Book Review: Listening In: The Secret White House Recordings of John F. Kennedy

By Ted Widmer

After the Bay of Pigs disaster in 1961, President Kennedy installed secret Oval Office recording devices so that he could have an accurate account of who said what, in case of any later disputes as to the exact nature of conversations. The full 265 hours of taped conversations have now been made available by the John F. Kennedy Library and this new book, which the lovely people at Hyperion Books were sweet enough to send me, presents transcripts from more than 60 of these conversations and two CDs which carry the audio from 36 of them.

Price: £28:99
Publisher: Hyperion
Publication Date: 2012
ISBN: 978-1401324568
Buy This Book

The true value of Listening In lies in its clever multimedia format, the CD allows the listener to eavesdrop on "a president being president" as described by editor Ted Widmer, and is the closest to a JFK autobiography as we can ever get. While the audio quality on some of the entries is weak, on others the voice of the President is hauntingly clear and evocative. The transcript and recordings cover all the expected watershed events, including the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Space Race, Vietnam, the arms race, and offers fascinating glimpses into the intellectual methodology of a very circumspect president.

Amongst many fascinating gems, the tapes reveal several insightful conversations between Kennedy and his predecessors on pressing issues of the day -interwoven with surprisingly personal touches. Such as with Dwight D. Eisenhower about the Cuban missile crisis and especially with Harry S. Truman as they wrapped up a call in July 1963:

“Well, you sound in good shape,” Kennedy said.

“All right,” Truman replied. “The only trouble with me is that, the main difficulty I have, is keeping the wife satisfied.” Both men laughed.

“Well, that’s all right,” Kennedy said.

“Well, you know how that is,” Truman went on. “She’s very much afraid I’m going to hurt myself. Even though I’m not. She’s a tough bird.”

In another audio recording, Kennedy dictates his reactions to the Saigon coup that deposed President Diem and his brother. He begins by criticizing himself for approving an initial communication that may have green-lighted the US role in the coup. JFK Jr enters to play with his father and at one point says, "Naughty, naughty Daddy." As his son exits, the President resumes his dictation by stating, "I was shocked by the death of Diem and Nhu.

Kennedy’s recording system was dismantled immediately after his assassination. The family kept the tapes until 1976 and then gave them to the National Archives. The Kennedy Library later acquired them and began to make them available to historians in 1983. Their release was a slow and laborious process because the sound quality was uneven and they had to be transcribed and declassified. The last 45 hours of tapes were released only this year.

The recordings are selected and set in context by Ted Widmer, director of the John Carter Brown Library, and the book includes an introduction by Caroline Kennedy, the president’s daughter. I would liked to have seen some of the transcribed conversations included in the audio CD, such as JFK repeatedly telling the heads of NASA that "the whole thrust of the Agency, in my opinion, is the lunar program . . . otherwise we shouldn't be spending this kind of money, because I'm not that interested in space."

Anyone hoping for some juicy dialogue relating to promiscuous women or Marilyn Monroe will be disappointed, but Listening In does offer a uniquely unscripted, insider account of a president and his cabinet grappling with the day-to-day business of the White House and guiding the nation through a hazardous era of uncertainty.