Edited by Ted Widmer
Hyperion. 300 pp. $40
If the walls of the Oval Office could talk, they’d have a lot to say, particularly about the time of President John F. Kennedy. That’s because in 1962, in the wake of the Bay of Pigs disaster, Kennedy had the Secret Service install a taping system in the Oval Office and the Cabinet Room. In “Listening In: The Secret White House Recordings of John F. Kennedy,” historian Ted Widmer culls some 265 hours of meetings and phone conversations, giving us fascinating play-by-plays of several history-making moments. The book adds much new material to the recordings already available in previous works. (You can listen to some of the recordings on the two CDs included with the book.)
Deliberations over the Cuban missile crisis are exciting and sobering, and Kennedy’s reasoning with Mississippi Gov. Ross Barnett during the chaos surrounding James Meredith’s enrollment as the first black student at Ole Miss is admirable. To Barnett’s plea that he has segregationist Mississippi laws to uphold, Kennedy replies, “Well, of course, the problem is, Governor, that I’ve got my responsibility, just like you have yours.”
Given the selectivity, the book doesn’t come close to a comprehensive account of Kennedy’s abbreviated term. The transcripts tend to set the president on a pedestal that even his fans might find too good to be true — Kennedy as civil rights trailblazer, cool-headed diplomat facing down his military advisers, visionary for space travel. That’s not totally surprising: His own presidential library was involved in making the book, which has an introduction by his daughter, Caroline. Even his critics, however, would have a hard time arguing against the merit of an insider glimpse at an eventful couple of years.