LBJ Library releases last set of secret recordings
AUSTIN, Dec 05, 2008 (The Dallas Morning News - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
Newly revealed tapes shed light on a hard-fought presidential race's finish and how a president from Texas, widely reviled for his conduct of an unpopular war, reaches out to a successor of the other party.
The year was 1968, not 2008.
On the eve of that year's election, President Lyndon B. Johnson, eager to end the Vietnam war, complained bitterly about suspected interference with planned peace talks by supporters of GOP presidential hopeful Richard Nixon, according to tapes made public Thursday by the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library in Austin.
Other tapes show Mr. Johnson consoling Sen. Edward Kennedy after brother Robert Kennedy was assassinated, discussing antiwar riots in Chicago, promising a smooth transition to Mr. Nixon's incoming administration and swatting down last-minute regulations proposed by his cabinet secretaries.
"You bureaucrats have just gone around and figured out anybody in the world that you can stir up and make mad," he scolds IRS Commissioner Sheldon Cohen a month before leaving office.
At a press conference, Luci Baines Johnson, the president's younger daughter, said emotions flared when she listened to the tapes -- the most recent, and final, batch, capping 640 hours' worth that have been made public since 1993.
"During this time of transition as we are focusing on the Bush family opening the doors of the White House to the Obama family, it brings back a flood of memories," she said.
Ms. Johnson said, though, that the tapes' release makes her glad because now historians and a younger generation can fully view her father -- and appreciate his frantic efforts to end a war she stressed he didn't start.
Several tapes show Mr. Johnson livid over a perceived threat to his peace push. He told several senators that people close to Mr. Nixon secretly urged South Vietnam to delay going to peace talks in Paris, to deprive Democrat presidential candidate Hubert Humphrey of a last-minute election boost. The Nixon supporters promised Saigon's representatives a better deal from their man, he said.
"They ought not to be doing this, this is treason," Mr. Johnson told Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen, R-Ill., in a call on Oct. 31, 1968, five days before the election.
While the president didn't accuse Mr. Nixon of treason, he said, "If Nixon keeps the South Vietnamese away from the [peace] conference table, that's going to be his responsibility." Also, Mr. Johnson suggested he might leak contents of intercepted communications between Nixon supporter Anna Chan Chennault and officials in Asia.
"It would shock America if a principal candidate was playing with a source like this on a matter this important," he said.
Three days later, Mr. Nixon called Mr. Johnson. Mr. Nixon denied involvement in or approval of "somebody trying to sabotage the Saigon government's attitude."
"Good God, we want them over in Paris. We've got to get them to Paris or you can't have a peace," Mr. Nixon said.
Reporters picked up rumors about the alleged intrigue by Nixon supporters before the election. But the story of Mrs. Chennault's alleged interference didn't break until early 1969, said library archivist Regina Greenwell.
Former Johnson aide Harry Middleton said the president and Mr. Humphrey, his vice president and would-be successor, decided not to make public the alleged diplomatic interference by Mrs. Chennault and others for fear the nation "couldn't survive another blow," though disclosure might have changed the race's outcome.
Still, in a conference call with top advisers a day before the election, Mr. Johnson appears at least tempted. "I don't want to have information that ought to be public, and not make it so," he said.
Secretary of State Dean Rusk replied, "I do not believe that any president can make any use of interceptions or telephone taps in any way that would involve politics. The moment we cross over that divide, we are in a different kind of society."
Shortly after the election, Mr. Johnson invited Mr. Nixon and his wife to the White House -- as President George W. Bush recently extended hospitality to President-elect Barack Obama and his wife.
There, the similarity in presidential transitions may end, however.
While Mr. Bush has approved a raft of controversial last minute regulations on endangered species, coal-fired power plants and mountaintop-removal mining, Mr. Johnson turned down cabinet secretaries who wanted to add 7 million acres to the national parks, kill road projects and reorganize the Labor Department.
He told Mr. Cohen of the IRS, who wanted to change how deferred stock compensation was treated for tax purposes: "No quickie regulations."
"You've had five years over there," Mr. Johnson said. "Why the hell haven't you issued it before?"
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