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(CNN)Presidents today guard their privacy and their phone calls.
They claim “executive privilege” to avoid telling Congress about the advice they get and the promises they make behind closed doors.
Gone are the days of Oval Office recordings like the ones that forced President Richard Nixon to resign.
When recordings of these powerful people emerge, it can be shocking — such as with the recordings of President Donald Trump pressuring officials in Georgia to “find” votes to overturn the 2020 election results.
Another example is when President Barack Obama was caught on an open mic telling then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev he’d have more space to negotiate after the 2012 election.
The secrecy today’s presidents seek might seem to protect their careers, but it also leaves everyone else to guess at what’s really going through their minds.
That’s why it is so fascinating to hear the recorded conversations of previous presidents, like Lyndon B. Johnson.
There’s a trove of these recordings, and many are featured in CNN’s upcoming four-part series on Johnson.
Watch it: “LBJ: Triumph and Tragedy” reveals dramatic firsthand accounts from the last surviving members of President Johnson’s inner circle and never-before-broadcast archival material. The series premieres over two consecutive nights with back-to-back episodes on Sunday, February 20, at 9 p.m. and 10 p.m. ET and Monday, February 21, at 9 p.m. and 10 p.m. ET on CNN.
A masterful politician — Nixon called him one of the top three of the 20th century — Johnson used a public unified by grief over the assassination of John F. Kennedy to pass civil rights legislation and build the Great Society platform. He also helped plunge the country into Vietnam, a war he knew 11 years before it ended was unwinnable and a situation he described as a “mess.”
He is described by an aide in the documentary as using the N-word talking to Southern Democrats opposed to civil rights legislation, but then also hatching an elaborate plan to engineer the appointment of the first Black Supreme Court justice, Thurgood Marshall — in part to, as he said, “do this job Lincoln started.”
Not even people intimately involved in the civil rights effort knew the lengths to which Johnson went or the things he considered doing.
The documentary interviews associates of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who describe waiting for hours at the White House just after King won the Nobel Peace Prize and Johnson won the election in 1964, only to be told Johnson would not be able to pass a voting rights bill.
They had seen his national security team leaving the Oval Office as they waited, and knew he was turning to focus on escalating the war in Vietnam rather than a new civil rights bill.
“My feeling was that this wasn’t the President Johnson I had seen in action and that I knew,” says Andrew Young in the documentary. He was King’s confidant and later the US Ambassador to the United Nations and then mayor of Atlanta. “This was a President Johnson that — they had been beating up on him. He was tired and he was worn. And there was no fire in him. We were asking President Johnson to try to pass a voting rights act.”
Making no promises to King and his advisers, Johnson in fact told them he couldn’t help.
“Johnson, he says, ‘Well, look, I’ve done all I –‘ you know. ‘I’ve got my hands full with the Vietnam War,’ blah blah blah blah. He says, ‘I don’t have the power to do that,'” says Clarence Jones, King’s attorney, in the documentary.
But Johnson was actually still hard at work. The documentary’s producers also unearthed a recording from four days before Johnson’s meeting with King in which he considered deputizing postmasters to register 100% of the US population to vote. He urged his attorney general to find a way around states that would oppose it.
He didn’t say a word to King or his associates.
“My God. I mean it’s unbelievable. If there ever was exhibit A of being a masterful politician, that was it,” Jones says after hearing the recording for the first time.
“I wish we had known that. I had not heard that. But that was before we got there,” Young says.
The plan never came to be, and it has echoes in the failed effort this year by Democrats to pass a new national voting standard.
Why wouldn’t Johnson just bring King in on his idea?
“He is keeping that up his sleeve, because he wants Martin Luther King to put it all out there for this cause,” says the historian Mark Updegrove in the documentary. “He wants him to think that it’s all on him.”
And ultimately, it was the continued activism of the civil rights movement, along with the violent response of Southern states, that cleared the way for the Voting Rights Act, which Johnson signed into law in August 1965.