July 21, 2009


Did Kennedy want to invade Vietnam? What did Johnson believe about Martin Luther King? Was Nixon a crook? What did Blair make of Bush? All those questions to some extent or another have been answered for posterity by tapes- by recordings taken at the time of Presidents and Prime Ministers, their aides and acolytes and even enemies talking to each other. Tapes therefore have become the stuff of political history- most famously of course in the case of Nixon the stuff both of politics and history. On Andrew Sullivan's blog, someone raises the point that apparantly various statements on the Nixon tapes have been rewritten in official records. I have not listened to the relevant sections of the tape- but I am sure that there will be things in those tapes that over time we come to realise were not what people at the time or closer to the time believed them to be. We are overhearing conversations and one of the points about overheard conversations is that they tend to be misheard- chinese whispers is a game based on mishearing and I am sure that there is a lot of that in history using audio as there is misreading in history using text. To take an example, Eamon Duffy made a very interesting discovery when he suggested that a manuscript whose first editor had read the words 'sent Denys ys camp' actually read 'sent Davids ys camp'- surprising it may seem to readers but the first set of words is innocuous, the second a confession of treason. We should expect over time and as people study the tapes more produced by the powerful for mishearings to be corrected or adjusted and for interpretations to change: the scepticism on Sullivan's blog notwithstanding, audio sources just like written sources are open to interpretation and controversy not only to discover the importance of what they say, but also to discover what they actually do say.


James Higham said...

Nixon referred to the Warren Report as a work of fiction.

sulla said...

I totally agree with the post i'd add two other big problems in interpetation such evidence. ONe is that one has a tendency to assume that a politican is more honest in private but the reverse can easily be true. They may be letting off steam, trying to mislead, pactify or terrify people etc off the record does not necessarily mean more truthfull than in public.

Secondly we have a lot of recording from some presidents , Senators etc (one of the biggest blow to modern american histoians is nixon getting caught- which has probaby ended the previous tendency to record more and more). But we have none of others which means that for example a lot of Nixon's uniqueness may be becuase we do not have direct records of other presidents. Furthermore what records we do have are selective, Johnson could easily switch off his tapes- Nixon had his automatically (due to being clumsy) there's a big difference in how one treats such evidence , it's not completely comparable.

James Higham said...

Forgive this OT promotion but please support Man in a Shed’s “Silly Week” next week. Logos are available at his site.

Gracchi said...

James I would- though I am away next week- Sulla will have to oblige.

Don't know about the Warren Report.

Sulla- agree entirely with your added qualifications.