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Taking Charge: The Johnson White House Tapes 1963 1964

Lyndon Johnson’s secretly recorded tapes offer us the only chance we are ever likely to have to eavesdrop on an American President from his first moments in office until the end. This universally acclaimed volume captures LBJ’s private passions and bedrock beliefs as he takes command after John Kennedy’s assassination; makes his first fateful decisions on civil rights, poverty, and Vietnam; and runs against Barry Goldwater for President. Michael Beschloss’s observations and annotations enhance our understanding of Johnson, his era, and his lasting impact on American politics and culture.By the time he suddenly succeeded to the presidency in November 1963, following John Kennedy’s assassination, Lyndon Johnson had been secretly recording his private conversations for years–first by having an eavesdropping aide take shorthand notes on telephone calls, and then, as recording technology advanced, by committing conversations to tape. Even on his first night as president, he remembered to make sure that the tape recorder was working. His motives were apparently practical–a kind of hands-free note-taking, and a way to document the commitments he and others had made.

Whatever his reasons (and despite Johnson’s desire that the documentation remain sealed until at least 2023), the tapes are a boon to students of politics and history. Masterfully edited and annotated by presidential historian Michael Beschloss, they reveal a quintessential political animal at work. It’s fascinating to listen in as Johnson works the levers–cajoling, trading favors, calling in chits, twisting arms, and occasionally playing rough–often in a pungent, earthy Texas patois. The book covers the period from November 1963 through the Democratic convention in August 1964, when Johnson was nominated for reelection. Its biggest single revelation is that Johnson believed Fidel Castro was behind Kennedy’s assassination; another, less sensational, is that his reservations about the deepening war in Vietnam were greater than previously known. Most importantly, though, these tapes provide an invaluable, uncensored look into a complex presidency–and president.

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