Op-Ed: Listening to Kennedy


For most people who idolize John Kennedy, and likewise have a profoundly adverse reaction to Richard Nixon, it has taken some time to come to grips with the off-putting fact that both men secretly recorded private telephone conversations while in the White House.

In the name of history, or more likely in the tradition of covering one’s  rear end, both Kennedy and Nixon (along with Johnson, Ike and even Franklin Roosevelt), used audio recordings to document key moments in their presidencies. Scholars will be forever grateful that these crude dictabelt tapes exist.

Kennedy was motivated in part after being burned by the CIA with the Bay of Pigs in 1961, wanting to record for history any future “advice” from the military and intelligence wings of the federal government. When he confessed publicly to his poor handling of the first crisis of his presidency with the famous line “success has many fathers but failure is an orphan,” he was apparently going to keep track of those absentee fathers the next time something else went south.

Watergate forced Nixon to admit the taping of calls while in office, but the JFK tapes, thanks to a protective family and a complicit presidential library, remained unknown for at least ten years after Kennedy was killed.  Even then, they were only selectively and slowly released over the span of several decades on relatively obscure websites like UVA’s wonderful Miller Center.

Widmer-cov_webNow, Ted Widmer, former Washington College Starr Center Director, working closely with Caroline Kennedy, has compiled an extraordinary collection to share with the general public – an exceptional treasure of historical record.

In contrast to Nixon’s tapes, from which one hears the monologues of a depressed, psychologically damaged soul, the Kennedy tapes provide a stunning profile of a JFK very comfortable in his own skin. While there are exceptional books on Kennedy, which come very close to passing what Kennedy himself called the “what was he like” test for a successful biography, nothing can compare with hearing the man himself.

These recordings dramatically exhibit Kennedy’s extraordinary intellectual capacity,  particularly striking given the well-documented discovery that JFK was heavily medicated (high) for back pain during most of his time as president.

Exceptional examples of critical thinking abound in the tapes.  In almost every example provided by Widmer, Kennedy is heard probing and pushing for information while questioning assumptions of fact. It can be exhilarating to hear for the first time not only how JFK responds to different circumstances, but also the range of his voice inflections, strategic pauses, and humor applied to family, friends and political foes in the course of a workday.

In perhaps the most historically significant recording, we listen in on the young president pulling rank on the far senior, ardent segregationist Mississippi Governor Ross Bartlett in the middle of the James Meredith crisis of 1963. With firm command, Kennedy orders the Governor to restore order in his state “before anyone starts makes any speeches.”

Equally impressive is Kennedy’s premeditated use of presidential anger as he dresses down an air force general for spending too much on furniture for his wife’s one-night stay on a military base – “You just sank the Air Force budget.”

A more genuine example of temper can be heard in Kennedy’s discussion with FAA Administrator Najeeb Halaby when he learns that Pan American Airlines’ Juan Trippe is planning to announce Pan Am will be buying European-built Concordes only a day before America’s own SST project is to be announced.

In all of these recordings, Kennedy remains assured of his leadership abilities and confident of his instincts, possessing a healthy element of self-awareness.

The fun part for the listener is perhaps best found in the number of recordings in which Kennedy, perhaps forgetting that he was being recorded, becomes all the more human.

This is particularly true of his conversations with his brothers and friends. His call to Congressman (and former college roommate) Toby MacDonald might be the most telling.  Attempting to convince his reluctant friend to come to the White House for a small dinner party, Kennedy has the voice more of a college frat president than of chief executive.

Another fine example is Kennedy’s chat with David Ormseby-Gore, Great Britain’s Ambassador in Washington, but also an old friend from when Kennedy lived in London before World War II.  Clearly at ease and enjoying the conversation, JFK shows an unfettered love for gossip and curiosity.

There are some other unexpected treats, such as when Kennedy speaks with pollster Lou Harris about how calculating Kennedy was with public opinion polls, and how he deftly navigates around the problematic Congresswoman Edith Green, who was a ongoing roadblock to Kennedy’s national education initiatives.

Undoubtedly, the most unexpected was Kennedy’s call to RFK advisor and friend Dave Hackett. Kennedy, outraged that the American olympic hockey team had lost to Sweden 17-2, spontaneously calls the former olympic hockey player, demanding information on the American team by saying, “It’s a disgrace to have a team beaten 17-2… its as bad as I ever heard. Who are we sending over there… girls?”  Hackett, a tad bewildered by the president’s interest in the olympic hockey team rather than his work as a major architect of Kennedy’s anti-poverty programs, nonetheless answers, like all do when a president calls, “I’ll look into it and get back to you on that.”

About Dave Wheelan

Letters to Editor

  1. Joel Brandes says:

    Sadly the technology to record conversations did not exist in the days of Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson. Think of what we might have learned regarding the national debt and taxation of those willing to work in order to give to those who wont. Of course their writing does exist giving testimony to the ignorance exhibited today.

  2. Joel Brandes says:

    Was JFK truely burned by the CIA? The invasion was clearly planned and at least partialy executed under the Eisenhower administration. Upon taking office, JFK made an executive decission to withold support. How history might have been changed, we can never know. Suffice it to say, Presidents are mortals and are subject to making mistakes and also doing some good things. Take Nixon for example. His stupidity regarding Watergate is often brought to the fore. What about his opening relations with China? LBJ will forever be associated with Vietnam, but what about his work on equal rights?
    JFK’s financial actions would probably be hated by todays liberals. Truman was reviled in his day, but history has been kind to both men. When we ascribe supernatural powers to our President we only fool ourselves.

    • joe diamond says:

      That was luck….the Russians already had missiles in Cuba. The Russian general had orders to shoot all ten if there was an invasion and he was out of communication. Two were for hitting Homestead AFB in FL & Brownsville, TX. The rest were for the invasion fleet & beach. Nobody in the White House knew they were there. Kennedy was pushed by generals who only had one tool.

      Close one…………I was in HS at the time. Just another day.


  3. Petey Bestmom says:

    And let’s not forget there is a big difference between a president who secretly records conversations and a president who secretly records conversations and then goes back and , er, erases some of it.

    • gerry maynes says:

      Hi, The Cuban Missle crisis was the direct result of President Kennedy!s desertion at the Bay of Pigs. The Rusians belived that Kennedy was weak and would fold as he had previously. Thank God He had the ability to learn from his mistake and faced the Rusians down. Simply pu he had the ability to grow on the job.
      It is a shame that the current president dosent seem to have the same ability. We sure coild use the consevative policies of John Kennedy today’ You know thw oines that the Republican Party now sponsor and the Democrats have run away from. Lower tax!s, lower capital gains, a strong Military, etc, etc,etc.

      • joe diamond says:

        Hey Gerry,
        In the Cuban American community there is still the noun, verb and phrase: …”hey bro…..don’t do me a Kennedy…….hey, bro, don’t Kennedy me……
        …..hey, bro, I feel what you mean but me hermano over there pulled a Kennety on me so I have to kill him first before I deal wit you ting……”
        from a conversation in Silver Spring, MD

        Fifty years after the Bay of Pigs kids don’t know who John Kennedy was but still use the term. Johnson probably did a few silly things in Vietnam because he was a wary of the rep we had picked up from the Bay of Pigs. Can’t prove that one.


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