In an article Friday about White House meetings at which President Kennedy discussed his pending tax-cut proposal, the Rep. Howard H. Baker (R-Tenn.) mentioned by Kennedy was incorrectly identified. The person in question was the father of the current Senate majority leader.
During the bloody integration crisis at the University of Mississippi 21 years ago, President John F. Kennedy discussed arresting both Gov. Ross Barnett and Edwin A. Walker, a retired Army general turned segregation leader.
These were among the new disclosures about the Kennedy years made public here today with the release of a fragment of secret White House tape recordings the 35th president had ordered during the last 16 months of his term. The president decided when to make the recordings by activating a switch at his desk.
The Kennedy tapes, the first presidential recordings ever put on sale to the public, were awaited eagerly by a horde of reporters and camera technicians who gathered early this morning outside the Kennedy Library at Columbia Point, overlooking Boston Harbor.
Heightened expectations notwithstanding, the unexpurgated tapes contain no great revelations. But they provide a fascinating glimpse of major Kennedy administration figures grappling with the problems of a generation ago.
The John F. Kennedy that emerges from them is a figure strongly in command, assured, at times profane, given to flashes of whimsy, concerned about political appearances and press play, and surrounded by advisers who continually break moments of tension by telling political and personal jokes.
The tapes may not add significant information to the record of Kennedy's presidency, but they are certain to provide scholars with greater insight into his performance.
The question of making arrests during the struggle over admitting James Meredith, a black student, to the University of Mississippi first came from Kennedy's brother, Robert F. Kennedy, then attorney general.
"Gen. Walker's been out there downtown getting them, uh, people, stirred up," Robert Kennedy said to key administration leaders, including the president, who were gathered in the White House command center during the riots in Oxford, Miss., that left two dead and hundreds wounded. "Can we get, arrange to get him arrested?"
When President Kennedy asked, "What's his crime?" his brother replied: "Uh, he's been stirring up people."
Later President Kennedy brought up the question of arrests in a telephone conversation with Archibald Cox, then U.S. solicitor general, who was to be fired as special prosecutor during the Watergate crisis of the Nixon presidency.
"For example we wanna arrest Gen. Walker," the president told Cox, "and I don't know whether we just arrest him under disturbing the peace or whether we arrest him for more than that."
He also asked Cox: "I wonder if we can get, uh, more precise information on where we are legally on arresting people, including the governor if necessary and others?"
This material was among four volumes of transcripts and 11 audio cassettes made from the original White House tapes. Three of the volumes deal with a subject still in the news: the 1962-63 tax cut that is often cited by President Reagan as an inspiration for his own tax cut plans to spur the economy. The fourth volume, by far the richest historically, deals with the integration struggle at Oxford, Miss., in late September and early October, 1962.
The Mississippi tapes and transcripts have a dramatic unity, forming something of play within a play, that the other volumes lack. They include conversations of the Kennedy brothers, who call each other Jack and Bobby, and such key advisers as Theodore Sorensen, Lawrence O'Brien, Kenneth O'Donnell, Burke Marshall, Ramsey Clark, Robert McNamara and Cyrus Vance.
Notably absent from all the conversations is Kennedy's vice president, Lyndon B. Johnson, whose name does not even appear.
The transcripts are drawn from tapes of telephone conversations and large meetings in which the presidential group kept watch on the Mississippi developments, which speedily grew worse as the hurling of bricks and iron spikes turned into open gunfire by mobs protesting Meredith's admission to "Ole Miss."
Many of the conversations are recordings of phone calls between President Kennedy and Gov. Barnett. At one point, as the confrontation between U.S. and Mississippi interests became more strained, Kennedy asked aloud: "Are we showing him? Or are they showing us?"
As the situation deteriorated and word of more shootings and then killings reached the White House, the tension increased.
"This reminds me a little bit of the Bay of Pigs," O'Donnell remarked at one point.
"Yech!" Robert Kennedy responded.
At another point President Kennedy again brought up the analogy of the 1961 attempt by Cuban exiles to overthrow Fidel Castro's government, saying, "I haven't had such an interesting time since the Bay of Pigs."
In a similar vein, when things appeared to be getting even worse, he said, "That's what happens with all of these wonderful operations. War."
And he added angrily about Gen. Walker, who by then was retired: "Imagine that son of a bitch having been commander of a division . . ." Walker led U.S. forces at the Little Rock integration crisis in 1957, but as a civilian turned to making speeches urging citizens to "bring your flags, your tents, and your skillets" to protest integration.
The conversation continued to alternate between grim reports from the scene in Mississippi and other topics. Soviet and American spies and diplomatic immunity provided one subject for the two Kennedy brothers.
"You know, there isn't anything in U.N. law to a guy who got seized, caught spying?" the president said to the attorney general. "Any of our people ever been imprisoned?"
"No, they only get expelled," his brother answered.
They also talked about press coverage. James Reston, the influential New York Times Washington bureau chief and columnist, drew the Kennedy group's ire in one exchange.
"Well, see, Reston's hitting the West Coast tomorrow, and he wants a story," said one of the president's group whose identity was not clear on the tape. "He has a story."
The president spoke up:
"We ought to knock it down tonight, that's just kicking that Reston right in the balls, isn't it?"
They discussed the play of Reston's story. The dialogue reads, in words familiar in every White House since Kennedy's and probably long before:
President Kennedy: "Front page?
Unknown Speaker: "Front page."
President: "It's an inaccurate story."
Sorensen: "Sure. Well, it's an irresponsible story."
The material released today encompasses only about 5 percent of the recordings made during the last two years of the Kennedy presidency.
Many of the remaining tapes, such as those dealing with Castro and Cuba, are highly classified. Some may not be released for years, if ever.
Others, on the crucial subjects of Vietnam and the Cuban missile crisis, which make up a large proportion of the tapes stored at the Kennedy Library, have yet to be transcribed.
But though today's material contains no major historical disclosures, the tapes are surprising in one respect.
The recordings were said to be of poor quality, unsuitable for broadcasting. That is true of many of the general conversations in which many people are talking, phones are ringing and the recordings have a deep, hollow, muffled sound.
But the voices in the phone conversations, notably those between President Kennedy and Gov. Barnett, are startlingly clear. They powerfully evoke a brief presidency that ended in tragedy and already is receding fast into the past.