By Max Holland
From his first evening as president in November 1963, until his departure from the Oval Office in January 1969, Lyndon B. Johnson secretly recorded many of his telephone conversations.
When these tape recordings began to be released in 1993 in response to the 1992 John F. Kennedy Records Collection Act, I was eager to study them for new insights into the assassination of President Kennedy on November 22, 1963 and its aftermath. Conspiracy buffs had long put forward one theory after another, distorting virtually every primary source of information about the Kennedy assassination, often beyond recognition. I thought that the LBJ tapes bearing on the assassination would escape this fate because they would be widely accessible and easily understandable. How could the plain words from a tape recording be twisted to mean something else? In retrospect, that was extremely naïve.
One of the clearest examples of how the recorded information has been misrepresented can be found in Michael Beschloss’s 1997 book, Taking Charge: The Johnson White House Tapes, 1963–1964. Beschloss presented a very important conversation between President Johnson and Senator Richard B. Russell (D-Georgia) from the evening of Friday, September 18, 1964. Earlier that day, the Warren Commission, on which Russell sat, had met for the last time to settle outstanding differences over the final draft of its written statement, known as the Warren Report.
One of Russell’s key reservations was that he did not want to rule out a conspiracy. He had insisted that since the Warren Commission had not had unhindered access to the records of the communist governments of the Soviet Union and Cuba, its Report could not state unreservedly that Lee Harvey Oswald, Kennedy’s accused assassin, had acted alone.
The Commission’s other members agreed with Russell’s reservation to an extent, and ultimately, the language in the final draft was modified to assuage him. As Russell spoke to explain this process to Johnson on the evening of September 18, 1964, he said, “I tried my best to get in a dissent, but they’d come ’round [and] trade me out of it by givin’ me a little old thread of it.”
Beschloss’s rendering of the Russell-Johnson conversation, however, was markedly different. According to his transcription, Russell told the president that “I tried my best to get in a dissent, but they’d come ’round and trade me out of it by giving me a little old threat” [emphasis added]. Consequently, the implication was left that Chief Justice Earl Warren, along with other esteemed members of the investigating panel, had threatened the senior senator from Georgia, one of the most powerful men in Washington at the time. Moreover, Beschloss’s rendering suggested that Russell, against his better judgment, had bowed to this unspecified “threat” for the purpose of making the Warren Report unanimous and pacifying the American people—even if the truth had to be sacrificed in the process.
The thrust of this conversation as presented in the Beschloss book could hardly have been more misleading. Still, Beschloss’s misrepresentation is only one of many mischaracterizations of the Johnson recordings that have appeared over the last few years in books both notable and obscure, and in prominent magazines like The Weekly Standard.