It all began in the heat of the summer of 1940. Hitler was at his peak in Europe. France had been defeated. Operation Sealion, the invasion of Britain, would be launched once the aerial bombardment of England had, presumably, broken the spirit of the island's residents. Although Franklin Delano Roosevelt, twice elected President of the United States, was doing his best to aid the British, who were flat broke, 88 percent of the American people wanted no part of a war in Europe, while the isolationists in Congress were uncommonly eloquent. But Roosevelt was a sly and devious man (and I mean those adjectives, as Nixon once said when applying them to Eisenhower, "in the best sense of those words"). Some time that summer, probably in June, FDR decided to run for a third term, something no President had done before. But slyness and deviousness were very much the order of the day, particularly when, after a closed session with Congressional leaders, FDR was promptly quoted as having said that the border of the United States was the Rhine River; this was a dangerous misquotation. What to do?
Into history strode one Henry Kannee–a mere walk-on, an under-five-lines player, as they say in movies. But remember that name. This under-five changed history, permanently. Why not, he said, bug the Oval Office? FDR was delighted. David Sarnoff, the head of RCA, was sent for, presumably with his drills and wires and toolbox, as well as a Kiel Sound Recorder, the ancestor of today's tape recorder.
William Doyle has written Inside the Oval Office, an entertaining study of "The White House Tapes From FDR to Clinton." This subtitle is something of a misnomer, since not all the Presidents taped themselves and their visitors. Ronald Reagan, as befitted a bona fide movie star, was not about to be demoted to what, in effect, was a mere radio performer. He occasionally called in video recorders to show him in full majestic crisis-control as well as in full color to emphasize those curious bright red clown spots on his cheekbones. (It should be noted that Doyle is partial to our very conservative Presidents, as opposed to the standard conservative models we are usually permitted.)
In 1988 Doyle made a fascinating documentary for television. Apparently, from August to November 1940, FDR was haphazardly taped (the microphone was in his desk lamp). The tapes were not discovered until 1978. One FDR admirer has remarked how similar his private speaking voice was to his high ecclesiastical speechifying. What is fascinating is how un-bishoplike the New York politician is in private. The voice is dry; vowels short; consonants clipped at the end like every other farmer in the Dutchess County of those days. He was something of a chatterbox and often filibustered to make sure that he wasn't told what he didn't want to hear. He also, as Harry Truman sternly noted, "lies." Associates of Truman have noted the same thing of Truman and, indeed, shocking though it must be to contemporary members of the House of Representatives, Presidents, when not outright telling lies, feel obliged to shade the truth most of the time. This is called politics; when a President lies successfully, he is called a statesman.
FDR's tapes provide little of interest. He does wonder how best to smear his opponent in the 1940 election, Wendell Willkie, who was having a fairly open affair with "the gal," Irita Van Doren, editor of the New York Herald Tribune Book Review (imagine George W. Bush even knowing the name of Michiko Kakutani). They were intellectual giants then. FDR tells civil rights leaders that he's been integrating blacks into the armed services; this is a real whopper. When challenged, he forlornly notes that the innate musicality of Negroes might pep up the military bands and so could lead, with luck, to an indigo band leader. Doyle affects shock that FDR refers to black men as "boys," particularly in front of black civil rights leaders. It is sickening, of course, to be exposed even fifty-nine years after the fact to such a horror at a time when our sensibilities have never been so delicately attuned to the feelings of others. But I suppose this is a small flaw in the man who gave us the entire world. Doyle sadly quotes Dean Acheson, an Assistant Secretary of State at the time, on how FDR "condescended [to people]…. it was patronizing and humiliating." Doyle neglects to note that Acheson was bounced by FDR in 1933 only to be rehired in a lesser capacity eight years later. I don't think Doyle likes FDR; if he does, why does he note gratuitously that FDR "laughed at his own jokes"?
Potentially, the most interesting tape is the Cabinet meeting after our fleet was sunk at Pearl Harbor. Although FDR knew that his ultimatum of November 26, 1941, would oblige the Japanese to attack us somewhere, it now seems clear that, thanks to our breaking of many of the twenty-nine Japanese naval codes the previous year, we had at least several days' warning that Pearl Harbor would be hit; yet, mysteriously, the American commanders in Hawaii were given no alert. It was commented upon at the time that the President was less astonished than others by what had happened; in any case, it would be interesting to reinterpret the talk in the Oval Office on December 8, in light of the revelations about to be made in Day of Deceit (The Free Press, December), where Robert Stinnett, after years of studying those coded naval intercepts, shows that FDR was complicitous in the attack since, otherwise, he could not have got the American people into the virtuous war against Hitler. With this latest information, one might be able to…well, decode the cryptic White House conversations about the–expected?–attack that brought us into the Second World War.
Except for a brief tryout of FDR's recording apparatus, Harry Truman did not record himself or others for history or even blackmail. Doyle is now obliged to slog his way through the management styles of various Presidents. While Truman presented us with a militarized economy and government, Eisenhower brought the skills of a military politician to the Oval Office. He regarded the taping of conversations as a "management tool," and in his memoir Crusade in Europe he duly notes that he was a recorder of talk from early days. Of course, "I made it a habit to inform visitors of the system that we used so that each would understand its purpose was merely to facilitate the execution of business." This shows a noble concern but such candor was not, perhaps, the best way to get interesting information out of people who didn't want their secrets put on the record.
Most Presidents tend to have a low view of their immediate predecessors. Eisenhower, the methodical staff officer executive, disliked FDR's chaotic, secretive style, and he was disgusted by Truman's use of cronies. It was Ike who switched off the British Empire for good at the time of Suez. In "secret," Britain, France and Israel attacked Egypt, ostensibly to recover the Suez Canal which Nasser had rudely seized. Ike and Prime Minister Anthony Eden (recorded by a "dead key"–someone listening in on the telephone) provided a poignant last post for Eden, Suez and the ghost of the Raj. The beginning of their talk is superb and sets the tone. Eisenhower: "This is a very clear connection." Eden: "I can just hear you." Was it not ever thus between slave and master? Ike has ordered a cease-fire at Suez. An edgy Eden sounds as if he has to go to the bathroom; actually, he is due in "my" Parliament in five minutes. Eden takes down his orders; then Ike says, "Now that we know connections are so good, you can call me anytime you please." Eden: "If I survive here tonight I will call you tomorrow." Three months later Eden was, as they say nowadays, toast.
Kennedy was the least prepared of the Presidents whom Doyle deals with. He quickly demonstrated his inability to execute a coherent policy at the Bay of Pigs, a misadventure cooked up by his predecessor that he had then made his very own, with disastrous results. Although Kennedy had a sharp mind, he was not used to hard work of any sort other than the haphazard barnstorming of politics. After the Cuban disaster, McGeorge Bundy wrote him a memo, placing the blame firmly, if tactfully, on Kennedy's management style, to the extent that he could be said to have one. "We can't get you to sit still…. Truman and Eisenhower did their daily dozen in foreign affairs the first thing in the morning, and a couple of weeks ago you asked me to begin to meet you on this basis. I have succeeded in catching you on three mornings, for a total of about eight minutes, and I conclude this is not really how you like to begin the day." Although the Kennedy promiscuity has been much discussed, far more important for the state was his bad health. He was in bed a good deal of the time, and the cortisone injections he was obliged to take did not concentrate his mind.
In the summer of 1962 Kennedy installed the most thorough recording system of all, wiring the Oval Office, Cabinet room, parts of the living quarters. In his office, a button controlled the recording switch. When it was on, others did most of the talking while the self-conscious President was laconic, grave, noncommittal. Doyle gives us the dialogue with the Governor of Mississippi when the university was being integrated and civil war seemed a possibility, at least in Oxford, Mississippi. Kennedy expertly maneuvers the Governor into place. He's learning.
On October 16, 1962, McGeorge Bundy informs the President that the Soviets have placed missiles in Cuba. Crucially, military intelligence is certain that the missiles do not have nuclear warheads. Oddly, no one really questions the absolute certainty of the team that brought us the Bay of Pigs. It was only a few years ago that we learned that the missiles were indeed so equipped and that if Cuba was attacked, the Russians were willing to take out a number of American cities as far north as Seattle. The dialogue is chilling in light of what we now know. Shall the missiles be taken out with an airstrike, promptly followed by invasion? General Taylor notes that the United States is vulnerable from the south. Ambassador Thompson comes up with a compromise–a blockade. But Air Force Chief of Staff Curtis LeMay ("Bomb 'em back to the Stone Age") is all for some serious bombing. It has been reported that LeMay's presence at any meeting with Kennedy was sufficient to give the President "fits." LeMay is ready for an all-out war over Cuba; Berlin, too, if we're not chicken. This does not play well in the Oval Office. In the end, Kennedy's political instinct was classic: When in doubt, do nothing, particularly if the something that you do could end life on the planet. When Khrushchev helped Kennedy end the crisis, JFK was heard to say: "If they want this job, fuck 'em. They can have it–it's no great joy to me."
President Johnson started installing recording devices his first day in office. Johnson is perhaps the only great comic figure to have occupied the White House. He was not only a master of the Lincolnian crossroads and outhouse humor but he was a deadly mimic. He recorded, between November 1963 and 1968, some 700 hours of White House meetings and phone calls: well worth a CD of his very own. When Johnson names the venerable Senator Richard Russell to the Warren Commission investigating Kennedy's murder, they meet. Russell is furious.
Russell: Well, Mr. President, you ought to have told me you were going to name me.
LBJ: I told you. I told you the other day I was going to name the chief justice. I called you.
Russell: You did not. You talked about getting somebody from Supreme Court. You didn't tell me you were going to name [both Warren and me] …. Mr. President, please now….
* * *
LBJ: I just want to counsel with you and I just want your judgment and your wisdom, 'cause I haven't got any Daddy and you're going to be it….
* * *
Russell: Well, I'm not going to say anything more, Mr. President. I'm at your command.
LBJ: You damned sure going to be at my command. You're going to be at my command as long as I'm here.
The most startling revelation is how clearly–and early–LBJ understood that the Vietnam War was unwinnable. As of 1964, he is again confiding in Russell.
LBJ: What do you think of this Vietnam thing?
Russell: I don't see how we're ever going to get out of it, without getting in a major war with the Chinese and all of them down there in those rice paddies and jungles. I just don't see it. It's–I–I–just don't know what to do.
LBJ: Well, that's the way I've been feeling for six months…. I spend all my days with Rusk and McNamara and Bundy and Harriman and Vance and all those folks that are dealing with it and I would say that it pretty well adds up to them now that we've got to show some force…. I don't think that the American people are for it…. You don't have any doubt that if we go in there, and get them up against a wall, the Chinese Communists are going to come in?
Russell: No doubt at all.
LBJ: That's my judgment, and my people don't think so….
Russell: I guess going in there with all the troops, I tell you it'll be the most expensive adventure that this country ever went into.
Doyle quotes C. Douglas Dillon to the effect that LBJ so frightened everybody that no one dared tell him the truth about the extent of defeats until the Tet Offensive. But it is clear from what's on record that he had a perfectly clear view of how he had been trapped by his inherited Kennedy advisers, to a man vain and blinkered, and by his own innate cowardice, which allowed him to be turned into a disastrous war-President instead of what he was born to be, the completer of the New Deal.
Where Kennedy never forgot that he was being recorded, Nixon seems never to have remembered. He is being immortalized. Despite intermittent political skills, Nixon seems, on the evidence of the tapes, to have had no conscious mind. He is all flowing unconscious. Remembered slights, grudges, conspiracies. "We are surrounded by enemies," he declared after his re-election by one of the greatest majorities in history. Two years into his first term Nixon joined the taping club. Along with the normal presidential desire to get something on others before they get it on him, Nixon had Kissinger. Nixon knew, everyone knew, that Kissinger would say one thing to the President and then just the opposite to journalists in order to build himself up in the eyes of the public. All in all, it would have been cheaper–and less bloody–for Nixon to have got a new foreign policy adviser, but, as Dick liked to say, jowls aquiver, that would be the easy way. Along with tracking enemies, Nixon used the tapes simply to rant against the Ivy League, Georgetown set as well as Jews, the Pentagon, the CIA. Regularly, he ordered crimes to be committed that his staff promptly forgot about. Doyle quotes Bob Haldeman as observing, "Nixon was the weirdest man ever to live in the White House." The great Gen. Alexander Haig said, "My God, if I had done everything Richard Nixon told me to do, I'd probably be in Leavenworth today!" In any case, at the end, Nixon's own talk did him in. He obstructed justice, suborned witnesses and, most horrifying, talked dirty and even blasphemed in the Oval Office, the pure heart of our empire. So–California, here I come.
Doyle accepts the generous view that Nixon was a master of foreign affairs who brought to an end the Vietnam War. That is one way of looking at it. But the war that he pretended to have a plan to end in 1968 kept right on going through 1972 and almost up to his own political end. The trip to China was made because no other President could ever have done so–thanks to Nixon, who would have been busy intoning, "I am not saying that President Johnson is a Communist. No. But I am questioning his judgment on Communism." He played that broken record for an entire career and did more damage to the country than a single photo-op with Mao could ever undo. Nixon's appointed Vice President, Gerald Ford, vowed that he would not record. Doyle has found an authorized telephone tape between Ford and Kissinger. They appear to think the world of each other. Doyle also pads things out with the minutes of the tense national security meetings over the seizure of an American merchant ship by the Cambodian Khmer Rouge Communists. Thus Gerald Ford underwent his baptism of fire as, yet again, the resolve and will and credibility of the United States, the earth's only good nation, was being tested by crafty Asian Communists. One senses the tension in those meetings. Also the playacting. Even Doyle recognizes that the "participants seem to be as concerned with bellicose posturing and inflicting punitive damage on Cambodia as much as with the actual rescue. Kissinger advised: 'Let's look ferocious.'" The United States has now entered its Cowardly Lion phase. The appointed Vice President, Nelson Rockefeller, has a presentiment of what is to come when he warns: "Many are watching us, in Korea and elsewhere. The big question is whether or not we look silly."
Carter did not record. He was also ill suited for the presidency because his virtues–an engineer's convergent mind–were of no use in a job that requires almost surreal divergency. Engineers want to connect everything up and make sense. Politicians–and artists–realize that nothing really makes sense and nothing ever hooks up. As Carter's Vice President, Walter Mondale, sadly noted, "Carter thought politics was sinful." Happily, he was born to be a former President, a phantom office that he has since enhanced. Two years after Ronald Reagan replaced Carter, he too was faced with a crisis. The free world was at risk, yet again, thanks to ruthless Commies at work on the small island of Grenada, where 1,000 Americans, many of them medical students, might possibly be at risk from a Mr. Bishop, the local point man for the evil men in the Kremlin. Well, Ron stood tall; he hit his mark. An actor's got to do what an actor's got to do–so we invaded, 'cause if we hadn't we'd reveal to the world "that when the chips were down, we backed away." This is a great scenario only slightly spoiled by mean old General Haig, who observed that "the Provincetown police force could have conquered Grenada."
I feel that Doyle is somewhat dazzled by the Great Communicator, who slept more on the job than any other President since his idol Calvin Coolidge, who wisely stayed in bed every chance he got. Reagan did attend to his occasional acting chores but, as in his movie career, he almost never had a good script. Sample: Reagan is being videotaped as he tries to sell some senators on his pro-contra line: "I think what is at issue today is whether we're voting for or against a plan, we're really voting are we going to have another Cuba, a Marxist-Leninist totalitarian country as we have now in Nicaragua, on the mainland of the Americas, or are we going to hold out for people who want democracy." Well, it probably played better than it reads. It was Reagan's astonishing luck to have, in Gorbachev, a Soviet leader who was willing to switch off the cold war (and the Soviet Union in the process, presumably by accident), and a wife, Nancy, who finally took US policy in hand and made peace with the Russians while not missing a single lunch with Betsy Bloomingdale. Tapes of their telephone conversations would indeed be the stuff of history.
On to Bush. We are faced by even more Enemy of the Month Club choices now that the Soviet Union is flying apart. Qaddafi, Noriega (invasion of Panama, hooray!), Saddam Hussein (light show over Baghdad!). Next–Clinton. Bit soon for a useful summing up. Doyle does think that the White House should be wired for the record, but with the tapes sealed for twenty years unless otherwise needed. He seems aware of the dangers of absolute surveillance over everyone, today's trend. He quotes Frank Church's warning of a quarter-century ago. The Senator realized how, with modern technology, we now have the capacity "to make tyranny total in America, and we must see to it that this agency [the National Security Agency] and all agencies that possess this technology operate within the law and under proper supervision, so that we can never cross over that abyss. That is the abyss from which there is no return."
Doyle seems to think that there is nothing wrong with the American political system that a few honest guys and gals in high office couldn't cure. But to obtain high office those guys and gals have to raise millions and millions of dollars first and this can only be done dishonestly, even by our Rube Goldberg rules, the ever-shifting campaign financing laws. As for intellectual honesty, the consumer society in which we glory is based on advertising which is at best hype and at worst plain lying. Thus even the most virtuous candidate is sold, with a merry spin. It has been a long time since any public figure has openly said anything useful, much less true, even in the relative privacy of the Oval Office. Up to a point, this is the nature of our society and kind of fun. When the wise Frank Church heard the virtuous Jimmy Carter promise the American people that he would never lie to them if elected President, Church said, with morose delight, "He would deny the very nature of politics." But when, as must happen, all sense of social reality is lost, the rulers and the ruled then plunge into the churchly abyss where nothing at all is ever real again and even the ghost of the Republic is gone while the first, and probably last, global nuclear empire reels from crisis to crisis, involving ever weaker enemies, led by ever more off-the-wall rulers.
The overall impression that Inside the Oval Office gives is that the Second Law of Thermodynamics is now in serious play: Everything is running down. From our Augustus, FDR, who never worried about his place in history because he knew that he was supremely history, to the present day one notes the increasing second-rateness of our Oval Ones. I suggest that this has nothing to do so much with the caliber of the individuals as it does with an overextended military industrial political complex that wrings tax money from Congress to fight drugs, terrorism and bad guys who use eyeliner like Qaddafi. Money for "defense" (sic) should be spent repairing our rotted home base. But it won't be. Meanwhile, the Ovoids do their best to please the corporations that house them so nicely. They also talk, as politicians always have, in code. FDR was accused of making different agreements with different people. Wearily, Eleanor Roosevelt, if she remembered, would warn those about to approach FDR in his office: "Remember that when Franklin says yes, yes, yes, he isn't agreeing with you. He's just listening to you." So when polls show that the American people over a weekend rate highly this or that President, they are really only saying yes, yes, yes because there's not much point in saying no, no, no until we can find a new way of selecting what, after all, are essentially powerless figureheads–except in wartime, which is why… You complete the sentence. I feel their pain.