Barack Obama's private comment yesterday to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on missile defense interests me but for a different reason than you might expect. Obama was simply stating the obvious — his diplomacy will be less constrained after the election — but what was really interesting was seeing how he conducts diplomacy on a personal level. This will be but a blip on the news cycle with predictable condemnations and push-backs. It will have no impact on the presidential election in November, but it does raise an important issue because it gives us a titillating look at what we all know to be true: There is a real gap between the public and the private communications of our presidents.
This gap is being narrowed in other parts of our society, sometimes awkwardly, as first e-mail and now social media encourage a more informal and personal form of communicating. But ever since the Nixon tapes and the invention of radio microphones, presidents have eschewed any informal correspondence or comment, let alone automatic taping. (Bill Clinton did allow his biographer, Taylor Branch, to tape a number of his conversations.) For many years now, administrations have tried to outdo their predecessors on message control, not only while in office but even after death. (One imagines the great Mike Deaver spinning for Reagan in heaven right now.)
The problem with this message discipline is that our presidents seem increasingly remote and bland. This weekend, for no particular reason, I revisited some of the many once-secret tape recordings available online from the presidencies of Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon. There is a whole new sub-specialty of history that deals with the import of these tapes and lots of lively academic discussion about how to place these recordings in a broader historical context.
But as windows into the presidential personalities and the difficulty of the job, these tapes are true treasures. In most instances, the tapes not only humanize but also burnish the reputations of the presidents. (There is a big asterisk on some of Richard Nixon's conversations, of course, but others make him a more tragic and relatable figure.)
There are so many great moments in these tapes, only a fraction of which have been transcribed. One of my favorites is when John Kennedy calls his predecessor in the White House and asks for advice on the Cuban Missile Crisis, specifically what to do about the placement of offensive weapons on the island. Kennedy may have been calling just to reach out, but his reaction to Dwight Eisenhower’s answer is revealing. The general tells Kennedy that basically he has no idea what to do given the stakes of starting the first nuclear war. Kennedy takes this reluctance in stride — no one wanted to make that judgment — and laughs and tells Ike "to hold on tight." Grace under pressure, indeed.
I understand why presidents don't want to be taped anymore. The threat of discovery — both legal and otherwise — is great, and if advisers and others know or suspect they are being recorded, it might distort their advice. But I wonder whether there is any possibility of a compromise. Here's how it might work: If presidents agree to be taped, they get an iron-clad guarantee that their conversations are not released until 15 years after their presidency — unless the conversations relate to a criminal investigation. This may contradict the desire of many — including historians — for greater transparency and shorter time limits on disclosure — but in the end it would serve our understanding and appreciation of the office as well as, perhaps, its occupants.