Flash. Stop the presses:


Secret Tapes Reveal


In Oval Office

President Rebuked

Aide Over Speeches

Attacking Democrats

What a story, and, would you believe it, while the headline is fanciful, the allegations are not. Yes, it's true, and I'll bet you never heard about it, either.

Along with the regular commission of errors, misjudgments and assorted failures that are the lot of the fallible daily news business, we have another problem: faulty collective memories. Or, to be more precise, we have a problem of selective memories.

We had that story, we'll say defensively, when a competitor from without (or even within) comes forth with a dramatic new tale. Nine times out of 10 it turns out that the story we claim we had was not as advertised. When checking back on what actually was printed, invariably we find only a cursory mention of the facts under discussion, probably tucked away in the midst of a long article or briefly buried inside the mass of the day's news.

There's another side to that equation. It involves part of the story we did have but forgot.

Something of each was present in the recent John F. Kennedy secret tapes press accounts, a story that took off like a rocket, dominated the nation's headlines and airwaves for a few hours, and then disappeared from public view. Before it's forgotten, some history, some observations, perhaps some lessons, not only about the press but the public interest:

The disclosure, in the summer of 1973, that Richard M. Nixon had secretly tape-recorded everything said in his office and over his telephone for at least a year before the Watergate break-in, was the beginning of his end. The tapes, clearly, held the evidence that would prove or disprove his version of Watergate. They would answer Howard H. Baker Jr.'s memorable question: what did he know and when did he know it?

That same week, in the midst of the Nixon controversy, reports of other presidential secret recordings were made public. Newsweek, for instance, in an article that took up three-fourths of a page under the headline "Who Planted the First Bug?" and illustrated with photographs of Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, reported that FDR was the first president known to have recorded conversations with visitors secretly. The story also said:

"Last week's revelations about Mr. Nixon's ubiquitous tapes flushed the information that 193 secret recordings of John F. Kennedy's telephone conversations and meetings, some personal and some dealing with foreign affairs and national security, have been stored with the Kennedy records in Waltham, Mass."

The story reported that LBJ also extensively recorded conversations.

Brief stories about JFK's recordings ran around the country.

There the matter rested, part of the public record, but never really part of the public, or press, memory. At least one reporter, Bob Woodward of The Washington Post, tried for years to find out what was on those Kennedy tapes--to whom the president had been speaking and on what subjects. William Safire of The New York Times, formerly a Nixon speechwriter, also wrote about Kennedy tapes being under lock and key in the Kennedy Library. So, he noted, were the LBJ tapes in the Johnson Library in Austin.

Silence on the subject.

On Sunday morning, Oct. 21, 1979, readers of The Houston Chronicle awoke to NEWS 6 find sensational news dominating their paper. "Eisenhower Had Own Secret Tapes," the eight-column, page-one banner headline read. Below it: "Nixon's Voice Among Those Recorded by Ike."

The Chronicle devoted two columns on page one and more than three full pages inside to a detailed, copyright account of the Ike taping system. The account was by Francis L. Loewenheim, a history professor at Rice University, author and former member of the State Department's historical division in the Eisenhower administration.

Loewenheim's story, based on newly disclosed records at the Eisenhower Library in Abilene, Kan., said Ike began secretly recording office conversations in October, 1953, and continued at least until December, 1958. He recorded several members of his Cabinet, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, his White House chief of staff, foreign heads of state and other major political, industrial, and military figures of the time.

Loewenheim's most fascinating disclosure involved Nixon. In 1954, at the height of the Joseph R. McCarthy period, Eisenhower asked his vice president to remain behind a minute after an Oval Office meeting with others so they could talk privately. Their session came after Nixon, stumping in Texas, had made a speech charging that "real Democrats are outraged by the Truman-Acheson-Stevenson gang's defense of communism in high places" and that those three were "traitors to the high principles in which many of the nation's Democrats believed."

Once they were alone, Eisenhower activated the switch setting off the recording system and, in a "stern and troubled mood," according to Loewenheim, proceeded to rebuke Nixon for his "castigation" of Democratic handling of foreign policy. He noted to Nixon that Joe McCarthy had been referring to "20 years of treason," and termed that "an indefensible statement." Then he urged Nixon that "by no implication" could the vice president "be considered as saying the same thing."

Other papers cited the Loewenheim story: the next Sunday The Washington Post's Outlook section reprinted excerpts from summaries of the transcripts, and the following day the Los Angeles Times led its page one with a long account of the history of secret presidential taping, beginning with FDR and continuing through LBJ, with references to the JFK and Eisenhower recordings.

Then came the rocket about the extent and range of Kennedy's secret tapes.

I consider myself something of a historian, a close, inveterate reader of the papers, personally quite familiar both with the Watergate episode as an editor on this paper at the time and with the workings of the Kennedy administration. I never remember anything about Kennedy's tapes, nor about Eisenhower's. Neither did others here, and, obviously, at other papers around the country.

Lessons: for those of us in the press: more perspective please, more follow-up to breaking news disclosures, and remember never to trust our memories about what we did--and didn't--report.

For the public, a greater concern: that Kennedy story really was news because it shows, as nothing before, how every previous account about his presidency, character and handling of issues must now be assessed in terms of what the tapes reveal.

Aside from the odiousness of secret taping--the invasion of privacy and implicit abuse of confidentiality--there's something outrageous about the way these collective tapes are being kept from the public by the rules governing their release.

They involve, after all, the public's highest business. They were recorded, albeit clandestinely, with public funds, and they are being stored with public money.

The Eisenhower tapes, for instance, as opposed to transcribed summaries of the conversations, appear to be missing. And a generation after Kennedy we still have no knowledge of what those obviously significant tapes contain. I wonder whether we would have been promised early release of some of the Kennedy recordings had it not been for the press disclosure of the nature of their existence and the range of subjects discussed?

What did we know and when did we know it? Too little and too late.