The first president to pick up a White House telephone couldn't use it for much. The boxy device only called one number: the Treasury Department. When President Rutherford B. Hayes installed that first phone in 1879, there were no operators or switchboards yet, so a line had to go directly from one telephone to another. Still, Hayes proclaimed the new invention "one of the greatest events since creation."
Within decades, the telephone would become an essential, if deceptively humble, tool of presidential authority. The most powerful man in the world could dial up other powerful people to shape the course of history. From his Oval Office desk, the president could dispatch armies, talk to astronauts in space, decree acts of great diplomacy or plot political skullduggery.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt was the first American president to make secret sound recordings in the White House (as far as anyone knows, that is). Roosevelt held off-the-record press conferences twice a week in his office, and was frustrated about being misquoted in those and other meetings. So a stenographer suggested making audio recordings. After all, phonograph recordings had been around for 60 years and talking pictures were more than a decade old.
Roosevelt's machine captured sound on movie film. "At the time it was a secret," says Raymond J. Teichman, chief archivist at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum in Hyde Park, New York. "The only microphone the machine had was in a lamp on the White House desk." The device was also connected to FDR's telephone.
Presidents Harry S. Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower also dabbled with taping, but John F. Kennedy was the first president to make the practice a genuine tool of his presidency. Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon followed suit, secretly taping many of their phone calls and meetings. JFK, LBJ and Nixon never thought we would get to eavesdrop. But we can.
Some 2,500 hours of White House recordings are open to the public. After he retired, President Lyndon Johnson told a young historian she could learn more about how government really works by listening to his tapes than from reading a hundred political science textbooks. It is a remarkable thing to listen in on the president -- to hear the world's most powerful politician use direct conversation to make history.
Each president had his reasons for taping. They all appear to have wanted a private, insider's chronicle of the decisions, debates and deal-making that filled their days. Scholars and former White House aides generally agree that Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon also wanted to have an exact record of important conversations to hold advisors and politicians to their word.
President John F. Kennedy left behind the fewest tapes, some 260 hours. Lyndon Johnson recorded about 642 hours, much of it on the telephone. Richard Nixon taped the most: some 3,700.
Only a few of their closest aides knew about the hidden microphones. There seems to have been little discussion about the propriety of recording other people without their knowledge. "It was a very tightly, closely held secret," former Kennedy Library director Sheldon Stern told the Boston conference. "[JFK's] decision to do it was not recorded on paper. There were no memos."
"I don't think the presidents in a million years dreamed that we would be listening to this material," says William Doyle, author of Inside the Oval Office: The White House Tapes from FDR to Clinton. "At the time of Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon, the precedent was that everything the president touched in the course of White House business belonged to the president... It was part of his presidential papers; he hauled it off to his presidential library after the term was over and usually deeded this material to the people, to the government to be eventually opened up. But there was no precedent for tapes."
Richard Nixon pulled the plug on his recording system when it became public during the Watergate scandal. Scholars believe that marked the end of secret taping in the White House, at least on a systematic basis. Watergate investigators demanded Nixon's tapes. The president tried to keep them private - or, at the most, release edited transcripts of a limited list of calls. He was eventually overruled in court.
Soon after Nixon's recordings were revealed, archivists at the Kennedy and Johnson presidential libraries confirmed that those presidents had also made secret recordings. In 1978, Congress passed the Presidential Records Act, establishing the public ownership of records generated by subsequent presidents and their staffs. The Kennedy family eventually gave ownership of JFK's tapes to the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). Johnson had already done so but wanted them sealed until 50 years after his death. Johnson Library Director Harry Middleton convinced Lady Bird Johnson, the president's widow, that because of the tapes' historical significance, they should be made public as soon as possible.
Since the 1990s, the NARA has periodically released batches of presidential recordings for public use. Many historians say the tapes have deepened their understanding of important events in history: - Kennedy's handling of the Cuban missile crisis; Johnson's decision to intensify U.S. involvement in Vietnam; Nixon's appointment of William Rehnquist to the U.S. Supreme Court. Nevertheless, they urge people to listen with a measure of skepticism. Scholars point out that all three presidents knew they were being recorded and may sometimes have played to the tape. Presidents Kennedy and Johnson selected which calls to record (by pushing a hidden button, or signaling their secretaries to start taping). Nixon's system was voice-activated, meaning tape would roll whenever he spoke in a room that was bugged or into a phone that was tapped.
Still, the White House tapes offer an unprecedented chance to overhear a president at work. The recorded telephone calls can be especially instructive. As presidential historian Robert Dallek says, "Getting a telephone call from a president is something that gets your attention. Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon knew this, and so they used telephone calls in a very effective way to reach out to people they wanted to enlist in their behalf." One can hear these presidents using the gifts of personal persuasion and authority that helped them win the nation's highest office.
The telephone tapes are usually much easier to hear than the meeting tapes because the conversations were recoded directly from the phone line; meetings recorded in the Oval Office, Cabinet Room or at Camp David are sometimes unintelligible because the speaker was too far from the hidden mikes or the room was too noisy.
The secret recordings of Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon offer, "A democratizing glimpse into how our government really works," says civil rights historian Taylor Branch. "They humanize the institution of the presidency in a way that's good for all Americans because we tend to think of these great impersonal institutional imperial forces and everything and forget that the president is a person like all of us: often flummoxed, sometimes passionate. A lot of things that perplex us, perplex them as well."
Branch cautions that the presidential tapes shouldn't be just entertainment. "But it's not bad that they are entertainment. They are entertaining because they are so human," he says.
And there's still more to hear. It takes time to catalog and copy the White House recordings and declassify tapes that involve national security. So far just about half have been released by the National Archives. There are roughly 2400 hours of presidential tapes to go.
Back to The President Calling