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"?