"A little incident in Mexico City"

In 2005 the NYT reported that the Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia was transcribing all the available recorded conversations of American Presidents. The transcripts themselves are going to be slightly sanitized to remove what are now regarded as offensive words. But you can listen to the recordings themselves at the Presidential tapes site.


Some of the most fascinating tapes are of Lyndon Johnson. However one might regard him, LBJ was a ‘colorful’ character and his attempts to cajole Democratic Senator Richard Russell into serving on Warren Commission showcase Johnson’s political style to great effect. Johnson used flattery, appeals to patriotism and menace to get Russell to serve on the Commission, in that order. The conversation is fascinating for what it suggests rather than says outright. Even the threats were delivered with great finesse. Johnson mentions how coerced the Chief Justice of the United States into serving on the Commission by mentioning a report that J. Edgar Hoover had about a “a little incident in Mexico City”. Whatever it was the incident in question had a great deal of persuasive power. Nothing more needed to be added.  Russell and Johnson shared a great deal of insider information and a common understanding of the rules and communicated in a shorthand that we plebeians even with the assistance of hindsight can only dimly understand. So without much more ado, let’s eavesdrop on LBJ.

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But how much of shared ‘insider’ dope is really true? The problem with secret knowledge is that there are very few ways of collaterally determining its validity or existence. Was there a “missile gap” in the early 1960s? For many years American policymakers, including many in the Clinton Administration, believed that Saddam Hussein had an active WMD program. Did it exist? More recently some intelligence agencies believed that Iran had halted work on its bomb program. Did it? And with regard to that “little incident in Mexico City”, how much of it really happened? “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”


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