Marc Selverstone is too young to remember Lyndon Johnson.
But the 1980 Staples High School graduate has spent many years immersed in the administration of the 36th president.
Selverstone has learned a lot about one of the most controversial figures in American history. Now he’s helping share it with the world.
An associate professor in presidential studies at the University of Virginia, and chair of the Presidential Recordings Program at the Miller Center of Public Affairs there, he’s helped transcribe and analyze White House tapes that several presidents of both parties made in secret.
Johnson was particularly active. He taped aides, journalists, cabinet officials, legislators, family members and private individuals. The recordings — candid, unscripted, complete with sneezes and belches — offer a fascinating, complex and otherwise unobtainable window into the policies, priorities and prejudices of a man of consummate political skill consumed by power, forged by the circumstances of his own very difficult life, and in the Oval Office at a time of massive change.
One of Selverstone’s most visible projects is The LBJ Telephone Tapes. The free site includes audio excerpts from more than 100 conversations, ranging from the war on poverty and civil rights to Vietnam and personal life. There is important background material for each tape.
Selverstone and his colleagues place everyone Johnson taped — or even referenced — in historical context. Robert McNamara, McGeorge Bundy, Lady Bird Johnson, Jackie Kennedy — all help flesh out our understanding of who Lyndon Johnson really was.
Not to mention McNamara, Bundy, and everyone else on the tapes. “We get a sense of how they grasped the 1960s, while actually living through it,” says Selverstone.
But because they are not perfect recordings, the Miller Center has had to make some educated guesses. Does Johnson say “Negroes,” “Nigras,” or the n-word? It can be very hard to tell.
The work — not only putting the tapes online, but analyzing hundreds more hours available only to scholars — is vital, Selverstone says.
Though Johnson has been exhaustively studied, no one completely understands him. Historian Robert Caro sees a lust for power behind everything LBJ did; others view him as a magnanimous man who truly wanted to help less fortunate Americans, trapped in circumstances partly beyond his control.
Thanks to the tapes, Selverstone says, we now realize he was “much more the reluctant warrior” than he’s been portrayed.
Johnson is also “very committed to civil rights, while seeing the US as a racialized country, and having prejudices because of where he grew up.” But the tapes also show him speaking as “a national leader, realizing the power of the presidency. The tapes are helpful in allowing this Johnson to come forward.”
They provide fascinating glimpses into how his thinking evolved too. Scholars can see how watching TV news — and LBJ was famous for having sets tuned to all 3 networks in his office and residence — affected him, and thus American policy.
Johnson wanted the tapes to be held from the public for 50 years after his death. He died in 1973 — just 4 years after leaving the White House — so that would have meant 2023 at the earliest.
However, Selverstone says, Johnson’s widow and the head of his Presidential Library agreed to an earlier release, believing the tapes would show him in a better light.
“They were right,” the UVA historian says. “We do hear him out and out lie, dissemble, and say different things about Vietnam in public than in private. But the tapes have largely helped his reputation.”
More broadly, Selverstone notes, all the presidential tapes — from Franklin Roosevelt to Ronald Reagan — “humanize the presidency. They give us a sense of what the president faces every day, and how full his plate is. Presidents jump from one thing to another — domestic policy, foreign policy, ceremonial duties, family matters — almost instantly. The tapes encourage us to view a president with empathy.”
Though presidents through Reagan recorded a few hours of conversation, secret tapings effectively ended with Nixon — for reasons Watergate made apparent.
“We will most likely never again have that window into the presidency,” Selverstone notes.
Without historical records like tapes — and in today’s culture, when White House staffers may be reluctant to keep written records — delving into the minds and actions of a president might be more difficult for future historians. “It will be a real challenge to recreate the Obama, Trump or Biden White House as it was,” Selverstone says.
Though he recalls the 1968 assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, Selverstone — who was 6 years old when Johnson left office — has no memories of Johnson as president.
Now — studying him intimately, from a historian’s perspective — he says, “my appreciation for him has grown, even as my frustrations remain. He could use the levers of power in the service of noble ends, to lift up people marginalized for so long, and enable them to use their talents to the best of their abilities.”
And Johnson accomplished much in areas beyond civil rights, Selverstone says. “Education, immigration, healthcare, transportation, housing, the arts, the land itself, public broadcasting — they were also efforts to create more equitable lives. Those form a fulcrum of American history. Thanks to the tapes, we have an extraordinary opportunity to see all that as it was happening.
“But to hear how bitter Johnson became, and how he used power in dangerous ways, is maddening.
“He locked himself in a corner with Vietnam, and couldn’t get out. He lost the public, business, the courts, the Eastern establishment. By March of 1968 he had nowhere to go but a negotiated settlement. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of people had died. Our government changed forever — and then things got even darker, with Nixon.”
Johnson was, Selverstone says, “a complicated man. He’ll always remain that way. Fortunately, we have these tapes to help make heads or tails of him.”
The project continues. Hundreds of hours of tapes remain, for Selverstone and his Miller Center colleagues to transcribe and analyze.
They’re still not close to going all the way with LBJ.