Boston, Sept. 23: President John F. Kennedy opened the newspaper one day in 1963 and learned to his horror that military aides had built a hospital bedroom for his pregnant wife at an air base on Cape Cod in case she went into labour.
He thought the $5,000 spent on the furniture was wasteful and would be a public-relations disaster that would prompt Congress to cut his military budget. The angry President picked up the phone.
First, he a took a press underling to task. He demanded that the furniture be sent back and that those responsible —including “that silly fellow who had his picture taken next to the bed” — be transferred to Alaska.
He then called Gen. Godfrey McHugh, his air force aide. “What the hell did they let the reporters in there for?” the President thundered. “You just sank the air force budget!”
He was not finished venting his rage about the aide who appeared in the newspaper picture. “He’s a silly bastard!” he exclaimed. “I wouldn’t have him running around a cathouse!”
Before hanging up, he characterised the entire episode with an expletive.
The story came straight from Kennedy himself.
Though even some of his closest aides did not know at the time, Kennedy recorded more than 260 hours of Oval Office conversations, telephone calls and dictation into his Dictaphone.
The John F. Kennedy Library Foundation has culled the highlights into a new book of annotated transcripts and two audio CDs. Some of the audio portions will be available online.
The book, Listening In: The Secret White House Recordings of John F. Kennedy, with a foreword by his daughter, Caroline Kennedy, and an introduction by Ted Widmer, a presidential historian at Brown University, offers “the raw material of history”, said Thomas Putnam, the director of the Kennedy Library.
“This is the memoir that President Kennedy never got to write,” Putnam said.
In a meeting in November 1962, the president bluntly told James Webb, the Nasa administrator, that putting a man on the moon was his top priority. Webb said it was more important to understand the environment of space, prompting Kennedy to say, “If we get second to the Moon, it’s nice, but it’s like being second anytime.”
Webb continued to push back, prompting the president to spell it out: “I’m not that interested in space,” he said, only in beating the Russians.
Like Richard M. Nixon after him and several presidents before him, Kennedy installed hidden recording devices in the Oval Office. Almost no one knew about the practice until the existence of the Nixon tapes was revealed in 1973 during the Watergate hearings.
The tapes reveal that Kennedy talked several times with his predecessors about pressing issues of the day, including with Dwight D. Eisenhower about the Cuban missile crisis. But one conversation with Harry S. Truman veered in a surprisingly personal direction 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.”
A historian said he believed that Truman was talking about erectile dysfunction.
Unlike the Nixon taping system, which was voice-activated, Kennedy’s had to be started by pressing a button, so he was obviously aware that he was being recorded.
On a grim day in 1963, Kennedy turned to his Dictaphone to record his thoughts about a coup in Vietnam. He rued into the machine that his administration was responsible for the coup, and he was going over the blunders that had led to it, when suddenly a child’s voice chirped “hello”.
John F. Kennedy Jr., then not quite 3, had toddled into the Oval Office and, most likely, into his father’s lap. The President made a seamless transition from burdened commander in chief to doting father and began a nursery word play with his son.
Kennedy: “Why do the leaves fall?”
John: “Because it’s autumn.”
After questions about winter and spring, the President asked: “When do we go to the Cape? Hyannis Port?"
John: “Because it’s summer.”
“It’s summer,” repeated the youthful father, though it was November and in less than three weeks, he would be dead.