Harry Middleton, who led LBJ library and released presidential tapes, dies at 95

LBJ Voting Rights

Harry Middleton, a journalist and speechwriter who became the longtime director of the LBJ Presidential Library and whose decision to release recordings of Oval Office telephone conversations deepened the historical understanding of the presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson, died Jan. 20 at a retirement facility in Austin, Texas. He was 95.

The death was confirmed by Anne Wheeler, the LBJ Library’s communications director. She said there was no specific cause.

After working in the White House and helping Johnson write two books, Middleton became director of the LBJ Library in 1970, while it was still in development. He stood alongside the president when the library opened in 1971 on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin.

During more than 30 years as director, Middleton made the library a lively center of historical study, with frequent symposiums, speakers and exhibits. He moved to declassify presidential papers and was often called the dean of presidential librarians.

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“Harry Middleton’s leadership in shaping the Johnson Library,” David Ferriero, archivist of the United States, said in a statement released by the library, “established a standard emulated to this day – a standard based on archival excellence, public engagement, and celebration of service to one’s country.”

Soon after Johnson died on Jan. 22, 1973, Middleton learned that there were hundreds of hours of uncataloged Oval Office conversations in storage. Johnson had instructed that the tapes be left untouched until 50 years after his death.

Middleton recognized that the tapes were deteriorating and needed to be preserved. But the Dictabelt technology on which the conversations were secretly recorded was already obsolete in the 1970s. The LBJ Library built special equipment to transfer the recordings to standard reel-to-reel tapes.

“I didn’t know what was in them,” Middleton later said, “but I was certain that there was going to be important historical material.”

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Middleton also realized that written transcripts of the White House conversations were sometimes comically wrong. When Johnson spoke about “a Pakistan ambassador waiting on me,” according to a 2000 article in Texas Monthly, his comments were recorded as “a pack of bastards waiting on me.”

Some of the tapes were unsealed in 1982 as part of a high-profile libel suit brought against CBS by William Westmoreland, the top commander of U.S. forces in the Vietnam War.

Middleton later consulted lawyers and archivists to determine if it was possible to overcome Johnson’s wish to keep the tapes under wraps for 50 years. Finally, he approached Lady Bird Johnson, the former first lady, and received her approval.

“I really wanted her acquiescence if I was going to go ahead and do this,” Middleton said in 2001. “I thought that possibly the LBJ loyalists might give me some problems about violating his instructions.”

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In 1990, Middleton decided to make the Oval Office recordings public. In them, Johnson reveals his many moods, cajoling some listeners, threatening others and musing on civil rights and wartime decisions. He expressed doubts about the Vietnam War as early as 1964.

“It looks to me like we’re getting into another Korea,” he told national security adviser McGeorge Bundy. “I don’t think it’s worth fighting for, and I don’t think that we can get out.”

In another tape, he spoke reassuringly to the recently widowed first lady, Jacqueline Kennedy: “I just want you to know that you are loved and by so many and so much and I’m one of them.”

Historians found the newly released tapes to be a trove of unknown, often intimate material about Johnson.

“They helped humanize him,” biographer Robert Dallek told the San Antonio Express-News in 2008. “It didn’t change the image of him as a manipulator, but created the impression of him as a masterful politician.”

Presidential historian Michael Beschloss praised Middleton’s decision in his book “Taking Charge, The Johnson White House Tapes, 1963-1964.”

“A different kind of library director,” he wrote, “might have attempted to hide behind LBJ’s spoken instructions to keep the tapes under seal until at least 2023 and used lawyers to thwart whatever legal challenges historians might have raised to their closure.”

Harry Joseph Middleton was born Oct. 24, 1921, in Centerville, Iowa, and grew up in Topeka, Kan. He attended Washburn University in Topeka before serving in the Army during World War II.

He received a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Louisiana State University in 1947 and became a reporter for the Associated Press in New York. He re-entered the Army during the Korean War, then worked for Architectural Forum magazine, the March of Time newsreel service and as a freelance writer.

He was the co-author of a 1958 novel, “Pax,” about the deceptions of the pharmaceutical industry, and in 1961 published a history of the Korean War.

He met Johnson in 1966 while writing a report for a presidential commission. Johnson hired him as a special assistant and speechwriter.

In 1969, Middleton moved to Texas and helped Johnson write two books about his presidency.

He wrote two other books on his own, “LBJ: The White House Years” (1990) and “Lady Bird Johnson: A Life Well-Lived” (1992).

Middleton occasionally weighed on public discussions of Johnson’s reputation, including the 1991 Oliver Stone film “JFK.”

“As propaganda, it is highly effective,” he said. “As history, it is destructive and malicious nonsense.”

He also had a frosty relationship with Johnson’s best-known biographer, Robert Caro. When the first part of Caro’s multivolume biography appeared in 1982, Middleton thought it was unduly harsh and wrote that Caro demonstrated “a hatred for his subject, a loathing so deep it coats a steamy sheen over his prose.”

Caro was allowed to conduct research at the LBJ Library, but he was not invited to speak there until after Middleton’s retirement in 2001.

Middleton’s wife of 54 years, the former Miriam Miller, died in 2004. Survivors include four children, Susan Hoyle of Washington, Deborah Sansom and James Middleton, both of Austin, and Jennifer O’Dell of Buddha, Texas; and four grandchildren.

In later years, Middleton led the LBJ Foundation and, from 2004 to 2013, taught a popular course on the Johnson presidency for University of Texas students.

When he released Johnson’s taped White House conversations, Middleton was certain that the former president would have embraced the idea of full disclosure. In 2000, he recalled for Texas Monthly a discussion he had with Johnson in the early 1970s.

“Harry, good men have been trying to protect my reputation for 40 years,” Johnson said, “and not a damned one has succeeded. What makes you think you can?”