Review

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The Independent Culture
'Hello Mr President", Secret History's (C4) engrossing account of the nitty-gritty of Johnson's first days in office, ended with a nice irony. When he was handing power over to Nixon, Johnson recommended that he, too, should record his private telephone calls. Nixon took the advice and the resulting tapes all but destroyed his reputation. But in Johnson's case the recordings had a quite different effect - indeed, we had just heard them employed in an act of rehabilitation. Charles Wheeler, who presented the programme, has betrayed a soft spot for Johnson before, in his valedictory series for the BBC, Wheeler on America. Here he used recently released Dictaphone recordings to present a sympathetic portrait of the most difficult presidential debut of this century - and of a politician who mixed anxiety, energy and achievement in equal measure. It could hardly be hagiographic; the snobbish received opinion about Johnson as a Texas power-broker, ushered into office by an assassin's finger, was based on a foundation of truth. One member of his inner circle recalled being ordered to open his flies after reporting back on a piece of Senate horse-trading. It was the President's subtle way of suggesting that he had been emasculated by his opponent, a point he hammered home by making a phone call there and then: "You've got Joe Califano's pecker up there and he's coming to get it back." On another occasion he flirted with Kay Graham, the powerful publisher, explaining that the one thing he disliked about the presidency was that "I'm married and I can't ever get to see you ... and I'd like to break out of here and be like one of these animals down on my ranch, jump a fence". The split-rail charm had a purpose, as it always did - Johnson was angry at the way a speech had been reported and wanted to apply a bit of spin.

There were no immense revelations in the calls you heard, but the aphrodisiac of power (which works in non-sexual ways, too) ensured that they were fascinating even so. To hear the alarm in Johnson's voice as he discussed Kennedy's assassination with J Edgar Hoover or to hear the bullying sense of command as he forced a friend into working on the Warren Commission was to feel shards still warm from the explosion. Secret History had backed them with visual reconstructions, sensibly degraded to match the scratchy recordings, but also properly labelled as such, a touch of scholarship which increased your trust in Wheeler's account. And if the content of the calls only confirmed what has already been excavated by historians and serious biographers, they did so with a distilled clarity that no fiction writer would hazard. Wheeler's dry account of Johnson's ignorance about foreign policy was illustrated with a call he made about Vietnam; Johnson was convinced that they could stabilise the situation but finished his confident statement with a concession: "Now ... I don't know nothing about it". "God knows I don't," concurred McGeorge Bundy quickly, a rather unnerving confession from the President's National Security Adviser.

Inside Story's film about sexual entrapment was less distinguished - a slightly messy affair which was also shot through with an oddly Victorian indignation, as if the worst offence of the KGB during the Cold War had been ungentlemanly behaviour. The bulk of the programme was taken up with the story of Clayton Lonetree, a Navaho marine whose dubious qualifications - "he was an alcoholic, he was not very bright, he barely got into the Marines at all" - inevitably secured him the most sensitive posting available: guard duty at the American embassy in Moscow. There he made a natural target for the Slavic allure of Violetta Seina, a woman the film-makers seemed to think more sinned against than sinning. "Almost a decade after they last met Violetta waits," the narrator said. "She waits to hear from Clayton about whether they will ever be together again." "The Honey Trap" was said to be written, produced and directed by Jamie Doran but I think he had some help from Barbara Cartland, too.

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