Harry McPherson, who served as counsel, speechwriter and confidant to Lyndon Johnson during the tumultuous days of the civil rights revolution and the agony of Vietnam, is dead at 82. After a battle with bone cancer, a wise and warm voice has been stilled, and Washington is a poorer place for it.
This would be terrible news at any time, but it is especially painful now. He was just about to screen a final version of a new documentary, “Time and Chance: The Political Education of Harry McPherson,” produced by Les Francis of The Washington Media Group. I did the narration for it and some of the interviews. In it, Harry does what he did best: he shares the stories and lessons he learned in his half-century in the top circles of Washington politics.
Sitting in his law office or in his book-lined study in Kensington, he talked to the camera in that soft, easy, bemused manner about driving north from Austin as a fresh and green law school graduate in the closing days of the Eisenhower Administration to take a job for LBJ, who was then the Senate Majority Leader. He came across the Memorial Bridge about 10 p.m. and saw the White House for the first time and realized that the President was in there.
“This was the fellow that I had mocked along with other students sitting around Shultz Beer Garden down in Austin, just thought he was just a big, grinning fellow without much depth at all, pretty much the Eisenhower of Herb Block’s cartoons,”
Harry recalled. “Well, when you’re driving an old Buick full of everything you own, Eisenhower didn’t seem like an amenable duck. He seemed like somebody who had been a five star general and he was running things, running this whole government.”
That was the first of many lessons that Harry learned about the realities of power and politics in Washington. He talked of how LBJ taught him the art of compromise as the way to get things done in the Senate – a lost art, it seems, these days – but the only way to work through the southern conservatives who chaired the major committees in those days. He recalled how LBJ worked with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the master politician and the master orator, two opposites from vastly different backgrounds, working together to get something important done.
Harry learned that in Washington, the worst moments can lead to the best accomplishments, how the rioting that followed Dr. King’s assassination prepared the ground for the passage of the Fair Housing Act of 1968, which banned discrimination in the sale and rental of housing; how Lyndon Johnson, a man from the deep south, would get the opportunity to appoint Thurgood Marshall to the U.S. Supreme Court.
But for all the good that Harry and his mentor could accomplish on the domestic front, their crucible would be far away, in the jungles of Vietnam. In the interviews for the film, Harry recalls LBJ’s anguish over a war that he knew was deeply unpopular and unwinnable, not even necessary, and yet inescapable.
He recalls LBJ saying: ‘They’d kill us if we back down, they’d kill us.’ “And they would be the Republicans.” Harry said, without a trace of bitterness.
In 1967, Harry came back from a two-week visit to Vietnam convinced that the war would be the ruin of Johnson’s presidency. He shared his thoughts with Johnson, but did not break with him over the war, lest he lose his seat at the table. But by March 18, 1968, with then Senator Robert F. Kennedy mounting a challenge from the left and Richard M. Nixon campaigning from the right, Harry sat down and wrote LBJ a 10-page memo that minced no words. I have a copy of it on my desk.
“I think the course we seem to be taking now,” Harry wrote in the first sentence, “will lead either to Kennedy’s nomination or Nixon’s election, or both.” He urged Johnson not to sacrifice his presidency “to the bullish conduct of an unpopular war.”
That was vintage McPherson: loyal, but candid and direct.
In the end, of course, Johnson made his own decision and famously announced on March 31, just two weeks after receiving Harry’s memo, on national television that “I shall not seek and I will not accept” the Democratic party’s nomination for another term. Harry describes in the film how he labored over the body of that momentous speech, but that Johnson wrote the final lines announcing his decision and sent them directly to the operator to put them in the teleprompter script. Then he called Harry and asked him what he thought of what he had written and was about to read. “I’m very sorry, Mr. President,” was all Harry could get out, “very sorry.”
Johnson, Harry said, was “a man who wanted more than anything on earth to put every child through college and take care of every grandma and grandpa who is sick and old and poor,” but couldn’t escape “this awful war.”
The sadness today is that this film is to be shown at the LBJ presidential library in coming weeks and before an audience of his enormous circle of friends in Washington. The plan was that Harry would be there to receive the applause and answer questions.
Now he won’t.