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The White House Tapes from FDR to Clinton

by William Doyle

Pub Date: May 31st, 1999
ISBN: 1-56836-285-4
Publisher: Kodansha

Intermittently interesting tales from the presidential tapes. Since FDR, most but not all presidents have recorded White House meetings and telephone conversations; Reagan, not surprisingly, even videotaped many private meetings. The existence of such tapes should provide a fascinating glimpse of the real person behind the great Oz of the presidency. In fact, it does and it doesn’t. Doyle (The Oxford History of the French Revolution, 1989), creator of a television documentary on the White House tapes, has put a lot of effort into compiling tapes and transcribing them, but he has had to work within limitations. Most presidents didn’t tape much (such as FDR and Truman), others not at all (Bush), and of those who did tape a lot (think Nixon), what they said is already pretty well known. Also, most presidents (except Nixon, whose voice-activated system often, and famously, made him forget he was on tape) were quite aware they were being recorded, and so it’s questionable how authentic the presented personas are. To compensate, Doyle offers as a theme the differing styles of presidents as executives: Eisenhower the “organized executive,” Kennedy the “pragmatic executive,” and so on. Tape transcripts are used to amplify this theme, rather than serving, as the title suggests, as the center of attention. Why is there a rather long chapter on Bush when he didn’t tape anything? There are interesting tidbits here and there: FDR speaking condescendingly and duplicitously to a group of civil rights leaders; generals in a meeting with JFK during the Bay of Pigs crisis, miffed because he won’t let them start a thermonuclear war, openly venting their disgust with him after he exits the meeting with the tape machine still running. Such moments are few and far between, however,. A promising idea, but the book does not deliver. (8 pages b&w photos) (Author tour)