This recording sounds absurd, abstract, and probably doctored. In truth, it is only the first of these three.
President Lyndon Johnson and Supreme Court Associate Justice Abe Fortas were on a phone call discussing the international situation, when all of a sudden (at :20 seconds), their connection was inadvertently crossed with a casual call between a couple in Denver and their friend Jim in Washington, D.C. (Because of the manual nature of the switchboard system in the 1960s, crossed lines were a relatively common occurrence.)
President Johnson patiently waits for the other conversation to run its course, but Justice Fortas interrupts with increasing annoyance (:45-:50 seconds) before eventually shouting “Get off the goddamn line!” (1:14)
At this point, Jim and Walter hear Fortas’ shouting and become confused about what’s happening. President Johnson explains to Walter and Jim that the lines are crossed (1:40) and tells them to go ahead and finish. Of course, Jim and Walter have no idea who they’re speaking to.
Walter then hands the phone back to his wife (2:27), so that she can finish talking to Jim. But LBJ mistakes here for the operator. At this point things get very confusing, because no one knows who anyone is or why they’re talking to them. Fortas does not help matters by once again telling the woman to “get the hell off the line.” (2:55.)
Now LBJ begins to get annoyed as well, and asks the woman to “get out of our way, honey.” (3:19). The woman acquiesces, but just before she tries to hang up, Johnson realizes that she is in fact trying to place a call herself. The woman says she’ll hang up and try her call again.
Johnson and Fortas then resume their normal business.
This recording, which is a true gem from among thousands of hours of taped White House conversations during the Johnson years, is remarkable for a number of reasons. The idea that security barriers to classified communications were low enough that an ordinary citizen could accidentally (and unwittingly) find themselves talking to the President and a Supreme Court Justice is mostly unfathomable today. Although politicians make a spectacle of interacting with the masses, these engagements are carefully staged. The closest recent analogous scenario I can think of was the hacking of Sarah Palin’s email account, although that was no accident, but a rare combination of effort and stupidity, and it didn’t permit the hacker to communicate with Palin in any case, only to embarrass her.
As well, the Johnson-Fortas-Jim-Walter-Woman recording is both aesthetically engaging and politically rich. Some key details include the rhythmic thump of the tape recorder, the dull clicking of the line plugging in and out, the generational accents that no longer exist, along with equally extinct gendered inflections (hers in particular), and the highly particular fidelity of telephonic voices at that technological moment. The experience of hearing old voices through old technologies can make us uncannily aware of bygone social arrangements, as well as our own distance from them.
For listeners in 2009, this snippet also offers a powerful dramatic irony. All of the people in the recording are dead. It is likely that none of them ever knew what was happening during the call, nor that they ever bothered to reflect on it. But for us it telescopes into a rare vantage.
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Bonus telephony tale:
When I was 15 years old, I enjoyed calling 1-800 numbers. It was relatively easy to predict some of them based on what they spelled on the keypad, and I was bored in general. During the 1994-1995 Super Bowl, in which “Neon” Deion Sanders starred as a member of the winning San Francisco 49ers, I tried the number that spelled 1-800-SANDERS. A mechanical voice prompted me for a 2-digit special access code to complete the call. I diligently tried all of the numbers, in order, until I happened on the right code, which was 77. An older man answered, and I asked for Deion. “This is Deion’s father. We’re in Cincinnati. Deion is in Florida playing in the Super Bowl!” Mr. Sanders hung up, and when I tried the number again a week later the access code had been changed to a less guessable four digits.