PITY POOR Clio, the mussed-up muse of history. It sometimes seems as if the old girl is invoked almost as often as national security is to justify a president's doing something he shouldn't have done. So here we are with the Kennedy tapes, fruit of a system installed in JFK's White House, which permitted the late president to record those conversations in his office that he wished to, without the other participants' knowing that their words were being taped. There was a lot wrong with this when Richard Nixon did it, and it doesn't get any prettier with a change of presidents or a change of party.
We begin by noting that while it is true that such taped conversations make an obvious contribution to the historical record, they can be misleading too, implying a definitive and exhaustive truth that they don't really convey. Verbatim reports, after all, do not include context, do not necessarily tell you what was said before and what was said after, what the mood was, what the degree of irony and who might have been setting up or testing or taunting or playing games with whom. In the unique Nixon case, it is true that the tapes, discovered after two starkly conflicting versions of events (Mr. Nixon's and John Dean's) had been put forth, had the virtue of providing a way to judge which had been telling (more nearly) the truth about what was said. And what was being said was relevant to charges in various criminal proceedings. But even so, the built-in shortcomings of such context-free tapes were the stuff of much argument--in and out of court--over the meaning of what was recorded on those tapes. And it should be noted that the Kennedy tapes, as witnesses to history, would be in a sense even less reliable, not more. That is because Mr. Nixon's undiscriminating system was "voice-activated" and recorded everything, damaging or not. But President Kennedy was at the controls of his, deciding as he went along what part of what conversations to record and what to leave out.
Even with these drawbacks, we expect, the historical justification for ambitious, grand-scale recording could be made--but, surely, it could only be honorably made if the other participants had been warned of what was going on. Here is what we said of Richard Nixon's enterprise in this connection in July of 1973, and we wouldn't change a word of it in relation to John F. Kennedy or Franklin D. Roosevelt, who apparently also engaged in some form of the practice:
"There is, it seems to us, something basically indecent about the president of the United States invading the innocent privacy of the great and the ordinary as they conduct their business at the highest level of the American government. We agree with Rep. Wilbur Mills (D-Ark.), who said that a person chatting privately with the president 'is entitled to be told' that his remarks are being taped. . . . 'History' is an utterly inadequate justification for the indecency of taping conversations without a forewarning."
One of the arguments all administrations make for the maintenance of privacy in their various deliberations is that individuals will not feel free to speak their minds and to offer controversial or accident-prone advice if they are fearful that what they have said will be made public to their subsequent chagrin. This unexceptionable principle certainly was invoked in the Kennedy years to press the claim of secrecy--do you remember how much tut- tutting there was on this count when Adlai Stevenson's dovish counsel in the Cuban missile crisis was revealed? Well, it does seem to us, as a further argument against this one-witting-partner-only kind of taping operation, that advisers will feel no more confident or secure in offering advice in a "leak-free" environment so long as it is possible that someone is taping their comments for subsequent disclosure in a form over which they will have no control.
Speaking of leaks and speaking of dear Clio, we found most arresting a telephone log note from April 3, 1963. The subject of President Kennedy's talk with Robert McNamara is recorded as "Use of polygraphs in tracing Defense leaks." Some history is now.