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LBJ speeches online first

Tapes made by Lyndon Johnson during his presidency are available online before transcripts of the conversations are published in a much-hyped book.

Reviewers ogled over a 591-page, $30 book released last month containing detailed transcripts of conversations taped by President Lyndon Baines Johnson during his first year of office.

But before the book hit the shelves, a university professor already had put some of the most riveting portions of the tapes online--unedited and in RealAudio.

The online segments allow visitors to hear with their own ears Johnson telling J. Edgar Hoover, then director of the FBI, that he wanted to avoid creating a White House commission to investigate President John F. Kennedy's assassination. Net users also can hear Johnson confiding to advisors his insecurities and anxieties about sending more troops to fight in the Vietnam War, just one year before he ordered the largest buildup of U.S. forces in the conflict.

While the media chronicled these events on television and in print articles, behind the scenes LBJ was recording history as well--secretly. Starting in 1963, he taped more than 10,000 telephone and in-person conversations that took place within the Oval Office. Michael R. Beschloss transcribed many of the conversations from Johnson's first nine months in the presidency for his book, Taking Charge: The Johnson White House Tapes, 1963-1964. The book has gained critical acclaim and piqued public interest since it came out in October.

The LBJ in the Oval Office site isn't as in-depth as Beschloss's book, but soon it will be. The site's creator, Jerry Goldman, a professor of political science at Northwestern University, said that by next summer he hopes to add 66 more Johnson tapes, covering July and August of 1964.

"It would amount to substantially more than what is in the book now," Goldman said today.

Both Beschloss's book and Goldman's site are making available material to the masses that under normal circumstances would have to be dug out of the National Archive in Washington or the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library in Austin, Texas.

Goldman's site joins others, such as NASA's Web posting of pictures from the Mars Pathfinder mission, in providing content online that is not easily found elsewhere. (See related story)

Goldman's U.S. History Out Loud is an offshoot of a separate grant-supported project called the The Challenge of Democracy: Government in America, for which he and a team of others archived on the Net more than 500 Supreme Court decisions. For his personal effort he has posted online some of Franklin D. Roosevelt's speeches and fireside chats and, most recently, Kennedy's 1962 tapes regarding the Cuban Missile Crisis. The tapes begin on October 18, four days before Kennedy announced that the Soviet Union had been constructing a secret missile base in Cuba.

Beschloss does provide context and identifies speakers throughout the book, which is something Goldman has done only on the Kennedy pages of his site.

Still, hearing these powerful men discuss their historical decisions is more intense than reading about it, Goldman insists. "For example, Johnson in the course of a day talks about the failure of a TelePrompTer during a speech and then goes on a rift about 'Negroes' wanting a black in the White House Press Office.

"That's not in the book--it's gone. To me, the story is in the tapes, not in the transcripts of the tapes," he added. "Reading can't convey the emotion that you experience in listening to the human voice. You can hear the range of issues that occupied the president's mind. You can be a fly on the wall and hear LBJ suck up to Hoover."

For the moment, Goldman's site may be the only way to really hear the secret talks. The Johnson library in Texas has no immediate plans to make the tapes available online as a slew of never-before-heard cassettes are released over the next several months.

"I think eventually we will do that, sure. Consider what it would been like for schoolchildren to hear the voice of any former president they are studying," said the library's 26-year director, Harry Middleton. About 2,500 tapes have been released so far, and the rest will blanket Johnson's entire administration.

In addition to the tapes, the library contains 45 million documents relating to the administration. Still, even Middleton admits the tapes provide an unfiltered look at who Johnson was and how he operated.

"We had always heard about what a master he was at twisting arms to get legislation through, and in some of these tapes you hear him doing this," he said. "In my own judgment the tapes are the most interesting and fascinating thing in the collection."