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Voice from another time

By Brian Williams, Anchor and managing editor

I'm fortunate to have a lot of hobbies and interests, among them Presidential history -- and among the many sub-sets of that, the Presidency of Lyndon Johnson.  He was the first President that I was truly aware of, and perhaps because of his physical size and bearing -- I grew up thinking he was the archetypical President -- and of course there's no such thing.  He was just one of them (one of eleven in my lifetime thus far) but Johnson was such a fascinating creature.  The historian Robert Dallek might have chosen the perfect two-word book title to sum up LBJ, "Flawed Giant."

I've made it my goal, starting years ago, to listen to all of the recorded phone calls -- hundreds of hours of them -- released over time by the LBJ Library.  Just this morning I listened to several, dating back to the immediate aftermath of the assassination of Robert Kennedy.  President Johnson calls, among others, Ted Sorenson and Ted Kennedy, to offer condolences and help.  He calls the head of the Secret Service and orders that all candidates for office be given a security detail -- this notion, commonplace today, was unheard of back then.  In fact, there were so few available Secret Service agents, the Government has to scramble and improvise -- in some cases, MP's were used, in other cases, FBI Agents and Agents from the Bureau of Alcohol and Tax Control are dispatched to protect various politicians and their families.  At one point someone mentions that an ailing former President Eisenhower is flying into town, and officials plan "to have a man with him."

The tapes are fascinating and transporting.  President Johnson initially wanted to wait 50 -- as many as 100 years after his death before releasing them, or portions of them.  But he was overruled in death by his widow, the late Lady Bird, and by former LBJ Library director Harry Middleton.  As Johnson Biographer Michael Beschloss put it in his superb first volume accompanying selected tapes, the only thing worse than the possibility of someone hearing something they didn't like from the mouth of the former President -- would have been for LBJ to be forgotten entirely. No chance of that.

We hope you can join us for tonight's broadcast.