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New LBJ Tapes Suggest Past is Prologue

In newly released recordings, President Obama might find someone to commiserate with.


LBJ may offer lessons for President Obama.(AFP/AFP/Getty Images)

If President Obama thinks he’s got it tough , he might find comfort in this week’s release of secret Oval Office recordings of Lyndon B. Johnson.

In the 33 hours of tapes from a 34-day stretch in 1964, Johnson can be heard fretting about the escalating violence in Vietnam, strategizing with Democratic allies about pushing through his domestic agenda, and deftly cajoling his political opponents.


The new recordings cover a heady and harrowing sliver of the Johnson presidency, a five-week period that included the passage of the Civil Rights Act as well as the harrowing case later depicted in the film Mississippi Burning.

But among the most striking elements of these recordings is how Johnson’s political headaches seem to echo the ones bedeviling Obama today.

The tapes reveal a Johnson obsessed with finding a suitably impressive diplomat to replace a high-profile ambassador to South Vietnam, Henry Cabot Lodge -- a Republican who was considering challenging him for the presidency and had been Richard Nixon's running mate just four years earlier. After a series of legislative victories, LBJ was suddenly thrown for a loop by an unexpected turn of events, when three civil rights activists went missing deep in the heart of the segregationist South.


And in an eerie echo of Obama's fiscal nightmares, Johnson was flummoxed by Republican lawmakers who vowed to oppose raising the debt ceiling from $315 billion to $324 billion.

“Some things never change,” mused Guian McKee, a historian at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center and editor of latest volume of Johnson tapes.

Johnson was perplexed by Vietnam — a war he inherited from President Kennedy and one that he didn’t want to lose. Similarly, Obama finds himself at crossroads as a commander-in-chief as he tries to end the war in Iraq by the end of this year and begin the drawdown of troops in Afghanistan this summer while responding to the unexpected popular uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa.

President Obama’s Lodge could be the outgoing ambassador to Beijing, Jon Huntsman, a former Utah governor who is returning to Washington in a matter of days and is said to be considering taking on Obama in 2012.


And like Johnson, Obama says he’s perplexed by talk from Republican lawmakers who say they may vote against raising the debt ceiling. Obama’s public statements of disbelief on the subject, however, aren’t quite as colorful as some of those made by 36th president in private.

“It’s pure demagoguery,” Johnson grumbles to the New York Times' James "Scotty" Reston during a June 1964 conversation. “Nothing you can do about it; you’ve got to have the debt limit.... You talk about blind opposition.”

Just as Obama couldn't contain his disdain for news coverage of his birth certificate, Johnson berated the Times' famed correspondent and later columnist Reston for the paper's inaccurate report that the White House was readying to appoint Robert F. Kennedy, another LBJ rival, to the American Embassy in Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City.

The tapes also reveal Johnson’s famous political touch, a talent he honed in the Senate. A skilled parliamentarian, Johnson knew when to caress and when to cajole his opponents.

In one of the most amusing exchanges in the new recordings, Johnson manages in a matter of minutes to flatter and dress down House Minority Leader Charles Halleck, R-Ind., who acknowledges that he’s holding up the president’s legislative agenda because he doesn’t want LBJ to score political points before the Republican National Convention.

“You oughtn’t to hold up my poverty bill,” Johnson curtly tells Halleck. “That’s a good bill, and there’s no reason why you ought to keep a majority from beating it. If you can beat it, go and beat it, but you oughtn’t to hold it up.”

Moments later, Johnson asks Halleck if he wants to go to the upcoming GOP convention without a Civil Rights bill in place. Halleck tells Johnson that “if you scratch me very deep,” it might not be the worst idea.

“I wouldn’t scratch you at all, because I want to pet you,” Johnson smoothly counters in his Texas drawl.

Johnson didn’t have the equivalent of Obama’s birther problem, but he shows his touchiness on the tapes in response to inquiries from journalists Dan Rather and Helen Thomas about how he was spending his salary, an interest piqued after the now-defunct Washington Star published a story about the Johnson family’s considerable wealth.

Annoyed by the press questioning his family finances, Johnson sarcastically suggests that his press secretary, George Reedy, tell Rather: “What do you do with your money? The president lives off of his.”

For all his grousing and lamenting about his adversaries, Johnson was as tough on his own team. In the recordings, he lives up to his reputation for being occasionally crude and often outrageously blunt in his criticism -- even of his own party.

In a frank conversation with the late Sen. George Smathers, D-Fla., a confidant, he lays into the Senate Democratic leadership for its inability to derail a Republican amendment to food stamp legislation, leading to the bill he backed getting tied up in House Rules committee for another five weeks.

“George, I’m having a lot of problems, as you all can watch,” Johnson said. “I don’t want to say I told you, but, we just… we are inept.”

To be sure, Obama’s situation isn’t completely analogous to Johnson’s, but the tapes do offer a window into an intense period of multiple domestic and foreign crises that forced Johnson to do the sort of multi-tasking Obama is trying to manage today.

Obama might find some comfort in these tapes. Despite all of Johnson’s political headaches, he would go on to a landslide victory over Republican nominee Barry Goldwater that fall.

The bad news, of course, was what came after the election for Johnson.

This article appears in the April 29, 2011 edition of National Journal Daily PM Update.

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