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Listening In: The Secret White House Recordings of John F. Kennedy Hardcover – September 25, 2012
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Everyone knows Nixon had tape recorders running in the Oval Office, but most Americans aren’t aware that FDR, Truman, and Eisenhower experimented with audio recording and that JFK installed taping systems in 1962 that he could activate to record significant meetings and phone conversations and, occasionally, his own reflections. All 265.5 hours of those tapes (with redactions, however) are now available at the Kennedy Presidential Library. This volume, accompanied by two CDs, gathers several dozen of the most interesting conversations. In addition to obvious subjects—Cuba, civil rights, space, and Vietnam—the collection also includes many remarks on history, politics, the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, and other foreign-policy developments. Because the tapes’ quality varies, some transcripts include too many skips and unclears to convey much meaning. Quite helpful, on the other hand, are the book’s illustrations, which range from photographs to contemporaneous documents and handwritten notes. Despite its limitations, Listening In lives up to Widmer’s descriptions, a portrait of a president being president, and the closest to an autobiography we will ever get. --Mary Carroll
About the Author
Forward by Caroline Kennedy, editor of the New York Times bestselling Jacqueline Kennedy: Historic Conversations on Life with John F. Kennedy, She Walks in Beauty, A Patriot's Handbook, Profiles in Courage for Our Time, The Best-Loved Poems of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, A Family of Poems, and A Family Christmas and the coauthor of The Right to Privacy and In Our Defense: The Bill of Rights in Action. She serves as president of the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation and lives in New York City. Annotation by Ted Widmer, Director and Librarian of the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University. He is the author or editor of many works of American history, and a frequent contributor to The New York Times, Washington Post, International Herald Tribune, and other publications. He was a speechwriter and senior adviser to President Clinton, and conducted the oral history project that accompanied President Clinton's preparation for his memoir, My Life. He was educated at Harvard University.
Top customer reviews
The true value of this package is the CD which allows the listener to eavesdrop on "a president being president" as described by editor Ted Widmer. He claims that this is the closest to a JFK autobiography as we can ever get. While the audio quality on some of the entries is weak, on others the voice of the President is hauntingly clear and evocative. And the range of the selections is as wide as can be imagined. We hear the President finish a conversation with his daughter to be briefed by the CIA on their discovery of offensive missiles in Cuba. He argues with Mississippi Governor Barnett about how to restore order during the integration of the University ("How can I remove him, Governor, when there's a riot in the street and he may step out of the building and something happen to him?") JFK gives his regards to Yugoslavia Marshal Tito and chews out his assistant defense secretary for publicity about a costly furniture purchase ("You just sank the air force budget! You're crazy up there! Are they crazy? That silly bastard with his picture next to the bed?") In one call, he briefs former President Herbert Hoover about the Cuban Missile Crisis. Hoover emerges from a different world in which he was chief executive in 1928 and opens by observing, "It seems to me these recent events are rather incredible." The tapes capture the Joint Chiefs complaining about those same Missile Crisis plans after the President has left the room. ("You're screwed, screwed, screwed. And, if some goddamn thing, some way, he could say, that they either do the son of a bitch and do it right, and quit friggin around.")
There is much to learn in these tapes. In one transcript, JFK repeatedly tells his science advisor and the heads of NASA that "the whole thrust of the Agency, in my opinion, is the lunar program." He goes as far as to advise that the moon landing must remain the top priority, "otherwise we shouldn't be spending this kind of money, because I'm not that interested in space." Just 10 months later, however, another conversation shows that the President has fully galvanized NASA to pursue his goal. At that point, he can afford to be more reflective and to discuss if the manned moon landing is a good idea. This demonstrates JFKs transition from visionary leader to hard driving chief executive and, finally, self-critical manager.
In another tape, Kennedy dictates his reactions to the Saigon coup that deposed President Diem and his brother. He begins by criticizing himself for approving an initial communication that may have green-lighted the US role in the coup. JFK Jr enters to play with his father and at one point says, "Naughty, naughty Daddy." As his son exits, the President resumes his dictation by stating, "I was shocked by the death of Diem and Nhu." This kind of counterpoint seems far-fetched for a novel, let alone real life.
My only criticism is that many of the transcribed conversations are not included in the CDs, such as the NASA discussion cited above. I would have liked to receive all of them in audio form. The true value of this package is the tone and pace of the recorded audio conversations.
Caroline Kennedy refers to these transcriptions as a "legacy of strength in the face of conflict." Listening to the President talk calmly during the Missile Crisis that could have resulted in the death of a large percentage of the human race while hearing his fear that "by the end of next month, we're going to be toe-to-toe on Berlin, anyway" certainly supports her assessment. In any case, I found the recordings mesmerizing and instructive.
Listen to the CDs first. Hearing the actual conversation informs the written transcription in a way that makes other history seem colorless and barren. The President comes alive once again in these tapes. It is a fascinating and sometimes disconcerting listening experience.
so enjoyed all this History we were never privy to until now.
The president was an excellent listener...showed
his consternation at times, his wit at other times. to hear
is voice brings back so much of the History of that time I was
privileged to live through and understand. He still inspires.
I do highly recommend this for you if you remember the 60s -- or if you are as fascinated with JFK as I am. The only reason I didn't give this five stars is that some of the parts were kind of dull and seemed to drag on.
I really enjoyed the recordings, hearing president Kennedy;s voice again as well as other well known persons of the time. I got this set as well as the 8 disc Jackie conversations. I recommend them both.