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Most of us, I am sure, imagined that taping within the White House was a product of the paranoia of Nixon, remembering his “expletives deleted” and vital sections going missing, all in an aftermath of scandal.  What I did not realise before reading Listening In: The Secret White House Recordings of John F Kennedy, was that there is a longer history here, with experiments in recording beginning as far back as Roosevelt.  But the first properly organized system was put in place by Kennedy, suspicious that he was being feed poor military advice and wishing to have the verbatim record available.  Kennedy began the modern practice of recording meetings and phone calls.

Listening In: The Secret White House Recordings of John F Kennedy” selected and introduced by Ted Widmer, and to be published by Hyperion later this week, is the product of a long project at the J F Kennedy Presidential Library to collect together, clean up, restore and make available taped conversations from those watershed days.

That this book is launched as an outrider to a host of other works to mark next year’s 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination is obvious.  That it is also a useful publicity piece for JP3’s run for office is also true.  That it is a very pro Kennedy book is also clear from his daughter Caroline’s forward.

That said, it is fascinating.

Kennedy was the first President I remember with any clarity, and the events of his tumultuous time, Civil Rights, Nuclear weapons, Cuba, the Space Race ran though my youth.  The names rush back at you, old friends all, Acheson, Bundy, Caro, Richard Daley, Bradley of the Washington Post, Adlai Stevenson, Macmillan, McNamara, Philip Randolph reprising his appearances on Roosevelt’s tapes.  OK, I was hooked – but does it work?

At first I thought the CD’s were a bit gimmicky.  But listened to along with the detailed transcripts in the book, they bring it all to life: the hesitations, the background chatter, drinks being poured and cigars lit, people talking over each other, and having their own conversations in corners.  They lend real surprise.  The crackles, bangs, mumbles and drop-outs all lend reality and oddly a sense of the time too.  I noticed that Kennedy has a public voice, smoothed out and flattened by rhetorical training for his speeches, whilst his ordinary voice, in conversations and at dinner parties, feels deeper with a more emphatic phrasing within the sentences and a more regional Bostonian or class accent.  On occasions he can suddenly sound almost Churchillian as in “Never, never, never” at page 31.  I was surprised how much more compelling his private voice is, more seductive than the set speeches.

I could happily have taken a third disc.  Any chance of the box-set for real Presidential geeks?

Despite its momentous subject the book is not without humor, I loved the totally unnecessary inclusion of the Romney tape – a discussion about Mitt’s father with Macarthur.  Kennedy’s memories still playing in today’s White House race.

I became so drawn in by the tapes that sometimes I almost resented the focus being so very much on Kennedy.  Of course the book is about Kennedy, but with the Gromyko and Khrushchev tapes I found myself desperate to hear just a little more of what they said to Kennedy, rather than just Kennedy laying down his arguments.  It might have been nice too to have some more personally edgy bits from the Presidency, like conversations with Marilyn Munro.   As a Brit too, it would have been nice to have the Macmillan conversation on the disc and not just in the book.  It really became quite addictive.

The conversations give a real insight into the thinking behind the events of the time.  Here are just two quotes, the first about the space race,

This is important for political reasons, international political reasons, and for, this is, whether we like it or not, a race. If we get second to the moon, it’s nice, but it’s like being second anytime… the policy ought to be that this is the top priority program of the agency and one of the two, except for defence, the top priority of the United States government…”

We’re talking about fantastic expenditures which wreck our budget… the only justification for it, in my opinion… is because we hope to beat them and demonstrate that starting behind as we did, by a couple of years, by God, we passed them.”

Vast expenditure on infrastructure projects which threaten the economy, how very topical!

And a second quote, this one being about Cuba,

“There is no choice.  I would have been impeached.  I think they would have moved to impeach after this election, on the grounds that I said, and I didn’t do it.”

Even allowing for the events being put in their most positive pro-Kennedy light, which of course they are, this chapter still scares the daylights out of the reader. The tapes even more so.

The book comes with a rich selection of photographs, my favourite being the  mischievously included  phonetically handwritten index card used as a prompt for Kennedy’s “Ish bin ein Bearleener” [sic] address from the Berlin Wall in 1963.  I am sure this is there just to resurrect the argument for his having said “I am a jelly doughnut” rather than “Ich bin Berliner” meaning “I am a Berliner”.  However as a non Berliner including the definite article (ein) here for a non resident would be correct.  And anyway, just to be difficult, Berliners call jammy doughnuts “ ein Pfannkuchen” even if the rest of Germany call them “Berliners”.   I will use this photo nugget to win arguments from here on.

Will the book be popular?  Well my copy has already been snaffled by my daughter completing her Finals Year in International Relations, so with such diverse appeal, I think that has to be a yes.

A lovely book I wish I had a copy!

Copyright David Macadam 2012