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Feb 20, 2005 8:39 pm


Presidential Tapes



For several years, I worked as an associate with the Presidential Recordings Project at the Miller Center for Public Affairs. I am no longer affiliated with the Center, but remain strongly supportive of its efforts, and not just regarding the tapes project. Two volumes of LBJ tapes that I co-edited will be published by W.W. Norton this spring; two more of my co-edited LBJ volumes will come out with Norton next year; and I’ve finished a book on the 1964 presidential election in part based on the tapes.

The HNN homepage contains an article by Sheldon Stern, the leading critic of the Cuban Missile Crisis volume published several years ago by Ernest May and Philip Zelikow; and Max Holland, probably the most knowledgeable person alive on the Warren Commission. Holland worked with the Miller Center during my time there, although, since we were both off-site, I didn’t know him very well. His time at the center focused on transcribing the LBJ and Air Force One tapes between November 22, 1963 and November 30, 1963; he is the editor of the November 1963 volume that is appearing this spring.

One broad point about the Holland/Stern article before discussing the piece more generally. The Miller Center has utilized the highest in audio high-tech to decipher the tapes, with the work done by historians trained in US postwar political and diplomatic history. Several historians listen to every tape before a transcript ultimately is produced. On the other hand, the first volume of selected LBJ transcripts published by Michael Beschloss relied heavily on calls that were initially transcribed at the time by LBJ’s secretaries, and (as far as I know) Beschloss did not employ additional historians to check his transcripts before publication. That the Holland/Stern article compares the work of the Miller Center to that of Beschloss—indeed, that Holland and Stern claim that the problems with Beschloss’ work are “very similar” to those that they discern with the Miller Center—raises grave concerns about the authors’ objectivity.

The article offers two general areas of criticism: errors in transcripts and questions about style of transcription. Producing a perfect several-hundred page volume of transcripts is impossible. There always will be a word, a phrase, or a background interjection that a 20th listener will catch that the previous 19 listeners did not hear. The goal must be to create a system that minimizes the likelihood of mistakes, corrects them when they do occur, guards against any errors on critical matters, cautions specialists on the topic that they should listen to the tapes themselves to double-check the accuracy of the transcripts, and seeks constantly to improve.

Given the inherent imperfections of the process, however, what should be done when a figure like Stern comes forward to identify errors? As the Miller Center project’s director, Tim Naftali, has observed, simply because an outside scholar claims that errors exist in the transcript does not make it so. It turns out that many of the “errors” cited by Stern in the Miller Center transcripts were, in fact, accurately transcribed.

In an ideal world, there would be several competing centers producing volumes of transcripts, and the scholarly community could then judge which center’s transcripts were most accurate. And in an ideal world, every professor, undergraduate, or member of the general public with any interest in the political or diplomatic history of the 1960s would listen to the tapes rather than read volumes of transcripts. In the real world, I don’t see anyplace other than the Miller Center lining up to perform the task of transcription, and doubt that many people have the time or energy to listen to tapes regularly. I have seen nothing in critiques by Stern or anyone else to suggest that the first three Kennedy Tapes volumes are anything but a reliable, and enormously valuable, historical resource.

In their second major area of criticism, Holland and Stern complain about improper subjectivity in the transcribing process, focusing on: (1) verbal debris and (2) spoken vernacular. May and Zelikow, in their preface to their original Cuban Missile Crisis tapes book, stated, “What we omit are the noncommunicative fragments that we believe those present would have filtered out for themselves. We believe that this gives the reader a truer sense of the actual dialogue as the participants themselves understood it.” Such editing, Holland and Stern contend, is “very problematic.”

Stern and Holland offer no alternative transcribing strategy, but they imply that historians should reproduce every utterance, pause, or other type of verbal debris on the tapes. (Any other approach, presumably, would lead to “very problematic” subjective editing.) Yet such a court-reporter style would produce transcripts littered with “uhs” or other verbal tics and distracting comments (a 0.6 second pause occurred here, an unidentified figure drew in his breath there). Volumes created along these lines would render the transcribed conversations much less comprehensible than the original spoken version.

Moreover, the Stern/Holland article suggests a false dichotomy on this issue where one does not exist: a transcript can (and should) include verbal debris that seems relevant while filtering out that which seems likely to have been filtered out by the listeners to the conversation. Does this mean that the process is subjective? Yes. But it also seems to me that the subjectivity involved is a reasonable one.

The Stern/Holland criticism of transcribing vernacular poses a similarly false dichotomy. “If LBJ lapses into his most Southern dialect,” they note, “and that is reflected in the transcript, does he risk being portrayed as some character out of a Mark Twain novel? Alternately, does it misrepresent LBJ to render him speaking the King’s English when he demonstrably does not?”

An obvious middle ground exists between these two extremes: transcribing in American English (I’ve never encountered any transcriber who has maintained that Johnson or anyone else should be transcribed as if they were speaking the “King’s English”) with bracketed commentary from the transcriber (i.e., “speaking in a heavy Southern drawl,” “repeatedly stuttering” or “seeming nervous,” “speaking coolly” or “with a sharp interjection,” “articulating his words in pronounced Brahmin tones,” etc.). Such an approach faithfully, and sensibly, recreates the conversation, while also ensuring that the reader of the volume can understand what was being said.

As in their remarks about verbal debris, Stern and Holland offer no alternative transcribing strategy regarding vernacular, but they imply that historians should transcribe aurally rather than grammatically. Having made such a decision, however, the transcriber has to go all the way. The most pronounced dialect I’ve encountered on the LBJ tapes came from labor leader David Dubinsky, a New York City Jew who spoke with a heavy Jewish accent. Douglas Dillon employs the ultimate Brahmin accent. Richard Daley has the earthy intonations of Midwestern ethnics. Arguing for transcribing Southerners, but not figures from other parts of the country, in local dialect would result in volumes portraying Southerners—to borrow one of LBJ’s phrases—as “corn pones."

In the end, Holland and Stern base their critique on two flawed premises. First, they miss the transcript volumes’ intended target—which are not court reporters in training, seeking a model for how to transcribe every sound that occurs; or professors in English or Speech departments who specialize in the dialects of 1960s America or the speech patterns of figures in power. Transcripts should be geared toward those in the academy and the general public who want to learn more about the political, diplomatic, and institutional history of the United States between 1962 and 1973. Producing volumes that would compel such an audience to feel as if they are working their way through a Faulkner novel to understand what was being said means that the transcription process will be of little use.

Second, Stern and Holland misunderstand the function of a transcript, which is not to put down on paper every sound recorded on tape but to reproduce, to the best of the historian’s ability, the conversation as it would have been understood by the participants at the time. Such an approach means erring on the side of caution when deciding not to transcribe verbal debris, but at the same time recognizing the times in which an “uh” or an “um” was nothing more than a verbal tic that the listener would have filtered out.

Since Holland and Stern seem to like the either/or approach, I’ll end with one of my own: if I had to choose between a transcript volume produced under their guidelines and the strategy that has been employed by the Miller Center, it would take me less than, say, 0.6 seconds to decide.

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Sheldon M. Stern - 2/20/2006

KC Johnson wrote above:
"Given the inherent imperfections of the process, however, what should be done when a figure like Stern comes forward to identify errors? As the Miller Center project’s director, Tim Naftali, has observed, simply because an outside scholar claims that errors exist in the transcript does not make it so. It turns out that many of the “errors” cited by Stern in the Miller Center transcripts were, in fact, accurately transcribed."

I urge readers to look at the February 3, 2006 Miller Center update that accepts a substantial majority of my corrections.
Sheldon M. Stern


Robert KC Johnson - 2/20/2005

Yes, although for 1966 and especially 1967, LBJ taped much, much less. He started taping in full force again only in 1968, and there are more hours of tapes for his final year in office than any other, except perhaps for 1964. (All of the 1968 material hasn't yet been released.)


Ed Schmitt - 2/20/2005

Thanks for your insights. Will any of the forthcoming volumes be getting into the years 1966-68? I'm very interested in Johnson's reactions to Robert Kennedy's emergence as a critic on the poverty issue.


Ralph E. Luker - 2/20/2005

Right. I suspect that it will be some years before we know the full answer to that question. Some years ago (I recall it as the mid-1970s), some of the civil rights leaders sought and won a federal court order sealing at least a large part of the FBI material for an extended period of time. My recollection, which may be incorrect, is that it was to extend for 50 years, so it may be two decades before we know.
Whether the King Papers Project expects to hold out until then, I don't know; but there could be other reasons, as well, why the KPP in its current incarnation might close down for the time being at about 1960. It could be because the family is trying to market the sale of the documents in its possession and they are primarily post-1960 documents. To a substantial degree, the published volumes would have "gutted" the research value of the collection at Boston University and largely left untouched the collection of King documents in the family's possession.


Robert KC Johnson - 2/20/2005

One wonders exactly how much material was one stored away in the FBI archives . . .


Ralph E. Luker - 2/20/2005

I think undoubtedly that the Presidential tapes projects involve _far_ more volume of hours of tapes than we had to deal with. One of our major problems was in having to locate the tapes from many different archival and personal collections in the first place. Occasionally, as in Birmingham, the FBI unintentionally helped us by taping the mass meetings. SCLC knew that was happening and there are some very funny moments when Ralph Abernathy addresses their bug specifically. But my little stack of Vernon Johns tapes sits beside me on my desk -- hard found, much prized, and listened to _very_ carefully, over and over again.


Robert KC Johnson - 2/20/2005

Yes, I think that the "mass meetings" transcription would be very similar to transcription of a cabinet or ExComm meeting. Probably the only real difference comes in scope--you'd know far better than I do the overall hours of tapes that are available on civil rights-related questions--but with the presidential recordings project, we're dealing with thousands of hours, nearly all of which must be transcribed, because the conversations are dealing with policy-related material.


Ralph E. Luker - 2/20/2005

KC, I'm not sure that I know the universe of Papers Projects in American history as well as I once did, but I wonder how unique the transcriptions of presidential conversations are, among them. I am on my second project, for example, in which we've done a good bit of transcribing the tapes of speeches and sermons. Even those, particularly those in African American contexts, involve lots of discretionary judgments about what and how to transcribe what some people might regard as "noise". I'm thinking of call and response with a congregation or an audience, for example. As it approaches 1960, particularly, the King Project will have to begin making all kinds of judgments about what FBI tapes of King's telephone conversations should be transcribed and published; or whether conversations taped by third parties unknown to either of those holding the conversation are rightly regarded as a part of a person's papers.
Examples like these from non-presidential papers projects don't, of course, entail exactly the same problems that you ran into with the presidential tapes, where there are multiple participants in conversation and you even have to figure out who the different voices are. Come to think of it, we did have some of that kind of problem with transcriptions of tapes from "mass meetings" in the civil rights era, when the platform had many occupants and we sometimes did not have a program from it telling us who was performing in what roles.
It certainly is a fascinating exercise in historical judgment.

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