15 March 2013
[quote]Declassified tapes of President Lyndon Johnson's telephone calls provide a fresh insight into his world. Among the revelations - he planned a dramatic entry into the 1968 Democratic Convention to re-join the presidential race. And he caught Richard Nixon sabotaging the Vietnam peace talks... but said nothing.
After the Watergate scandal taught Richard Nixon the consequences of recording White House conversations none of his successors have dared to do it. But Nixon wasn't the first.
He got the idea from his predecessor Lyndon Johnson, who felt there was an obligation to allow historians to eventually eavesdrop on his presidency.
"They will provide history with the bark off," Johnson told his wife, Lady Bird.
The final batch of tapes released by the LBJ library covers 1968, and allows us to hear Johnson's private conversations as his Democratic Party tore itself apart over the question of Vietnam.
The 1968 convention, held in Chicago, was a complete shambles.
Tens of thousands of anti-war protesters clashed with Mayor Richard Daley's police, determined to force the party to reject Johnson's Vietnam war strategy.
As they taunted the police with cries of "The whole world is watching!" one man in particular was watching very closely.
Lyndon Baines Johnson was at his ranch in Texas, having announced five months earlier that he wouldn't seek a second term.
The president was appalled at the violence and although many of his staff sided with the students, and told the president the police were responsible for "disgusting abuse of police power," Johnson picked up the phone, ordered the dictabelt machine to start recording and congratulated Mayor Daley for his handling of the protest.
The president feared the convention delegates were about to reject his war policy and his chosen successor, Hubert Humphrey.
So he placed a series of calls to his staff at the convention to outline an astonishing plan. He planned to leave Texas and fly into Chicago.
He would then enter the convention and announce he was putting his name forward as a candidate for a second term.
It would have transformed the 1968 election. His advisers were sworn to secrecy and even Lady Bird did not know what her husband was considering.
On the White House tapes we learn that Johnson wanted to know from Daley how many delegates would support his candidacy. LBJ only wanted to get back into the race if Daley could guarantee the party would fall in line behind him.
They also discussed whether the president's helicopter, Marine One, could land on top of the Hilton Hotel to avoid the anti-war protesters.
Daley assured him enough delegates would support his nomination but the plan was shelved after the Secret Service warned the president they could not guarantee his safety.
The idea that Johnson might have been the candidate, and not Hubert Humphrey, is just one of the many secrets contained on the White House tapes.
They also shed light on a scandal that, if it had been known at the time, would have sunk the candidacy of Republican presidential nominee, Richard Nixon.
By the time of the election in November 1968, LBJ had evidence Nixon had sabotaged the Vietnam war peace talks - or, as he put it, that Nixon was guilty of treason and had "blood on his hands".
The BBC's former Washington correspondent Charles Wheeler learned of this in 1994 and conducted a series of interviews with key Johnson staff, such as defence secretary Clark Clifford, and national security adviser Walt Rostow.
But by the time the tapes were declassified in 2008 all the main protagonists had died, including Wheeler.
Now, for the first time, the whole story can be told.
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