Record, Rewind, Rewrite. Acoustic Historiography with the Presidential Tapes


Monika Dommann

(translation: Sarah Pybus)

The recording of a press conference held by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, his voice barely comprehensible in the hubbub. The solitary breathing of Lyndon B. Johnson as he awaits a telephone connection. The same president in captivatingly charming conversation with Jacky Kennedy, one month after her husband’s assassination. All of these have been available on a public web server at the University of Virginia since 1998.

By the end of the 19th century, it was possible to store acoustic signals on a sound carrier without reliance on the written form. But the tapes used to immortalize the voices, laughter, breathing and general noise of the American presidents’ world were the outcome of wartime economy research into substitute materials during the era of National Socialism in Germany. In 1944, towards the end of the Second World War, BASF in Ludwigshafen developed a synthetic tape made from polyvinyl chloride (PVC), which formed the basis for developing sound recording devices for civilian mass markets. The tape radically altered acoustic storage technology. In 1959, Ferdinand Khittl made an enchanting industry film for BASF (“Das magische Band,” “The magic tape”) in which he used the medium for demonstrating its possibilities (cutting, listening, repeating, transforming, combining, etc.) associated with the storage functions of magnetic tape (Khittl 1959).

Storing acoustic and optical characters on a sound carrier enabled recording and reproduction “as time flows” (Kittler 1986: 10). By reproducing stored voices from the past in non-chronological order, Khittl demonstrates the inherent possibilities of magnetic tape not just to record and reproduce the mere flow of time, but to shape it ex post: 1954 (“Tor für Deutschland,” “Goal for Germany”), 1929 (“Sunny Boy”), 1927 (a radio report on Charles Lindbergh’s transatlantic flight), and 1912 (Caruso’s voice recorded on a phonograph) appear in anachronistic order.

The opening off-camera narration in Khittl's film comes from Franz Joseph I, Emperor of Austria: “This invention interests me greatly, and I am thankful for the demonstration.” Emperor Franz Joseph I spoke this sentence into the Poulsen telegraphone in 1901 after being presented with the telegraphone and other exhibits from the 1900 Paris World’s Fair in Vienna in 1900. By inserting the Emperor’s disembodied voice at the film’s beginning and end, Khittl showed that tape can be constructed to enable endless repetition. On tape, “Auf Wiederhören” – the German version of “Goodbye” used at the end of a telephone call – can potentially be played in an endless loop. This endless loop would not only symbolize the medium of tape, but also reflects its technical potential and its specific materiality revealed through cutting and splicing.



Manipulation Media


In his famous reversal, media theorist Friedrich Kittler described all 20th-century entertainment industry technology as the “misuse of military hardware” (Kittler 1986: 149). With regard to tape, he was referring to BASF and AEG, companies integrated into the wartime economy who took Valdemar Poulsen’s telegraphone (patented in 1900) and developed a mass-produced tape machine for civilian use (Kittler 1986: 162). Kittler described tape as a medium that revolutionized sound production, previously a one-way communication process, using gramophones and radios: “Storing, deleting, reading, fast-forwarding, cutting – the interposition of tapes in the signal path from the microphone to the master record makes manipulation itself possible” (Kittler 1986: 165-166). He also emphasized that tape, approved by secret services, is the medium of manipulation: “Cutting and monitoring controls allow the un-manipulatable to be manipulated” (Kittler 1986: 166). For Kittler, manipulation using magnetic tape has always been performed by military powers acting in secret. Therefore, Kittler’s basic understanding of manipulation as a concept has always been assigned a double meaning: technical manipulation (the storing, deleting,
reading, fast-forwarding, cutting, etc., mentioned above) and political manipulation (a skillful, elaborate, inscrutable and concealed act by the ruling powers against the unsuspecting powerless). To analyze media usage, a distinction is required between these two manipulation functions. The Political manipulation and the technical manipulation may be particularly accentuated when they interact.

As a medium of manipulation available to all (recording, fast-forwarding and rewinding, dictating, deleting, overwriting, etc.), tape recorders became a universal feature of offices and living rooms in the 1950s.

Figure 1: BASF [1960]. Heiteres Tonband Brevier. Ein Streifzug um alles was mit Magnettonband BASF zusammenhängt. [Ludwishafen: BASF] [Cover].

The cover of a 1960 BASF advertising brochure depicts a cowboy lassoing a musical note. The brochure emphasizes the recorder’s multifunctionality – tape recording and playback at the touch of a button – and presents it as an acoustic chronicle for use at home: “Your baby’s first hilarious sounds, their first day at school, communion and confirmation, birthday parties – saying ‘I do’ – life is a series of ‘sounds’ whose significance often becomes apparent only once they have passed” (BASF 1960: 49). The professional applications given as examples emphasize how tapes can aid individual self-optimization and self-control: “Gain a whole new perspective on your own weaknesses – scrutinize your performance without being influenced by a teacher’s opinions or personal moods. See clearly whether you are achieving your goals” (BASF 1960: 60). Dictation and protocolling via tape recording are also praised with statements that might be viewed in terms of Michel Foucault’s concept of “hermeneutics of the self” and “self-education” (Foucault 2005): “This method, which leaves you totally alone with your thoughts, increases concentration” (BASF 1960: 61). The advice given in the “tape recording guide” aims to create a tape archive to “retain the things worth remembering” (BASF 1960: 74).

Between 1962 (when John F. Kennedy installed a secret recording system in the Oval Office) and July 1973 (when Richard Nixon’s extensive recording system was revealed in the aftermath of Watergate and switched off on 18 July) (Haldeman 1988: 86), American presidents also used tape recording as a memo technique. We will discuss later whether this was meant as an acoustic protocol for personal use or as an archive for posterity. In the terminology of historian Johann Gustav Droysen, the enormous resulting archive of magnetized synthetic tapes could be seen as a “monument” for the future, created especially for future memory (unlike the “remnants”) and, as Droysen says, is perhaps “even more important as a source for the time in which it is created than for the time it will represent” (Droysen 1977: 100). While Droysen, in making this distinction, was thinking of buildings or paintings that document the way their creators were viewed rather than the creators themselves, we must perhaps view the American presidents’ tapes as documents that say more about their media usage than about the specific communications recorded. In a loose adaptation of Marshall McLuhan’s famous phrase, the historic message of the Presidential Tapes lies less in their content than in the act of their creation.

Presidential media empowerment, the conflicts surrounding the public release of the White House Tapes and the archiving, editing, digitalization and examination of these clandestine audio recordings in historiography open up a range of questions focusing on the bypassing of the ephemerality of verbal communication through the recordings and, therefore, on the American presidents’ acts of creating a tape archive and its historical examination: How were the secret memo techniques and their exposure commented upon, legitimized and criticized? Which epistemic practices and media operations come into play in the projects to digitalize and edit Kennedy’s, Johnson’s and Nixon’s tapes, which were recorded without the knowledge of the staff and people affected? And what conclusions can be drawn by analyzing historiographic and archival examinations of the Presidential Tapes and their remixes for future acoustic historiography? Digitizing analogue magnetic tapes has been possible since the 1990s; we must therefore consider the previously inconceivable access to acoustic sources that contributed to the ascent of Public History. Acoustic historiography must therefore engage equally with the media characteristics of recording and playback devices; the social situations in which recordings are produced; the potential of acoustic sources for storage, manipulation and transmission; and their use in political disputes and cinematographic practices.



The archiving of the Presidential Tapes is a particularly drastic example of how historiography is confronted with archive multiplication as a result of sound storage media and their digitalization. In the future, contemporary historians will have to examine in detail the entire repertoire of cultural techniques in the “‘Re’ Decade,” as Simon Reynolds describes the first decade of 2000 in his history of pop culture: “Re-vivals, re-issues, re-makes, re-enactment [...] recycling. [...] bygone genres reprocessed and recombined” (Reynolds 2011: xi). Classic source criticism, the historicism methodology developed in the 19th century to examine and interpret written sources, is not enough to understand these cultural techniques. As analyses increasingly focus on communication channels, storage media and multimedia, historians are increasingly becoming media scholars (Peters 2009; Dommann 2014). The following remarks on the Presidential Tapes are therefore also a commentary on historiography in the age of digitalized tape archives. The core argument is that easier access to sound recordings on the internet has resulted in an era of historiography comparable with recent pop history, which we could dub an era of “Retromania,” as stated by Simon Reynolds. The practices, once concealed from the public in the supposed nerve centers of power, now continue as endless media loops. New forms of Public History maintain a paradoxical form of acoustic nostalgia: The invisibility of power and the maintenance of stylized language and ritualized forms by politicians (Edelman 2005) meet with a sensorially-accessible “presence” and acoustically-perceptible corporeality – drawing on media in the process.

The materials upon which the following discussions are based are taken from the monographs resulting from the Presidential Tapes editing projects (e.g. May and Zelikow 1997; Beschloss 1997; Kutler 1997; Brinkley and Nichter 2015), the internet portals on which the digitalized sound documents were made available (such as the Miller Center at the University of Virginia, which conducted the Presidential Recordings Program), the debates within historiography (particularly in the American Historical Review and The Journal of American History), reports in popular magazines (e.g. The Atlantic), forums of Public History on the World Wide Web and on film (Lane 2013).


The secret recordings made by American presidents seeped into public consciousness during July of 1973 and became a scandal over the course of the Watergate investigation into illegal spying on political opponents by President Nixon’s government.[1] It was witness Alexander Butterfield who unexpectedly made the big revelation during official hearings. The former White House employee, who had an office in a small room next to the Oval Office, was the “pivot point for papers and persons going into and out of the Oval Office” (Sanders 1989: 1232). Butterfield reported of a secret, voice-activated system that recorded all conversations in the Oval Office.

Figure 2: Henry Kissinger, Elliot Richardson, Richard Nixon (1973). The Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum (National Archives and Records Administration), White House Photo Office collection.

Nixon’s government immediately informed the public that Lyndon B. Johnson used a similar system. Before his death, Johnson stipulated that the tapes should be moved to the Johnson Library in Texas and sealed until at least 50 years after his death. In the pivotal year of 1973, this proved far more unsettling than calming. Who else had done this? Shortly afterwards, Edward Kennedy confirmed that his brother, John F. Kennedy, had also recorded meetings and telephone conversations.

To mark the release of the first Nixon Tapes by the National Archives and Record Administration (NARA) (around 70, totalling approximately 4000 hours), the Journal of American History published a special issue dedicated to the Watergate Tapes in March 1989, with a chronology, the recollections of Donald Sanders (one of the key figures in the Senate Watergate Committee hearings) (Sanders 1989), Scott Armstrong (the former colleague of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, who were involved in Butterfield’s hearing) (Armstrong 1989), and an interview with Alexander Butterfield conducted by American historian David Thelen in the summer of 1988 (Thelen 1989). Alexander Butterfield’s superior, H. R. Haldeman, had already published his recollections of the Nixon Tapes in the magazine of the National Archives and Record Administration (NARA) back in the summer of 1988 (Haldeman 1988).

In the 1960s, recording devices were a standard feature of office equipment (dictation devices) and middle-class homes. Like the use of micro cameras, the topos of secret recording devices belonged to the repertoire of Cold War spy stories. However, rumors had been circulating since the 1960s that even American presidents used these technologies in the Oval Office. Donald Sanders, whose office in the Department of Justice was located above that of the FBI Director, recalled rumors that John Edgar Hoover had installed a built-in recorder in his office: “For years I heard comments about a built-in recorder in Hoover’s office for use on occasions when he needed to preserve what was said” (Sanders 1989: 1233). On the 25th of March, 1964, the historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, a confidant of John F. Kennedy, noted in his diary that, over an informal lunch, Kennedy’s former secretary Evelyn Lincoln had told him about the recordings of Johnson’s telephone calls: “Evelyn Lincoln told me at luncheon that all LBJ’s phone talks are taken down on tape. They are immediately transcribed by the girls in her office and then given to the President the first thing in the morning, so he can see what he said. What a treasure for the historian! And what a threat to the rational and uninhibited conduct of government” (Schlesinger 2007: 225). Schlesinger’s statement poses two central history of knowledge and media studies questions concerning the Presidential Tapes: the question of their historiographic value and the question of their governmental function, which I will examine later.

Suspicious notations

Historians’ examinations of the Presidential Tapes in the 1980s were initially based on personal recollections from contemporary witnesses and concentrated on the disclosure of the Nixon Tapes by Alexander Butterfield in the context of the Watergate scandal. The modern, liberal political understanding that has since developed is led by the idea of open government with an inherent and substantial parallel world formed by the secret services (Horn 2007: 126-129). By definition, secret services operate in a secret sphere removed from the insight and control of public institutions, which is why they have become a popular topic for fiction and conspiracy theories. That historiography has dealt extensively with the moment of disclosure in the 1980s can be explained precisely with this ambiguity of modern political understanding: By focusing on the moment of exposure, transparency was to be returned to priority status. The terms “disclosure” and “exposure” have different social positions: While “disclosure” implies a deliberate act to create transparency, set in motion by an actor themselves, “exposure” is an act of investigation and scandalizing by those who were not directly involved.

At the time of Alexander Butterfield’s hearing before the Senate Watergate Committee, the possibility that Nixon could have used a secret recording system had already been established in political discourse through fiction and rumors. As concluded from the conflicting memories of those involved, around fifteen years after Watergate, the exposure itself was made possible once a suspicion was established that had been put forward ex post by various contemporary witnesses and drew on a difference between recording conversations in writing and on tape.

Scott Armstrong had documents from the White House that listed and summarized conversations between Richard Nixon and his legal advisor John Dean (Nixon’s confidant and designated scapegoat who then turned against him). In Donald Sanders’ memory, this moment in which a hunch turned to certainty consolidates the sense of foreboding: “It would be logical to question how they have been constructed. Of course, they could have been put together immediately after a meeting by personal recollections and reference to notes. But there was another dimension to the quality of those summaries, it seemed to me, I couldn’t put my finger on it, but they had a measure of precision that went beyond those possibilities. […] As the minutes passed, I felt a growing certainty that the summaries had to have been made from a verbatim recording” (Sanders 1989: 1232). Sanders justifies his suspicion with the hyper-detailed notation of ephemeral conversations.

In Scott Armstrong’s memory, at some point the hearing turned to office routines and Nixon’s extensive memo practices and the question of how such detailed summaries could have been made of conversations between Dean and Nixon. Armstrong presents himself as a tenacious interviewer in pursuit of the truth whose unrelenting questioning forces Butterfield to make his momentous statement: “‘But that is where this must come from’, Butterfield said, glancing frantically from one to another of us in the room to see if we had previously known what he was talking about. ‘There is a tape in each of the president’s offices.’ Butterfield continued, ‘It is kept by the Secret Service, and only four men know about it. Dean had no way of knowing about it. He was just guessing.’ You do know about it, don’t you; someone else must have told you about it?’ Butterfield asked. ‘Yes’, I said, lying” (Armstrong 1989: 1241). From this poker game of knowing and bluffing, the Watergate Committee developed a strategy to secure the tapes and establish whether any were missing or had been manipulated or destroyed: “The staff reasoned, the president would be accountable for tampering with evidence of constitutional magnitude” (Armstrong 1989: 1242).

Medium of power


It could be argued that the Nixon Tapes were used to generate evidence in the Senate’s Watergate investigations. The medium’s material properties (tape recording) mean that manipulation is an inherent characteristic; the committee therefore hoped to have a secret means of convicting Nixon of political manipulation (the wiretapping unfathomable to his employees and the public) and bringing him to his knees. Nixon too considered using the tapes as evidence of his innocence, as Alexander Butterfield suggested in his concluding statements before the Senate Watergate Committee, which were broadcast on television: “This matter which we have discussed here today, I think, is precisely the substance on which the president plans to present his defense” (Armstrong 1989: 1244). This was a miscalculation, as Scott Armstrong emphasizes in his concluding recollections: “However, the president ended up spending more energy over the next thirteen months defending the tapes than using them in his defense” (Armstrong 1989: 1244). Clearly, a medium of technical manipulation used in secret turned out to be a poor choice for exonerating a political manipulator.

Responding to Donald Sanders’ question about the recording medium, Alexander Butterfield uttered his now-famous sentence: “I hoped you all wouldn’t ask that question” (Conversations 1989: 1256). Butterfield explained the moment that the secret recording system was revealed in Richard Nixon’s offices ex post with an unconscious eagerness to bring the weeks of hearings to an end (Conversations 1989: 1257). He linked the disclosure with the idea of overcoming a “logjam,” presenting himself in retrospect as the agent who brought about the decision. But perhaps we can suggest that Butterfield took on a role similar to the Emperor’s child in Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytale The Emperor’s New Clothes, saying that which everyone must have been thinking but nobody dared to say: That spying techniques had long been practiced in secret in the Oval Office.

In a summary written for the release of the Nixon Tapes, H. R. Haldeman – Richard Nixon’s Chief of Staff and Alexander Butterfield’s superior – addressed the set-up and use of the taping system by Nixon in February 1971 (Haldeman 1988). According to Haldeman, nobody knew about the taping system apart from Nixon, Haldeman and his colleagues Lawrence Higby, Alexander Butterfield and his successor Stephen B. Bull, and neither Henry Kissinger, John Ehrlichman, John Dean nor other famous and unknown personalities who came in and out of the Oval Office were aware of the system. Haldeman emphasizes that he actually forgot about the system and in the end was unsure whether it even still worked: “I dispatched someone to test the machinery. But the worry quickly passed, as did any awareness at all that Nixon’s conversations – my conversations, often – were being taped, I think Nixon lost his awareness of the system even more quickly than I did” (Haldman 1988: 86).

The wiretapping system could be viewed as an acoustic panopticon in line with Michel Foucault (Foucault 1977: 258-263). However, this analogy works only to a certain extent: First, the effect of Bentham’s panopticon lies in the creation of visible staging that serves to construct and maintain a relationship of power. The observed do not know whether or when they are being watched but are aware of the possibility; it is inherent in the architecture itself and represented visually. These characteristics of a visual/architectural panopticon are not presented in Nixon’s secret and invisible system because only a small circle of people (contemporary witnesses speak of five to eight confidants) were aware of the situation. However, the wiretapping system had perhaps the greatest effect on those who both observed and were observed, those who knew of its existence, something Haldeman also addresses. “I sometimes ask myself if I would have said some things differently if I had consciously considered the fact that my words are being taped. [...] The obvious answer is ‘Yes, of course.’ But my confidence that the tapes were never going to be heard by anyone except Nixon and myself was so great that I really do suspect I would have pushed any incipient worry about disclosure aside and spoken just as I did” (Haldeman 1988: 86-87). Haldeman fails to take into account that, ultimately, Nixon’s power of control over his tapes is always in danger, as is his power of government. Furthermore, Haldeman does not consider the question of how the disclosure in July 1973 could have influenced all future conversations in circles of power, as everyone concerned would now have to assume that their voices could be recorded at any time and that the prospect of secret recording removes any unconditional trust that what is said will not leave the room.

While a liberal understanding of politics demands governmental transparency, some leftists also criticize this gesture of disclosure and defend the notion of secrecy: With regard to Wikileaks, Slavoj Žižek argues that the act of disclosure does not necessarily result in a revelation (“Didn’t we learn exactly what we expected to learn?”) (Žižek 2011) and that ruling in secret can sometimes be a useful governmental technique. Žižek criticized the WikiLeaks discourse of the “freedom of information” as a false attribution of power: “However, it is a mistake to assume that revealing the entirety of what has been secret will liberate us. The premise is wrong. Truth liberates, yes, but not this truth. Of course one cannot trust the façade, the official documents, but neither do we find truth in the gossip shared behind that façade” (Žižek 2011). He issued a plea for “the polite rituals of pretended ignorance,” arguing that gestures of politeness were important in defusing the Cuban crisis. Kennedy’s pretense that he had not received Khrushchev’s letter ofescalating demands, and Khrushchev’s pretense that he believed him, allowed a dangerous situation to be deescalated. Knowing that media exist that can store and potentially disseminate messages makes it impossible to speak off the record.



Ultimately, tape’s role as a medium of manipulation was also used against Nixon, who had to defend himself against allegations of cutting 18.5 central minutes from the tapes. On 29 April 1974, Nixon still believed that he would be able to use the privacy argument to prevent the tapes from being confiscated and escape the publication of transcripts of his tapes (Nixon 1974). 

Figure 3: Richard M. Nixon press conference releasing the transcripts of the White House tapes (1974). The Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum (National Archives and Records Administration), White House Photo Office collection.

He believed that providing written evidence would be sufficient and refused to acknowledge that these recordings had become a burden: “These transcripts will show that what I have stated from the beginning to be truth. [...] The materials I make public tomorrow will provide all the additional evidence needed to get Watergate behind us and to get it behind us now” (Nixon 1974). Nixon tried to present himself as a guardian of transparency: “Never before in the history of the Presidency have records that are so private been made so public” (Nixon 1974). The Supreme Court’s decision in July 1974 that Nixon should hand 64 tapes to the Special Prosecutor for Watergate was only the beginning of Nixon’s loss of power. The impeachment process was opened shortly after he lost control of the tapes. On 9 August 1974, Nixon resigned from office.

The Supreme Court’s decision also initiated the handover of the Nixon Tapes to NARA and their historical appraisal, which included Kennedy’s and Johnson’s recordings, discovered in the aftermath of Watergate. The NARA archivists decided not to produce transcripts of the tapes, but to focus on analyzing and archiving the tapes themselves: “The Libraries consider the record to be the tape itself”[2] (Powers 1996).

Figure 4: An Uher 5000 next to a Sony TC-800B (Year unknown). The Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum (National Archives and Records Administration). Photo by Michael Carter.

Figure 5 and 6: Audiovisual Preservation Specialist Bill Cowell (a NARA employee), demonstrating the work of cutting out the personal conversations from the Nixon Tapes (1998). The Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum (National Archives and Records Administration). Photo by Michael Carter.

This analysis work included procuring and repairing old devices to play the tapes and removing sequences pertaining to personal rights or national security. The “tape reviewers,” as the archivists entrusted with the tapes were known, had to understand the content of the conversations in order to fulfil these requirements. Samuel W. Rushay, who spent ten years reviewing the Nixon Tapes, praises the “immediacy” of history, although he does not acknowledge that this was only made possible by tape-based communication: “There is an immediacy to the tapes, they give the listener a sense of experiencing history as it happens. One becomes a ‘fly on the wall’ eavesdropping in the White House as decisions are made and history unfolds” (Rushay 2007).

The analysis also included documenting the history of recordings made by American presidents before Nixon. The governments of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Dwight D. Eisenhower and Harry S. Truman used the recording devices only sporadically. Roosevelt recorded some press conferences in the 1940s using the RCA procedure developed by the film industry in the 1920s for sound movies. Roosevelt began recording in the autumn of 1940, and as someone who was constantly at loggerheads with the press for misrepresenting his statements, it is possible he thought these recordings would be a remedy against disagreeable journalists. The tapes might be interpreted as Roosevelt’s attempt to counteract misquotations and criticism and take control of his press conferences. The President should have the final say, not the press.

The use of taping technology in the White House changed with John F. Kennedy’s presidency. Kennedy used a dictaphone that he had connected to his telephone. In 1962, secret service employees installed various hidden microphones in the Oval Office and the cabinet rooms; these were connected to a recording device in the basement. Recording was controlled via a switch in the President’s desk. Kennedy recorded around 300 meetings that are stored on 127 reels and last for 248 hours. It seems that nobody knew about this apart from the President, his secretary and two or three staff members familiar with the installation of the system. The system was removed by Kennedy’s staff after his assassination. Kennedy’s secretary, Evelyn Lincoln, looked after the tapes and began to transcribe them immediately.

Lyndon B. Johnson’s earliest telephone recordings arose from his time as Vice President under Kennedy. After Kennedy was assassinated and Johnson inaugurated in November 1963, he extended recording systems to include the entire Oval Office and his ranch. He either pressed the record button himself, or his secretary did it for him.

Secret acoustic recordings are invisible by nature. The official photographs available online of Johnson’s Presidential Library do not include any images of the secret taping technology. But Johnson’s love of being photographed with communication technology would fit in very well with his established “love of gadgetry” (Haldeman 1988: 80). The pictures from the Oval Office show a president surrounded by communication devices, with telegraphs, telephones and televisions, a president who constantly communicates and has a handle on technology and media – quite literally.

Figure 7: President Lyndon B. Johnson's telephone (1966). The Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library, White House Photo Office collection. LBJ Library photo by Yoichi Okamoto.

One photograph shows Johnson’s hand touching a telephone with a dial and buttons. This gesture is deeply embedded in art history and well-known from portraits of monarchs: The master’s hand touches the media technology that allows him to control his space, be it a globe, a map or a telephone. Looking at the official images from the Oval Office (e.g. Johnson sitting at his desk and talking on the phone with his back to the camera, surrounded by employees turned toward the camera), we experience a creeping, oppressive sense that the most important device is absent: the secret taping system.

Figure 8: President Lyndon B. Johnson’s head above the back of his chair as he talks on the Phone (1964). NARA, College Park MA, RG 306–PSE. Records of the United States Information Agency.

What is haunting is that Johnson’s voice on the telephone, which could not be recorded by the photographic camera but was recorded on tape as the photo was taken, can now be accessed online. The pictorial and acoustic recordings produced simultaneously can be recombined by the observer.

Musical Commentary by Lucas Niggli, Take 53 (Kopfhörer (Quelle) in Innenraum der Trommel gelegt, Mikrophon aufs Fell. Nach 1.25 plus Fingerkuppen auf rauem Holzkorpus der Trommel), Uster/CH: Dec. 21, 2016.

Nevertheless, the Johnson Library does contain a picture showing a recording device being used.

Figure 9: Lady Bird Johnson recording the day's events (1968). The Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library, White House Photo Office collection. LBJ Library photo by Robert Knudsen.

This is a recording made by Lady Bird Johnson in 1968, the last year of Johnson’s presidency. The public criticism levelled at Johnson during the Vietnam War made re-election unlikely, and he did not run as a candidate. Lady Bird Johnson dictated her diary onto tapes in the White House. The picture shows a woman in a living room using tape recording technology, the kind of scene described in the 1960 BASF brochure. In terms of iconography, this is the same type of image as shown in the 1960 Grundig brochure.

Figure 10: Brochure of Grundig (1960). Schweizerisches Wirtschaftsarchiv, Basel, WiSWA H + I Bg 1185 (BroGrundig und sein Werk. Ein Leistungsbericht, Grundig: Nürnberg, pp. 47.

The images of Lady Bird Johnson and the unknown woman in the Grundig brochure show secretarial technology for use at home. These are harmless, private scenes staged for the public that could, however, be suspected of aiding obfuscation, given the unseen, secret scenarios playing out in the White House.



While the historical focus on the Presidential Tapes in the 1980s revolved around memories of the Nixon Tapes disclosure, the 1990s were shaped by projects to extensively edit the tapes of Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon (Beschloss 1997; Kutler 1997; May and Zelikow 1997), digitize the tapes and set up the Presidential Recordings Program at the Miller Center, University of Virginia, in 1998, where the released tapes can be streamed or downloaded in MP3 and WFA format. From a history of knowledge and media studies perspective, the true essence of these editions can be found in the prologues and editor’s note, the only sections to reflect on how the presidents handled the recording technologies or to examine the procedures used to edit and recondition the tapes.

The Kennedy Tapes edition promises to transport readers of the transcripts to the scene of the action; at least, this is what the title “Inside the White House During the Cuban Crisis” suggests (May and Zelikow 1997). The Kennedy Tapes consist almost exclusively of recorded meetings. The publishers of the edition emphasize that the few transcripts of telephone conversations have been omitted because they are apparently irrelevant; Kennedy assumed that his telephone conversations would be monitored: “Kennedy seldom discussed sensitive matters over telephone lines that might have been tapped by foreign government or by the FBI” (May and Zelikow 1997: x). The archivists and historians who focused on John F. Kennedy’s tapes express the suspicion that Kennedy used the recording technology for his memoirs. If we pursue this interpretation, we could describe the Kennedy Tapes as a memo technique for one’s own historiography, or as an intended or unintended act of transmission to future generations. The first possibility was rendered obsolete by Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, the second by the publication of the Kennedy Tapes in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal (See also Powers 1996).

Some of the tapes are of very poor quality because the microphones were placed too far from the conversations to generate comprehensible recordings. The publishers of the transcripts therefore engaged court reporters from Atlantic Transcriptions Inc. and an audio forensics expert to improve the tapes’ sound quality (May and Zelikow 1997: xiii). The audio forensics expert reconditioned the tapes before they were transcribed by court stenographers and supplemented by employees of the Kennedy Library. Therefore, the sound sources and their transcripts are heavily edited and no longer authentic historical records.

One example of a taped conversation held by John F. Kennedy in November 1962 in Cuba shows the acoustic marking of passages removed by the archivists for security reasons:

Audio File 2: Kennedy Conversation, Meeting in Cuba November, 1962.

The tape, digitized in MP3 format, points to the manipulability of tapes, as emphasized by Friedrich Kittler; in this case, the manipulation was performed by the archivists. A voice announces that the passage has been removed. Editing the audio files takes a similar approach as NARA in their use of yellow sheets to indicate paper files removed “for reasons of security.”

Lyndon B. Johnson was the only president to make recordings throughout his entire presidency, sometimes sending them to his secretaries to type up in the evenings. In addition to the telephone system, there was an invisible system that branched out to the Oval Office, the lounge and the cabinet room; this was first installed in 1967 and had to be activated by Johnson or his secretary (Beschloss 1997; Powers 1997). Unlike Kennedy, it is presumed that Johnson made the recordings for direct use. After assuming office at the end of 1963, Johnson used the taping system extensively, but why the number of recordings decreased from 1965 remains a mystery. There are suggestions that Johnson, a control freak who excessively controlled his recorded conversations early in his term and often wanted to listen to or read them immediately afterwards, was later seized by a rising fear of leaks and obsessed with the prospect of the system being discovered. This brings back memories of the wiretapping specialist Harry Caul, protagonist in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1974 film “The Conversation,” who increasingly falls victim to his own paranoia (Coppola 1974).

Excessively used and switched on/off, the system sometimes got away from President Johnson and his secretary. The tape continued to run even if no conversations were taking place.

Alternative (extended) excerpt of LBJ speaking filtered by a reciprocal mp3-filter (CBR 256) by Hannes Seidl.

Musical Commentary by Lucas Niggli, wie ein kaputtes Funkgerät, Take 52 (Trommel auf Kopfhörer gestellt mit Fell nach unten, dann mit Mikrophon in den Innenraum der Trommel, versch. Distanzen zum Fell), Uster/CH: Dec. 21, 2016.

Various audio files contain machine noise. The device records signals, regardless of their origin. It is interesting that this machine noise has been made available to the public and was not cut out. Unintended soundscapes created by taping devices in 1964 have been preserved for posterity (Schafer 1994).

In 1998, the Journal of American History published Bruce Schulman’s readable review of the editing projects in book form (Schulman 1998). Following a euphoric reception in the press and enthusiastic statements from the editors that the transcripts are more than regular historiography – “the reader will experience it not only as history but drama” (May and Zelikow 1997) – Schulman presented his opinion that a study of the tapes would not require the history of the Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon presidencies to be rewritten (Schulman 1998: 576). He argued from the perspective of classic source criticism, according to which “tapes” would not speak for themselves and would require contextualization. Contrary to Haldeman’s statements that he and Nixon sometimes forgot the system existed, Schulman advocated the opinion that the presidents oversaw the use of the tapes: “Kennedy turned the equipment on and off with a switch, preserving only those moments he desired. [...] Johnson and Nixon knew the tapes were running” (Schulman 1998: 576). He criticizes the editions because the transcripts apparently did not express enough verbal character (dialect, sound, changing volume, etc.) and warns historians against both the transcripts and the audio documents: “Americans have largely embraced this technology, historians would do well to resist it” (Schulman 1998: 578).

Schulman was responding to a veritable boom in the White House Tapes outside academic historiography and within the context of Public History. The John F. Kennedy Library website contains an interactive photo of Kennedy’s officeVisitors can search for the microphones, press the on/off button and uncover the secrets of the tapes. The website is designed for immersion and identification, suggesting a game with an imagined reversal of power and the virtual staging of transparency.

Such forms of Public History, and the Presidential Recordings Program in general, revitalize the historical understanding of these great men who shaped the course of history. They also foster an idea that sources from the supposed circles of power are central to the analysis of power. Richard Harris, a journalist from ABC News who also produced a miniseries on the White House Tapes, confessed to being deeply impressed by Johnson’s voice and “his power to persuade” (Schulman 1998: 575).

In January 2000, the first tranche of Nixon Tapes were brought to market by the Cutting Corporation in Washington DC, priced at $18 for one 30-minute cassette (Lardner 2000). Super 8 film material confiscated by the FBI in connection with the Watergate investigation has now also been made available. Clearly, the creation of the tapes is to be viewed in a multimedia setting. At Richard Nixon’s request, his staff (Bob Haldeman, John Ehrlichman and Dwight Chapin) made Super 8 films in the Oval Office and on trips to document the President at work. Documentary filmmaker Penny Lane has used this Super 8 material, together with the taped material now available and television and archival recordings, to create a found-footage movie that addresses the genre of home movies (Lane 2013). The 2013 documentary Our Nixon also features tape recordings of a conversation between President Nixon and Alexander Butterfield, the man who first mentioned the secret tapes during the Watergate hearing. The recording is clearly a system test performed in February 1971 (Lane 2013: 18.19-22.04).

Public access to once private and secret film and tape recordings opens up filmic possibilities for the presidential documentary genre, addressing the demand stimulated by the series The West Wing and House of Cards for narrative insights into the corridors of power. Penny Lake’s documentary Our Nixon integrates many excerpts of conversations from the Nixon Tapes into its voiceover. The film also contains Super 8 sequences of Nixon’s telephone, while off-screen a recorded conversation plays between President Nixon and Alexander Butterfield, the man who first mentioned the secret tapes during the Watergate hearing (Lane 2013). Butterfield informs Nixon that the system has no on/off button and is automatically activated by voices. Finally, Nixon tells his employee his vision for archiving the tapes: “This is totally to put in the file, in my file. I don’t want it in your file or Bobby’s or anybody else’s. My file [...] There may be a day where we have to have this” (Lane 2013: 19.55).

The tapes became his files faster than Nixon imagined. During the Watergate scandal they became the “Nixon Tapes” and ultimately no longer Nixon’s tapes, but the tapes that documented Nixon’s abuse of power. The tapes may have removed the ephemerality of the conversations, but he could still have reversed this process by destroying them.

Thanks to judicial release, archival analysis and digitalization, a large proportion of the Presidential Tapes are now easily accessible. While the archivists began by studying the medium and its use in detail, historiography oriented toward questions of source and edition criticism and left the examination of the tapes to Public History and filmmakers. Unfortunately, historians have so far narrowly avoided the acoustic historiography of the Presidential Tapes. However, the story of the Presidential Tapes offers excellent and (after Edward Snowden’s revelations) highly topical illustrative material for examining wiretapping as a cultural technique in the service of politics. The story of the Presidential Tapes shows that the existence of secret tape recordings has permanently shifted the culturally defined distinction between private and public with far-reaching consequences for political understanding. The clandestine use of tapes sits in a grey area between self-documentation, gadgetry, control, the politics of history and the exercising of power, which, ultimately, slipped through the fingers of its initiators. Acoustic historiography has multiple functions – associated with tape recording and therefore always including the option of wiretapping – to illuminate and ultimately to help understand the political micropower of devices.

The author would like to thank two anonymous reviewers for their critical notes and inspiring comments.



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