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JFK’s last days filled with worry, tapes show

This Nov. 20, 1963 photo released by the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston shows President John F. Kennedy and  Jacqueline Kennedy descending the Grand Staircase at the White House.

Cecil Stoughton/The White House/AP

This Nov. 20, 1963 photo released by the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum shows President John F. Kennedy and Jacqueline Kennedy descending the Grand Staircase at the White House.

In the weeks before his assassination, John F. Kennedy was unsure of his chances for reelection and seemingly desperate to find a way to appeal to the middle class.

According to secretly recorded tapes released yesterday by the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum, the president and his top advisers strategized on which states would be easy bets or tough sells. The average white farmer, they agreed, “is the fellow who really swings it one way or another’’ - and that man did not much care about civil rights.

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“What is it that’s going to make them go for us? What is it we have to sell them?’’ Kennedy said. “We’ve got so mechanical an operation here in Washington that it doesn’t have much identity where these people are concerned.’’

Not the words of a man certain of coasting into another term, said Maura Porter, an archivist at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum.

“JFK clearly wasn’t as confident as we are, looking back, that he would get a second term,’’ Porter said yesterday. “He clearly had issues with how he was going to succeed, and that surprised me.’’

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Yesterday, the library released the final 45 hours of secret recordings the president made during his time in office, leading up to Nov. 20, 1963, the day before he left Washington on a trip to Dallas, where he was assassinated.

The tapes provide a snapshot of Kennedy in the last months of his presidency, including his growing concerns about the Vietnam War and the upcoming election.

In total, Kennedy recorded more than 248 hours of secret tapes throughout his presidency, without the knowledge of nearly all his advisers. The president and his secretary, Evelyn Lincoln, had a desk switch that could control the recording devices. The microphones were hidden in an inkwell and underneath a table in the Oval Office. In the Cabinet Room, they were concealed in a light fixture and beneath a desk. Wires snaked through the floor to a recording station below, staffed by the Secret Service.

Porter, along with Paul Lydon, an archive specialist at the library, worked together to review the tapes, cutting out snippets of audio that posed national security risks. The audio is often grainy and muddled, with top officials often talking, shouting, or chortling over one another. For that reason, Porter estimated that every hour of audio required about 20 hours of review.

The pair often overheard mundane and intimate moments: half an hour of the Oval Office being vacuumed, the scratchy sound of the president writing on his desk, or the president’s children, Caroline and John Jr., playing in the hallway outside their father’s office, braying “Daddy, daddy, daddy!’’ as an increasingly exasperated president answered over and over, “What?!’’

“You really did feel that you were a fly on the wall, and you’ve been zapped back in time,’’ Porter said. “You get into that world, where I felt like I was living between 1961 and 1963.’’

It was often difficult to distinguish all the voices on tape, Porter said. She became familiar with the voices of the regulars, including Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and Secretary of State Dean Rusk. She knew Robert F. Kennedy from his high-pitched tone.

And the voice of the president himself?

“His,’’ Porter said grinning, “I can always pick out.’’

During a meeting on Sep. 10, 1963, a general and a State Department adviser reported on a four-day fact-finding mission to Vietnam. The general, after visiting with military leaders, was generally optimistic, while the adviser shared impressions of widespread military and social discontent.

“You both went to the same country?’’ Kennedy retorted, prompting nervous laughter.

Moments like this, Porter said, shed new light on the difficulties Kennedy experienced in deciding foreign policy in Vietnam.

“To physically hear the president’s response, to hear the frustration in his voice . . . from a historic standpoint, that’s what makes it so fascinating to listen to,’’ Porter said.

On one of the last recordings, Kennedy talked with staff about his upcoming plans for the days after his trip to Texas, including a meeting with Indonesia’s General Abdul Haris Nasution. “I’ll be at the Cape on Friday, but I’ll see him Tuesday,’’ Kennedy said.

On the next day, the last snippet of audio from the collection ends with Kennedy answering the phone: “Hello? Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. I talked to Roger this morning . . . ’’

Two days later, Kennedy was dead.

“It just cuts off,’’ Porter said. “It’s weird, because it was just another day in the office.’’

The recordings are available for public listening at the library.

mpowers@globe.com@martinepowers
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