It could be argued, I fear, that there is agreat deal of similarity between Rona Barrett and me. We are both more or less in the same business. We both use typewriter, take notes with pen or pencil, do interviews, carry press cards and get published in newspapers. Aside from that, though, we are quite different people doing quite different things. I hope you agree.
And I hope you agree, too, that just because John F. Kennedy did what later Richard Nixon (not to mention Franklin Roosevelt) did, he is not the moral equivalent of Nixon. While it is true that both men were president and both taped telephone conversations, it is not true that they said the same things. Richard Nixon planned and covered up crimes. That, as even William Safire would have to concede, is the reason he was chased from office. The tapes did not do him in, it was what he said on them.
But having said that, we still have to grapple with what Kennedy did. It is not Nixonian, but it sure as hell stinks -- yet more evidence that the difference between Camelot and some less glittery presidencies was just that: glitter. In fact, we now have evidence that four presidents secretly taped conversations and some indications that there were some others in this not-so-select group. Of recent past presidents, maybe only Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter are above suspicion. For neglecting history in this manner, history itself will remember them both kindly.
Most presidents, though, kept some sort of record. They either maintained a diary or dictated their recollections or had their secretaries listen in--sometimes secretly, sometimes not. This kind of thing is expected of presidents because they are thought to have an obligation to history that ordinary people do not have. They are expected to keep a record and then, later, give us the benefits of their experience--at a suitable price, of course (less in paperback).
Kennedy clearly felt an obligation to history. After all, he was something of an historian himself, having written (or commissioned) two books on historical subjects ("Why England Slept" and "Profiles in Courage") and he was conscious that as president he was making history. It was this concern for history, we are now told, that prompted Kennedy to bug the conversations of his friends and associates. This might be true. But it is also true that once the system was installed, more than history was served. After all, Kennedy's chats with his wife, however juicy, ain't exactly history with a capital H.
At any rate, history has the sort of ring that appeals to intellectuals, to people who have been to college, read books and, more important, think that what they are doing is historic. Washington is full of people like that. But "history" is nothing more than the "national security" excuse of intellectuals --yet another attempt to rationalize both self-aggrandizement and abuse of power. Whenever Nixon got caught with his hand in the cookie jar, he yelled "national security." Now Kennedy defenders are yelling "history, history" to excuse what is nothing but dishonesty, or, at the very least, boorish manners.
History, after all, was written before the invention of the tape recorder. And even if the tape recorder is handy, easy to use and, of course, accurate, there still is no need to conduct tapings in secret. People expect their conversations with the president to be, in some way, recorded. Some would be heartbroken if they were not. And so the only thing lost by acknowledging that a tape machine is running is an occasional curse word. History could survive the loss.
Henry Ford was wrong when he said that history was bunk, but invoking it as a moral force that can excuse an abuse of power certainly is. In Kennedy's case, the secret taping is in character. He believed passionately in an almost Wagnerian style of leadership--boldness and vigor and all that--that held almost as a subfaith that the leader can break the rules. This carried over to his obsession with crisis and his almost paramilitary mentality.
Compared to the Bay of Pigs or, ultimately, Vietnam, the secret taping system is a mere nothing. It stems, though, from the same mentality. With the tapes, he cared only about what mattered to him. The system served history. But it abused people.