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Listening in on LBJ's Oval Office

The Kennedy Assassination Tapes Max Holland Alfred A. Knopf: 456 pp., $26.95

August 29, 2004|Gerald Posner | Gerald Posner is the author of numerous books, including "Case Closed: Lee Harvey Oswald and the Assassination of JFK" and, most recently, "Why America Slept: The Failure to Prevent 9/11."

At first blush, "The Kennedy Assassination Tapes" sounds like the title of an Oliver Stone-inspired conspiracy theory disclosing secret recordings of a cabal that killed the president. But Max Holland's third book is the polar opposite, a sober and careful study, mostly of LBJ's White House conversations about many topics related to JFK's murder.

Those looking for salacious new discoveries will be disappointed. These transcripts have been available for a decade, the subject of numerous articles and studies, and used extensively in well-received books. Many potential readers might wonder why such a work was even necessary. But Holland's approach, sticking steadfastly to an unbiased presentation of the conversations, is remarkably refreshing.

Holland does a yeoman's job of taking to task earlier authors who selectively used the conversations to advance everything from theories about JFK having been killed as retribution for the murder of South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem to overstating Johnson's eventual disagreements with the Warren Commission's conclusions. And because of his vast knowledge of the commission (Holland won a 2001 J. Anthony Lukas Award for his work in progress, "A Need to Know: Inside the Warren Commission"), he presents adequate background to anchor every conversation. The succinct annotations accompanying the transcripts provide necessary, and often lively, information about their proper context. And Holland knows the subject well enough to point out when fleeting and otherwise unnoticeable references are about the Warren Commission.

Despite its all-encompassing title, no single volume could include every talk LBJ had in the White House connected to some aspect of Kennedy's death. There is no coverage, for instance, of Johnson's conversations with and about the Secret Service in the months following the assassination. Holland says he omitted this material because he did "not consider it particularly illuminating." But it is natural that many readers might want to know what the new president thought about his own personal safety, as well as what he thought of the Secret Service's responsibility for having lost his predecessor.

Instead, Holland's focus is primarily one decision -- albeit a major one -- that LBJ confronted in the immediate aftermath of Kennedy's murder: how to mount an investigation that would satisfy the public desire to know what happened while keeping such a probe from becoming fodder for political or personal gain. Holland shines when covering Johnson's initial reluctance to create such a panel and skillfully follows the president's eventual conversion to its appointment.

Holland broadly defines "assassination-related" conversations and ventures into several barely tangential subjects, including LBJ's deep-seated personal dislike of Robert F. Kennedy and his fight with RFK over control of the Democratic Party, and how Johnson grappled with the transition of power, including his intimate dealings with the CIA and FBI. Because LBJ was colorful, salty and outspoken in the privacy of the Oval Office -- where he seemingly forgot or did not care that every word was recorded for posterity -- many transcripts provide an informative and entertaining look inside the crucial years of the new administration.

But voluminous transcripts can make for tedious reading. Holland tackles this challenge by doing his best to forge the materials into a cogent and readable history. Instead of presenting the full verbatim transcripts, he often edits them for readability while trying to maintain their accuracy and context. For the most part, he succeeds admirably. He does not strip Johnson of his distinctive Southern dialect or often blunt approach.

In many instances, "The Kennedy Assassination Tapes" explains how certain myths and inaccuracies about the assassination began. Holland's deconstruction of an important, oft-cited conversation between FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover and LBJ, early on the day after the assassination, is a prime example. Hoover, as was typical of him, was unwilling to admit to the president that he didn't have all the facts at his fingertips. So while trying to answer every Johnson inquiry, the FBI director passed along a considerable amount of misinformation, including his mistaken belief that the CIA station in Mexico City had photo surveillance of Lee Harvey Oswald on a recent visit to the Soviet Embassy there. In fact, the CIA had photographed a different person, and that error led to much unfounded speculation that someone was impersonating Oswald to frame him as a communist sympathizer. Moreover, it was in this conversation, as Holland writes, that "[u]ltimately, Hoover's propagation of half-facts and half-truths leaves Johnson with the impression that at least one other man may have been involved." That impression stayed with Johnson.

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