Let's Go to the Tape


THESE White House tapes are a pretty good illustration of how democratic government works. The process is messy, profane, funny, candid and sometimes deliberately dishonest. It can be thoroughly distasteful. For all that, this book is a sound rebuke to those too squeamish to soil their hands in the political trade.

Many Americans pout and retreat when their sixth-grade notions about how to run a government don't shift primly to the nation's capital. We are hugely and sometimes willfully ignorant about the arts of politics and governing, especially about the utter necessity of compromise.+''Kennedy, Johnson, and the Quest for Justice'' could be a textbook on how the nation's business actually gets done. It demonstrates with page after page of conversation in the White House that governing and lawmaking are not accomplished in the manner of a decree from Rome. They are rather the products of everything from joshing to outright lying when lying seems the only logical way to advance a legitimate idea.

Here were two men working at the pinnacle. One was perceived in his later martyrdom as too fine, too principled, for the everyday commerce of politics. The other was perceived as a manipulator, a Texas arm-twister and by some as a fraud and a liar. Yet in their day-to-day management, John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson were remarkably alike. They differed mainly in style.

The secretly recorded tapes (we are reminded that Richard M. Nixon was not the first president to wire the Oval Office) were transcribed and edited by the Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia. The tapes used here deal primarily with civil rights,+the issue that dominated domestic affairs during the early to mid-1960's. Other issues intrude just enough to remind the reader that a president juggles more than one problem at a time. The Cuban missile crisis and the Vietnam War,+for+example, demanded attention.

The editors, Jonathan Rosenberg,+author+of+the+forthcoming+'' 'How+Far+the+Promised+Land?,' '' and Zachary Karabell, author of ''A Visionary Nation,'' among other books, provide an excellent narrative to keep the background in focus. Their brief essays on events of the time could serve as ready-made term papers for students clever enough to mine the index.

Kennedy entered office with no real concern for civil rights. Both he and his brother Robert, the attorney general, saw race initially as a distraction. Then came the violence at the University of Mississippi in the fall of 1962, with two people killed and scores injured, and the bombs of Birmingham, a prolonged campaign of destruction and injury culminating in the slaughter of four little girls in their Sunday School dresses on a September morning in 1963. In that year, Kennedy and his advisers got serious about strengthening the nation's civil rights laws and addressing the complaints of black Americans.

He was well into the contentious construction of a civil rights bill when he was assassinated in November 1963. His successor finished the job, in spite of having been wrongly perceived as a Southern bigot. By the time he signed the most far-reaching civil rights bill of the century in 1964, Johnson had become a hero to black people. The editors note that the tapes show Kennedy as more pragmatic, more concerned with political dimensions, while Johnson emphasized the moral necessity of guaranteeing equal rights for all.

There is a temptation to dwell on the contrasting styles of the two presidents, the eloquent Ivy Leaguer versus the bullying Texas cowboy. Some of that comes through here. But the conventional wisdom evaporates as the reader studies the private words captured on tape and holds them up against the public utterances. Kennedy is often incomprehensible as he mangles syntax. The supposed vulgarian Johnson, on the other hand, comes across just as often as a model of colloquial but effective articulation.

Here's Kennedy considering whether to send troops to Birmingham as he had to Oxford, Miss.: ''So it really is just a question, we have to have two things: first, we have to have law and order, and therefore the Negroes not to be running around the city. And then secondly . . . we can't just have the Negroes not running around the city and then have that agreement blow up because . . . the other remedy we have under that condition then is to send legislation up to the Congress this week as our response to that action happening.''

Here's Johnson talking about a Republican stall that threatens to weaken the civil rights bill: ''I'm going to lay it on the line, if I get to. . . . say to the Republicans, now you're either for civil rights or you're not -- you're either the party of Lincoln or you ain't. And let's -- by God, put up or shut up!''

Kennedy was consistently diplomatic. Johnson was often crude and blunt. His attempts at diplomacy sounded slick and transparent. He was forthright in demanding credit. Here he's talking on the phone to Roy Wilkins, executive secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, about appointing a black judge.

Johnson: ''Well, am I going to get any credit if I name him?''

Wilkins: ''Certainly will. I'll see to that.''

He hires a black secretary. He makes half a dozen phone calls to civil rights leaders and instructs them to spread the word.

Neither president particularly liked Martin Luther King Jr. Both saw him as a troublemaker, and although they agreed with his aims, they knew they were the ones who had to deal with the trouble he stirred up. King did not make it easy for them. Here he is addressing Kennedy in the White House after blacks have rioted in Birmingham to protest their treatment there. ''If you walk the street, you aren't safe. If you stay at home, you aren't safe: there is a danger of a bomb. If you're in church now, it isn't safe. . . . And I am convinced that if something isn't done to give the Negro a new sense of hope and a sense of protection, there is a danger that we will face and that will lead to the worst race rioting we've ever seen in this country. I think it's just at that point.''

Days later, Kennedy called five white leaders of Birmingham to the White House and reamed them out for foot-dragging. It was a performance worthy of Lyndon Johnson.


Source: http://www.nytimes.com/2003/12/07/books/le...