Listening in: The Secret Whitehouse Recordings of John F. Kennedy

Selected and Introduced by Ted Widmer Foreword by Caroline Kennedy. Review by Rose

“Conformity is the jailer of freedom and the enemy of growth.”

No one knows the exact reason that President John F. Kennedy decided to record his phone calls in the oval office, though there are theories presented in the book. What Widmer does tell us in this book is that secret service agents placed very cutting-edge recording devices in the oval office. It may have been for protection when handling very difficult sensitive cases so that no one could say Kennedy had made statements that he had not. Having tapes, meant that there was evidence of everything he said and did regarding his decision making as a president. At the time, using recording equipment was becoming much more common for the first time, but not usually in this setting. We do know that 248 hours of meetings were recorded in the oval office.

These recordings are an aperture into Kennedy’s political identity during his tenure as President of the United States. Kennedy is observed through the lens of his working life, in a narrow, tightly framed 140-minute recording. We cannot see the ‘whole’ of Kennedy’s complex personality in such a restricted time frame, nevertheless what we do see is impressive from a leadership standpoint. His voice conveys a feeling of closeness: the tempo, projected emotion, intensification and decaying elevation of sound; that unique acoustic pattern that agencies have worked to distinguish through recognition software discloses more than we first realise. This is a man that radiates exuberance; the engine of his presence is analogous to electrical current. One can only imagine the effect Kennedy's personality had on the people around him.

The character transmitted through the recordings alters the arc of time, producing the illusion that Kennedy’s lifetime was much closer than the nearly 60 years it is. His approach and responses to analytical problem solving are innovative; the glow of his future thinking is ultra-modern and as sleek as a Formula One car racing at 230 mph. The power, speed and intensity of the Whitehouse at this time are caught in flashes. Kennedy would have fitted comfortably into today’s world. As with an inventer, there is originality and inquisitiveness to the configuration of his mind and the way he thinks. His calm demeanour whilst stood in the nucleus of a possible disaster, provides insightful clues to his temperament, and permits the listener to appraise his steely resolve during a crisis. John F. Kennedy, like his father, stares unwaveringly into the eye of the storm. This boldness could have influenced his conduct in other segments of his life.

His adherence to his standpoint, his unyielding dedication to his position, employing discursive strategies to retain his footing during accelerated pressured phone calls relating to civil rights and Cuban missiles, generates a formidable vision of Kennedy’s forte as leader and president. After the death of a trooper, and under critical pressure to remove the young black activist James Meredith, putting at risk the life of a young man who used his constitutional rights to attend the segregated Mississippi University, Kennedy outright refuses with conviction. When pushed, he ups the speed and tone of his response, the quickening momentum of dialogue, the use of repetition ‘Let’s get order up there first’ to accentuate his stance, his tone sharpening, the apparatus of his discourse intensifying, like a sportsman racing to strike his opponent’s stance with cutting precision. This is athletic dialogue caught in the momentum, it is linguistic prowess that has a resilient beat. Words can somersault, they can glide, they can have the thrust of a javelin, the unshakable shot of the bow and arrow into the target, Kennedy understands the vigorous power of words. His rapid assessment of complex problems, his shrewd prompt comebacks, are like a fierce University debater that’s shifted environment into a boxing arena, circling his rival and striking with meticulousness aim the argument of his opponents’ position.

Underlying his palpable easy charm is a warrior with a presidential toughness. He will not buckle under attack if he believes his cause is just, there is a strength here, conceivably one that passed through the Kennedy family generations. He subtly shifts the gears on the projection of his personality, contingent on the audience he is addressing. His laugh is warm, and one can see that he recurrently uses humour to alleviate the stress of pressurised conversations and situations. This is a man with a colossal appetite for politics, exerting a fervency that the listener can feel. His rapid assessment of complex problems, his shrewd prompt comebacks, are like a fierce University debater that’s shifted environment into a boxing arena, circling his rival and striking with meticulousness aim the discourse his opponents’ position.

He understands the importance of voters as a leader, yet there is strong evidence in the recordings of a moral and ethical compass governing his decision making with the rights of African Americans, despite it causing him to be disliked by many people. In conversation, he can take on, digest and think about opposing views. Nonetheless, there are instants when he becomes entrenched in his perspective, his mind locked on the idea that most appeals to his competitive nature, particularly regarding the Space program. Listening to Kennedy, his brain at work in the Whitehouse, the intricate processes and mechanisms of his thinking as a leader, is like watching a skilled surfer soaring the biggest wave of his life, and you, the spectator, watch him moving in synchronisation with that wave, catching a microscopic drop of that momentous instant to take away with you, that electric presence Kennedy had, stays lingering days later. I would say these recordings if compared to music composition, they are mainly set in a major key, yet it is only at the very end of the recordings when we suddenly switch to a minor key. Here Kennedy talks into the microphone discussing the political difficulties that he can see are ahead of him. This is the only time you hear a weariness in his tone, clearly tired and under pressure, it’s the last recording message Kennedy made before he was assassinated.

At the beginning of the book, there are a couple of interviews with Kennedy where he openly discusses his early privilege and the importance of his father’s name at the beginning of his career, which helped open doors. You do feel openness and honesty from Kennedy in the introductory interviews. He does not deny that his privileged background helped him in his rise to power. We also see a man working tirelessly into the night for his campaigns and sleeping very few hours. The time he put in each day working in the oval office, considering that we now understand the tremendous health problems he had, the lifelong chronic pain he suffered, demonstrates the enormous effort, both physically and mentally, he was willing to put into his job.

He did help to change the lives of African American’s and make progress with the horrendous way they were treated compared to white people in America. This was at a time of segregation, where no African American could create a better opportunity for themselves, they were kept away from educated jobs, from universities, from libraries. Kennedy made enormous contributions to the development of the civil rights of African American’s and it’s one of the prodigious aspects of this book, learning about this work.

In the opening interviews, it’s clear, that from a young age, Kennedy was a visionary thinker. He saw himself in a position of power and decision making, anything less was unsatisfactory to him, he has a very competitive nature that may have been founded in his upbringing and his youth at University. At one point, he considered being a reporter, but a reporter, he asserted, was not part of the action, they were merely documenting the accomplishments from the outside. He wanted the ability to make huge decisions politically and the only place to do this was the presidency.

Hearing his voice and even his hearty laugh on the recordings creates a more compelling three-dimensional vision, that cannot be equated to static dialogue on paper. There is a sense of devastation at moments, as you know the end of his story. The more you understand how Kennedy as a president worked, how he thought, the more devastated is the feeling of his death. You are hearing Kennedy in real-time, and watching the problems he encountered as they happened, yet you are hearing Kennedy before his death. It’s affecting emotionally at times. Nevertheless, the positive characteristic of these recordings is they enable a new generation to appreciate Kennedy as a leader, even better Kennedy’s family are carrying on his legacy and making sure that he is part of the future.

There can be a considered bias of ‘representation’ as Caroline Kennedy assisted the creation of these recordings and the foreword is written by Caroline. These recordings are also been selected out of many long hours of recordings; thus, we are examining only a fraction of the tapes. Kennedy also knew that he was recording himself, this may have affected the way he projected his personality. However, it’s doubtful he always recollected the microphones or thought about the fact he was recording during heated conversations. If you imagine that you switched on a recording device on your desk, yet in the middle of a conversation a deep discussion on a difficult subject began, would you in that moment remember that you were recording the conversation every moment?

Despite these biases that must be addressed, it’s my opinion that this is a valuable contribution to the Kennedy legacy and contributes to the knowledge we have of President Kennedy, which is the main purpose of the John. F. Kennedy library. Caroline Kennedy wanted this to demonstrate the work of President Kennedy and hopefully encourage young people to take an interest in her father’s work actively. I think that this is a book for people interested in leadership, politics, law, history, civil rights from the 1960s, sociology and psychology. It’s a learning experience, and even I came out from listening with new knowledge, it was a special moment listening to President Kennedy talk.

The Construction of the book

This book has a printed transcript of the tapes inside and interviews, the hardback comes with two discs of recordings that the kindle version does not have. The recordings add to the experience of this book and help you to visualise President Kennedy with much more clarity. The hardback is priced around £29 new. You can also buy it second hand.

Each conversation is divided into specific categories of the topic with a brief introduction so that the reader can understand a little of the history and subject being discussed, this is key to understand the significance of the recordings. It’s helpful if you have some knowledge of American politics from the early 1960s to fully appreciate the information in the conversations if not, you have to have the patience to do some research. When a subject came up where I needed more information, I researched it. You can also lookup the key people that Kennedy talked to and their biographies which is also really interesting. The printed transcripts and audio recordings are not what I’d call easy listenings. They require work on the part of the person reading or listening, particularly if you have little knowledge of politics during this time in America. You may not understand the full impact of the book and tapes and some conversations might even come across as dull, when in fact, they are historically fascinating.

Who does President John. F. Kennedy talk to on the tapes?

Kennedy talks to many powerful men on the recordings. When I say men, its’ because at those times, the early 1960s, there were very few women in positions of political and military power, so this book and recordings reflect the historical time these recordings were conducted and the culture that existed in that time.

Kennedy’s conversation with his brother and what it reveals

John F. Kennedy talks to his brother Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy in a couple of conversations on the tapes. The author Ted Widmer comments that they can almost end each other’s sentences. You see the similarities between the two men’s personalities, the easy way they talk indicates that John F Kennedy trusted his brother implicitly. However, it has been documented that there were also distinct differences between the two men in other books. I think their conversation reveals that the president relied on Robert F. Kennedy in many complex ways, to sort out some of the problems that he could not, due to time constraints and the pressure he was under as President of the United States.

Kennedy as a father

You catch a few brief glimpses of Kennedy as a father with his children in the room, both Caroline and John. In these small moments during the recording in the oval office, you see that John F. Kennedy was a good father, a warm father and a playful father. He was very welcoming when the children came into his office and patient.

What subjects are discussed in the tapes

Some of the main subjects of the recordings