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Tapes show different sides of LBJ

Lyndon Johnson October 12, 1997
Web posted at: 7:45 p.m. EDT (2345 GMT)

From Correspondent Bruce Morton

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- More than three decades after they were recorded, audio tapes made by Lyndon Johnson during his presidency reveal several different Johnsons.

There is Johnson the wheedler, getting a barber to come down from New York to cut his hair. There is Johnson the bully, castigating press secretary George Reedy after a TelePrompTer failed.

And, in a poignant exchange, there is Johnson the father, talking parent-to-parent with Jacqueline Kennedy about his daughter Luci, who wanted a unique birthday present -- a day without the Secret Service.

"Did you arrange it?" Mrs. Kennedy asked.

"Oh, yeah, I arranged it," Johnson said. "Good work," she replied.

"What do you reckon happened?" Johnson said.

"I'd hate to think, and don't you," she said.

The issue that came to consume the Johnson presidency was the Vietnam War. On tape, the late president laments that the United States was getting into another Korea and "it just worries the hell out of me."

"Of course, if you start running from the communists, they may just chase you right into your own kitchen," he said.

icon Johnson the President
The situation in Vietnam
"It just worries the hell out of me ..."
(101 K / 5 sec. audio)

"They just chase you into your own kitchen ..."
(105 K / 5 sec. audio)

icon Johnson the Dad
Speaking with Jackie Kennedy
"A special birthday present ..."
(478 K / 22 sec. audio)

As seen on CNN

There are also affectionate moments on the tapes between Johnson and his wife, Lady Bird. On one occasion, as Johnson was about to announce that he had ordered the first bombing of North Vietnam, she called "merely to tell you I loved you. That's all."

At the 1964 Democratic Convention, Johnson can be heard in a conversation in which he discussed whether to tell the delegates that he wouldn't run for another term. "I don't want these decisions I'm required to make, and I don't want the conniving that's required," he said.

Concerned about the country's divide over civil rights, he laments that he had lost the support of white Southerners while, at the same time, blacks would not listen to him either. "They're not going to follow a white Southerner, and I think the stakes are too big to try and compromise," he said.

But Johnson did run in 1964 and won in a landslide. During the next four years, under his leadership, civil rights and voting rights legislation did pass.

But in the end, what he couldn't figure out was a way out of the war that gnawed at him and which finally destroyed his presidency.

Looking back over that history, his taped words on the subject from years before seem almost prophetic: "What is Vietnam worth to me?"


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