JFK's White House tapes deliver raw, powerful history lesson

Posted Online: Jan. 25, 2013, 2:40 pm
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By Marlene Gantt
President John F. Kennedy was said to be sensitive to public opinion.
"Kennedy was horrified to open the paper one day and see a photograph of a navy aide standing next to an expensive new naval project -- a hospital bedroom that had been built at a base on Cape Cod, to be ready in case Jacqueline Kennedy went into labor there with their son, Patrick Bouvier Kennedy," according to the new book "Listening In -= The Secret White House Recordings of John F Kennedy," selected and introduced by Ted Widmer.

The tapes used in the book are raw history.

The existence of the tapes was first announced in 1973. A systematic review of them began in 1993. Deliberately and secretly, recorded by the president, they were made in either the Oval Office or the Cabinet Room at the White House. There is no apparent pattern to the taping. It was not done on a daily basis.

President Kennedy recorded over 248 hours of meeting conversations and 12 hours of dicta belt telephone conversations on a system that remained a closely held secret even from his top aides. The last of the tapes were released by the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in January 2012. By then the final 45 hours of recorded meetings held during the three months prior to the assassination of President Kennedy had been transcribed.

I began listening to some of the selected tapes included with the book after it recently became available. The book has two fully restored and remastered 75-minute CDs inside the jacket. The sound quality varies widely, according to the presidential library's press release. I found this to be true. Although most of the recorded conversations are understandable, the tapes include passages of poor quality with considerable background noise and periods where speakers' identities are difficult to discern.

The text in the book includes the conversations so a reader/listener can follow and not miss anything. However, after hearing the voice of the president, Mrs. Kennedy and other famous people such as Martin Luther King, Jr. I opted to just read the conversations.

Nevertheless, I am glad I listened to the conversation between President Kennedy and Gen. Douglas MacArthur taped on Aug., 16, 1962. A lot would be lost just reading.

MacArthur presents a rough-sounding tonal analysis of the political situation at the time. If you didn't know when this was taped or who was speaking, you would think it concerned the politics of 2013.

"You have inherited difficulties that you probably will just about settle and you'll get through and then some other fellow will come in and get all the credit" said MacArthur. "There isn't a single trouble that you have that isn't a relic of either -- the most of them from the Eisenhower administration and some of them from the preceding administration that he drove under the rug and left for you to clean up. But the general situation is undoubtedly on the up curve. You probably place more emphasis on these columnists, who are the damnedest bunch of petty liars the world has ever seen."

"Or second-guessers," replied President Kennedy.
MacArthur said the stock in trade of columnists was to "create a tirade against the great."

The rest of their conversation is about Michigan Gov. George Romney CEO of American Motors Corp. He became a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination in 1968.

President Kennedy went into a tirade on July 25, 1963 over the $5,000 apparently spent by the Air Force for furniture in the hospital room prepared for Mrs. Kennedy at Otis Air Force Base. He ordered it sent back to Jordan Marsh, a department store in downtown Boston.

President Kennedy called Brig. Gen. Godfrey McHugh (the Air Force aide to the president) and told him members of Congress who saw the picture were going to threaten to cut the Air Force budget if they were going to waste money like that.

President Kennedy used some colorful language discussing the matter. He felt the man who allowed his picture to be taken beside the bed was incompetent and he "wouldn't have him running a cat house."

President Kennedy wanted the man in the photo and Col. Carlton, who apparently was involved in the purchase, both transferred for incompetence.
The White House recordings are available in the Library's Research Room. The recordings and their associated finding aid are available for purchase at the John F. Kennedy Library, Columbia Point, Boston, MA 02125 or by calling the Audiovisual Department (617)514-1622.

Members of the media are cautioned against drawing historical conclusions from the sound clips.

The 14 tapes released in 2012 are excerpts and transcripts on subjects that include Vietnam, the Kennedy children in the oval office, relations with the Soviet Union, 1964 convention plans and campaign taped on 11/12/63, and the final tape made on 11/12/63 (information is available at jfk@library.org).
Marlene Gantt of Port Byron is a former Rock Island school teacher.


Local events heading

  Today is Wednesday, Sept. 17, the 260th day of 2014. There are 105 days left in the year.
1864 -- 150 years ago: We are told league merchants have paid no attention to the prohibition on selling ammunition, but continue to sell just as before the order was issued.
1889 -- 125 years ago: The Rev. R.F. Sweet, rector of Trinity Episcopal Parish, left for the East to visit his boyhood home in Boston before attending the general convention of the Episcopal Church in New York.
1914 -- 100 years ago: Dr. E.A. Anderson was named to succeed Dr. E.L. Kerns as head physician of the Modern Woodmen of America, and moved to Rock Island from Holdingford, Minn.
1939 -- 75 years ago: One week late, because of the outbreak of war, Dr. E.L. Beyer resumed his work as professor of romance languages at Augustana College. Dr. and Mrs. Beyer left Germany on the last train to the Belgian border.
1964 -- 50 years ago: Employees in Turnstyle stores in Moline and Davenport will vote Oct. 2 in an election set up by the Chicago regional office of the National Labor Relations Board. Employees will vote either for the Retail Clerk International or for no union.
1989 -- 25 years ago: Rock Island High School is considering a step to help teen moms stay in school and get their diploma. The school board is expected to vote tonight on instituting an on-site child care center.

(More History)