidency, `The best thing about leaving the job of being president
was every single night I didn't have to worry about the fact that there might
be World War III tomorrow.'

GROSS: How did LBJ feel about the anti-war movement and the campus protests?
I mean, in some ways, he agreed with the people who were protesting the war in
Vietnam. He agreed that it couldn't be won.

Mr. BESCHLOSS: That's the poignant thing. He did agree, and that's the big
shocker of this book is that maybe the biggest anti-war person was LBJ
because, in private, he was saying the same thing as those kids were saying
out in public, which is, `This war is a loser,' but at the same time, Johnson
would not listen to what the people on the campuses were saying. In the
spring of 1965 there were anti-war demonstrations of 15,000 kids or more
saying, `End this war.' Johnson didn't listen because he convinced himself
that they were totally orchestrated by Communists, this was a Communist
conspiracy to somehow constrain him or destroy him. So you had a president
who was getting more and more suspicious and depressed, more tired, more
beleaguered. And rather than saying, `Perhaps these students are saying
something I should listen to,' instead, he's saying, `These are just the tools
of Communists. I'll ignore them.'

GROSS: There's also things in your book about the civil rights movement. And
I thought we could listen to a conversation that LBJ had with George Wallace,
who was then governor of Alabama. This is March 18th of 1965. And at this
time, LBJ was trying to pressure George Wallace to speed up black registration
and desegregate the schools. And George Wallace was saying that LBJ had no
authority in that area. Tell us more about what was happening at this time
between LBJ and George Wallace.

Mr. BESCHLOSS: Well, I was so glad to put this in the book because here is
one of the great moments in history that you're so glad you have a tape of,
because this was the time of the Selma-to-Montgomery march, and Johnson is
trying to get George Wallace, the segregationist governor of Alabama, to be at
least as benign as possible and not interfere and, if possible, to protect the
marchers. But he didn't trust Wallace, so what you hear him doing is trying
to push Wallace to give these marchers some protection. And you hear Wallace
trying to protect himself, politically.

GROSS: OK. This is LBJ and Governor George Wallace in March of 1965.

(Soundbite from vintage audiotape)

Governor GEORGE WALLACE (Alabama): I've got hundreds of bearded beatniks in
front of my Capitol now. And the point I'm making is that it looks like the
group coming here, with the language they're using--they made a speech on the
streets of our city two days ago and James Pullman suggested in front of all
the nuns and priests that if they--anybody went in the cafe and they wouldn't
serve them, they'd kick the (censored) legs of the tables off. They're all
making that kind of intense remarks and it inflames people, you know, but I'm
gonna--I'm asking people to--I'm gonna ask them to stay away from this
highway, to use your superior discipline and I'm gonna do everything that I
can. But now all I want to say, quite frankly, is that they've been stirred
up by a lot of things. And, of course, I know you don't want anything to
happen that looks like a revolution.

Pres. JOHNSON: Maybe, by all of us saying to them, `Let's have the march.
Let's get it over as soon as we can. Let's everybody stay at home that will
and let's don't'--when you talk about a revolution, that really...

Gov. WALLACE: Well, what I...

Pres. JOHNSON: That really upsets us all.

Gov. WALLACE: Well, let me say this, Mr. President, we have the
revolutionaries down here.

Pres. JOHNSON: Well, I know that. I understand that.

Gov. WALLACE: But--and, of course, if I was a revolutionary, I probably
could invite a quarter of a million people to come help us, but, of course, I
don't want anything like that at all.

Pres. JOHNSON: I know.

Gov. WALLACE: I just want it to get through. But the reason: I don't want
to be in the position of the enemy, but I'm asking for federal troops. We
have ministers down here that walk up and scratch the patrolmen on the hand,
you know. And they're turning round. A Negro priest yesterday asked all the
patrolmen what their wives were doing. We reckon some of their friends could
have dates with their wives, you know, trying to provoke them; those kind of

Pres. JOHNSON: I think it'd be better if you called up the Guard in the
service of the state, and I just approved it and gave some advisers with them,
rather than our...

Gov. WALLACE: Yes, sir.

Pres. JOHNSON: ...doing it. And if the situation deteriorated and if your
highway patrolmen are going back to the highways to take care of the drunk
drivers and things like that and you've got this group of--that's coming and
the highway's moving and the tourist court's filling up, if you call up your
Guard, I'll put the best people we've got to work right with them. And our
people here applaud the conduct of the Guard the last time they had them.
They think you're all right. And we'll just--we'll have them sitting back,
alerted, ready for whatever help you need--these others. And I think I'd
just say that and I think I just ought to say I'm asking people in the country
not to let this thing get out of hand.

GROSS: Why did LBJ want Wallace to call the National Guard instead of LBJ
doing it?

Mr. BESCHLOSS: Because Johnson knew that if it looked as if the Feds were
coming in, that would hurt the civil rights movement. He wanted Wallace to
do it. And, of course, Wallace, because he was against civil rights, he was
throwing the hot potato back to Johnson, saying, `You do it.'

You know, Terry, this is really Lyndon Johnson at his best in this
conversation because this was a guy who, in the pit of his stomach, what he
cared most about was civil rights and poverty. He wanted to help the poor.
That's what he wanted to devote his presidency to, instead of Vietnam. And on
the civil rights side, we were all really lucky to have this Southern
president in office who was the one who was bringing the civil rights
revolution to America. You know, even listening to him talking to Wallace,
you notice his accent gets a little bit more Southern. He speaks to Wallace
in his own language. That made it a little bit easier.

GROSS: My guest is presidential historian Michael Beschloss. He's just
edited the second volume in his trilogy of LBJ's secret White House tapes.
The new book is called "Reaching for Glory." We'll talk more after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Michael Beschloss and he's just completed the second of a
projected three-volume work on the LBJ secret White House tapes. The new
collection covers 1964 to '65. It's called "Reaching for Glory."

As this book is published, our president, George W. Bush, is leading a new
war. And I'm sure you've been watching President Bush very carefully. And
it's really amazing how--I mean, just a few months ago he was a governor.
And now he's leading a war. Do you want to comment at all on how you think
you've perceived him change in the past few weeks?

Mr. BESCHLOSS: Well, you know, I think leaders don't change so much as, you
know, different situations bring out different sides of them that we did not
know about. And if you look back at the campaign of 2000, very rarely did you
hear things mentioned like terrorism and even international relations or what
any of these candidates would do if there was a crisis like this. So since
George Bush had been a governor, he was untested. And you look back now at
the record--him over the last month and a half--and thank God there were sides
to him that many people did not see: a leader who was able to focus himself;
very quickly decide how do you deal with the attack of the 11th of September
and rally the country and much of the world behind that policy.

GROSS: What are some of the things you're watching for as a presidential

Mr. BESCHLOSS: The thing I'd like to know most about--and what I wouldn't
give to have some George W. Bush tapes.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. BESCHLOSS: Now if you can imagine, Terry...

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. BESCHLOSS: ...11th of September, you're listening to the tapes, you
know, rolling of what he was told, what he was saying on that airplane when he
was flying to Barksdale, Louisiana, and Offutt in the Midwest and back to
Washington and how he was reacting. That would tell us so much about what
kind of a president he is that we can't know in real time on the outside.
What I really hope is that someday we'll get some kind of information that
will reveal that to us, whether it's diaries or letters or records kept by the
people around President Bush that are private now, but will be released
someday. And I hope that that will give us a better idea than we now have of
how much he is really involved in managing this war. Is this someone who was
a good chairman of the board? Is he engaged? Is he working overtime? What
kind of a president he is--and in real time there's so much spin and our
sources are so inadequate, we can't really know.

GROSS: And I suppose you like the fact, too, that you can use, you know, your
expertise about presidents to reflect on the moment.

Mr. BESCHLOSS: I think that's right, and that's one good use of history
because all of us, as Americans--we all have a tendency to think that we're
always inventing the wheel, that everything is something that we've never seen
before. And it gives you a little bit of confidence to know that, even when
you go through a crisis like the one that we suffered in September and the
aftermath that we're still living through right now, to look back to the
earlier moments in American history where Americans have not only survived a
crisis like that, but grown from it.

GROSS: Michael Beschloss, a pleasure to talk with you. Thank you so much
for being with us.

Mr. BESCHLOSS: Me, too. Thank you very much, Terry.

GROSS: Michael Beschloss is a presidential historian. He's just edited the
second volume in his trilogy of LBJ's secret White House tapes. The book is
called "Reaching for Glory" and it covers 1964 to '65. There's also an audio
version of the book.

(Soundbite of music)


GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?


Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR


Daughter of Warhol star looks back on a bohemian childhood in the Chelsea Hotel

Alexandra Auder's mother, Viva, was one of Andy Warhol's muses. Growing up in Warhol's orbit meant Auder's childhood was an unusual one. For several years, Viva, Auder and Auder's younger half-sister, Gaby Hoffmann, lived in the Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan. It was was famous for having been home to Leonard Cohen, Dylan Thomas, Virgil Thomson, and Bob Dylan, among others.


This fake 'Jury Duty' really put James Marsden's improv chops on trial

In the series Jury Duty, a solar contractor named Ronald Gladden has agreed to participate in what he believes is a documentary about the experience of being a juror--but what Ronald doesn't know is that the whole thing is fake.


This Romanian film about immigration and vanishing jobs hits close to home

R.M.N. is based on an actual 2020 event in Ditrău, Romania, where 1,800 villagers voted to expel three Sri Lankans who worked at their local bakery.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.
Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue