The Lyndon Johnson Tapes: A ‘You Are There’ Feel, Behind the Scenes Account of a Presidency

Based on 600 hours of tapes released from the LBJ Library, it has a “you are there” quality, listening in through LBJ’s tapped phones. The documentary is narrated by Jack Smith, Howard K. Smith’s son, from a script written by British historian Charles Wheeler.

The Youtube posting above is divided into three documentaries of about 50 minutes each. Revelations:

I had no idea that at the 1964 Democratic Convention, LBJ planned to announce he wasn’t running for re-election. Only an intervention by Lady Byrd kept him in the race If he had withdrawn at the 1964 convention in August and thrown everyone in turmoil, what would have happened to the country? Would Goldwater have won by default, or would the Democrats have scrambled to put together a ticket of Robert Kennedy and someone else?
George Reedy, Johnson’s press secretary, was very frightened for the country by Johnson’s mental state and mood swings throughout his term. He calls him “manic depressive.” Bill Moyers and Richard Goodwin thought he was paranoid and delusional about RFK.
Because of LBJ’s distrust of RFK, the latter’s doubts about American chances for success in Vietnam, as he expressed to Johnson in the spring of 1964, were not taken seriously.
The next 50 minutes of the Youtube.com post above is “Uncivil Liberties” about LBJ’s relationship with Martin Luther King; his evolving views on civil rights and the efforts to end “American apartheid”; heroic efforts to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964, phone conversations with Hubert Humphrey, Richard Russell; J. Edgar Hoover’s surveillance of King, FBI hiring of prostitutes to entrap KIng. Robert Kennedy had approved a one-month surveillance of King in the fall of 1963, but Hoover used that authorization, after JFK’s assassination, to continue the surveillance indefinitely and attempts to entrap King at the Willard Hotel in Washington in January 1964 during 17 hours of surveillance. There is no evidence that Johnson authorized King’s entrapment. “Operation Zero” caught King at least two more times in sexual encounters. King as a leader had feet of clay, an aide said, and yet he was deeply committed to the cause of equality, and incredibly courageous in the midst of such virulent racist opposition, and refused to be intimidated. The FBI first tried to start psychological warfare among King and his closest associates; sent a recording of King’s transgressions to his home with a letter urging him to kill himself within a month or the tape would be released to the public. Hoover’s aides tried to interest reporters in the tapes as well as a “book” they had compiled about King’s sex life. Fortunately, no reporter touched the story. (Today, of course, right-wing media would love a story about such an icon of the left as Dr. King). Assistant Attorney General Burke Marshall characterized the FBI at that time as a “lawless institution, from its own point of view, even, and was directed by a man who was truly demented.”
The documentary also explores the arrest of Walter Jenkins, a close Johnson aide and homosexual, just weeks before the 1964 election. Johnson then asked Hoover (himself a likely homosexual) to investigate the cabinet, sub-cabinet, and assistant cabinet secretaries, to see if he could find any homosexuals. Hoover blithely said he’d look for men who “talk or walk funny,” declared Jenkins “desperately ill,” but quickly cleared the president of “carelessness” in his hiring.
The last 40 minutes are another documentary called “Hello Mr. President” about phone calls LBJ made in the days after JFK’s assassination, including J. Edgar Hoover and Kay Graham, Johnson’s personal frugality, the beginnings of the war on poverty, Johnson’s attitude toward television, calls with Teddy Kennedy, and his paranoia about RFK.
Johnson’s personal secretary calls him a “tornado on a leash.”
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