A Conversation with Harry C. McPherson
(Appeared in Bar Report, June/July 1999)
Harry C. McPherson has had a 43-year legal career in Washington. A 1956 graduate of the University of Texas Law School, he served as counsel, then special counsel, to President Lyndon B. Johnson from 1965-1969. Prior to the appointment, he had served as assistant secretary of state for educational and cultural affairs, deputy under secretary of the army for international affairs, and as counsel to the Senate Democratic Policy Committee. McPherson is also the author of A Political Education, a Washington memoir. He joined the law firm of Verner Liipfert Bernhard McPherson and Hand in 1969, where he continues to practice law.
Bar Report: Where did you grow up?
Harry C. McPherson: I was born and raised in Tyler, Texas-then a small town near the east Texas oil fields. When I was a young boy, my dad bought a tobacco store and converted it into a sporting goods store that was a centerpiece of social and business life in Tyler. People who made money in oil would go to my father’s store and buy shotguns and fishing tackle. Tyler was a very Democratic town. My father was a New Deal Democrat, and my grandfather, who was the town banker, kept a huge picture of Franklin Roosevelt over the vault of the bank. I grew up in a very Democratic family and have remained that way all of my life.
BR: Did you attend public school in Tyler?
HCM: Yes. High school only went through the eleventh grade, so I graduated at 15, which sounds a lot flashier than it was. That was very common then. I went off to Southern Methodist University in Dallas, but didn’t do very well. My parents shipped me off to an all-boys school-the University of the South in Tennessee. I graduated from there in 1949.
BR: Is that when you decided you wanted to be a lawyer?
HCM: No. I wanted to be a poet and a writer. I went to Columbia to get my master’s degree in English literature. In the summer of 1949, I took the train from Tyler, Texas to New York City. That was the first time I’d ever been north of the Tennessee border. New York was dazzling. I lived in Greenwich Village and studied literature for a year. I passed the exams, but I never got my master’s degree. I knew I wasn’t good enough to make a name for myself as a poet, and I didn’t want to be a teacher. So I was drifting.
BR: So what did you do?
HCM: The poet Homer refers to war as being a relief in a young man’s life because it answers the big vocational question, at least for a time. That proved to be true in my case. When North Korea invaded South Korea in June 1950, I didn’t have a choice. I had to go into the military. I enlisted in the Air Force and after going through basic training and OCS, became an intelligence officer. I was sent to Germany, where I spent a lot of time studying Russian troop deployments and plotting targets.
In the summer of 1953 an armistice was negotiated that ended the Korean War and the Eisenhower administration was determined to get "A bigger bang for the buck." You could leave the service if you wanted to. Even though my enlistment was not up, I got out early, and decided to apply to law school.
BR: Why law school? Why not another profession?
HCM: This was the era when McCarthyism was at its peak. I was
very upset about Joe McCarthy and decided that I wanted to be a lawyer
to defend people against the likes of McCarthy. I was worried that he
was going to usher a period of totalitarianism in the United States.
I wanted to fight that.
Along the way, I’d gotten married. My wife and I moved from Wiesbaden, Germany to Austin, Texas, where I enrolled in the University of Texas Law School. I was supported by the GI Bill and my wife’s school teaching. We lived in veteran’s housing. I think the tuition was $53 a semester. We weren’t rich, but we lived comfortably. We certainly weren’t running the huge debts that are common to law students today.
BR: Did you want to go into private practice after law school?
HCM: I didn’t really have a feeling for the practice of law. When I was a kid, I used to love sitting in the gallery of the county courthouse. I loved the smell, I loved listening to lawyers shout, but I didn’t grasp it-the law. I interviewed with some firms in Austin, Dallas, Houston, and even considered going back to Tyler to open a law firm with a friend. I was probably headed back to Tyler when I received a long-distance phone call from my cousin, who was working for Senator Lyndon Johnson in Washington. Johnson was the majority leader of the Senate, and my cousin said he was looking for a young lawyer from Texas to come and work for the Democratic Policy Committee, which Johnson chaired. I had an interest in politics, so I went for it. I was hired at a very cheap salary. I thought Johnson was a cheapskate.
BR: And what happened when you came to Washington?
HCM: Working in the Senate was exciting. One of my jobs also was to be counsel of something called the "Calendar Committee." The committee was composed of two or three junior senators, who gathered before the Senate had its calendar call-every week or two. The Senate calendar was comprised of bills not yet passed. Sometimes there’d be 100, 150, or 200 bills on it, which in those days included private claim bills, immigration bills, minor amendments to statutes, as well as major legislation. My job was to read the bills and reports, and brief my committee.
Once on the Senate floor, the clerk of the Senate rattled off the bills, which passed if not objected to. Essentially this cleaned up the calendar. Many calls included fairly substantial bills, which needed amendments to be passed. This would go on for two or three hours, and I’d sit with my committee, whispering information when they were questioned and praying I was right. My committee included wonderful people, like Sam Ervin, Ed Muskie, and Philip Hart.
I also got to know the Senate Committee staff, and of course, I came to know Johnson. It was soon after I arrived that someone said to him, "This is the young fellow who came up from Texas." Johnson just looked at me, grunted, and said, "Do your best."
BR: Did you work with him on a daily basis?
HCM: Not at the beginning. Johnson was majority leader, and I’d see him when I was on the floor, which was not very often at first. I’ll never forget my first real encounter with him. He chaired a subcommittee that handled State Department appropriations. The Secretary of State was coming before the subcommittee to defend his department’s budget. I was asked to prepare questions. Instead of asking practical questions such as why they needed money for this or that embassy or spending item, I asked heavy foreign policy questions like, "Why are we doing this to the Russians?" I sent them to Johnson and watched as he read them. But I couldn’t gage a reaction, and his face showed no expression. So when he motioned me over, I was excited. I walked across the floor beaming. Johnson whispered, "Go see Mary Margaret and get me some of those orange sourballs, will you?"
I was furious. I went to his secretary, Mary Margaret Wiley, who is now Mrs. Jack Valenti, ranting that Johnson had me come up here for this and that he didn’t bother to make a single comment about the questions I’d prepared. Grinning, Mary Margaret handed me the sourballs, which I stuffed into a brown manila envelope. I sealed it as tightly as I could because I wanted Johnson to have to tear it open. I went back and handed it to him, then sat and watched. Every rip was so loud, there was no way to open the envelope quietly. He glared at me, and I just smiled. That was my revenge.
BR: So you started off on the right foot, I see?
HCM: I guess you could say that. Actually, I think he got a kick out of such things. After awhile, I became counsel of the policy committee. And in 1959 Johnson brought a fine lawyer from Texas to work with me, Jim Wilson, who has remained a friend for life. It was a great time for me because Jim and I had the same sense of irreverence about the place. We would sit down in the well of the Senate, waiting for Johnson to tell us what to do, and getting a kick out of the Senate characters-the occasional drunk who couldn’t keep standing when he rose to speak, the one who was so proud of his accomplishments that he couldn’t resist sharing them all whenever he spoke. That was also the year I really got to know the big guns in the Senate, people like Richard Russell, Hubert Humphrey, and Robert Kerrthe people Johnson called "the whales." Once, when Johnson was talking about passing a tough bill, he said, "We don’t have any of the whales with us. We have the minnows, but no whales." Every two weeks there’d be a luncheon in the secretary of the Senate’s office and these whales would go over the books I’d prepared with descriptions of the bills on the calendar. I would explain the major bills, outline their problems, and answer questions. There was a lot of exciting, substantive work.
Then in 1960 Johnson ran for the Democratic presidential nomination, and lost. That year John Kennedy won the Democratic nomination, and Johnson was elected Vice President, running with Kennedy. I didn’t want to work in the Vice President’s Office because there wasn’t a lot for a lawyer to do. Johnson’s successor, Mike Mansfield, asked me to be his counsel on the Democratic Policy Committee. Mansfield-a taciturn westerner-was very different from Johnson. My job had matured to the point where I was helping him come up with a legislative program, not just the day-to-day issues affecting the calendar. He was a relatively gentle fellow to work for, and I admired him very much.
One day in 1963, I received a call from Cyrus Vance, who was Secretary of the Army in the Kennedy administration. He asked if I would come to the Pentagon to be deputy under secretary of army for international affairs.
BR: Did you go? Were you ready to leave the Senate?
HCM: I didn’t know what to do. If I accepted, I’d be responsible for overseeing the Panama Canal Zone, and Okinawa, which was kind of like being a mayor-dealing with civilian issues, labor matters, civil rights, First Amendment, all sorts of civil government issues. I thought this might be my chance to get some executive experience, instead of just being a staffer. But I wasn’t sure I should take it.
So I made an appointment to see Johnson, to ask his advice. I remember him sitting behind his desk, one hot afternoon in the summer of 1963. I could see the mall behind him, and the sun was beating through the Capitol window. I told him about the job, and he asked, "Why would you want to do that?" I started giving him my reasons: I wanted to do something executive, I wanted to run my own show. As I looked closer, I realized his head was slowly sinking. He was falling asleep. I couldn’t believe it, and I didn’t know what to do. Should I leave? Sit there and wait until he woke? Then, all of the sudden, he lifted his head and said, "What do you want?"
It was clear to me that he wasn’t talking about a job with a 10-word title or a job in the Senate or anything like that. "What do you want?" He meant, "What do you want to do with your life?" It’s always struck me as a fundamental question that most people don’t know the answer to. I didn’t. Later, I put it to hundreds of young people who came to see me when they were at a crossroads in their lives. But in that instant, I didn’t have an answer for Johnson.
BR: So, did you take the job?
HCM: Yes, I did. I had a huge office in the Pentagon with several colonels working for me. But as far as army standing, I barely made the cut to enable me to have lunch in the General Officers Mess #1. I was a young politician-a lawyer. I didn’t have any way to integrate myself into that group of generals with two, three, or four stars on their shoulders. I was pretty lonely.
So I called Dean Acheson, Secretary of State under President Truman, and I asked him to lunch. Acheson was a handsome, strapping man with a bristling mustache and brow. He and I had become friends; he was a splendid teacher who walked like a king, with big, wonderful strides.
He agreed at once to the lunch idea. We walked into the mess together, and the look on the generals’ faces was pricelessthey were dumbstruck. One by one they came over to introduce themselves. I never had a problem eating there again.
BR: How long were you in that position?
HCM: A year, roughly. Shortly after, I took a job as Assistant Secretary of State for Educational and Cultural Affairs. But I was still in the Pentagon position on Nov. 22, 1963. Okinawa was one of my colonies, and I had gone to visit it in late November. I was in Japan when I received a call at 3 a.m. from a colonel who said, "Sir, it is my sad duty to inform you that the President of the United States was just shot to death in your home state." I couldn’t believe it, I wasn’t even sure I was awake. I was numb.
I immediately flew back to Washington, which was now a very desolate and utterly shocked city grieving the loss of its president. Two days after Kennedy’s death, I was at church with Johnson when a secret service agent whispered to him-"I believe Lee Harvey Oswald has just been killed." No one knew if it was a conspiracy, or who would be next. The very next week Johnson persuaded Chief Justice Earl Warren to chair the Warren Commission, examining and investigating the assassination of Kennedy.
BR: What was the transition like for Johnson? It must have been traumatic to become president under those circumstances.
HCM: Yes, it was. He tried to step into Kennedy’s shoes, but that was not an easy task. Johnson had offended a lot of people over the years, people he now needed. So he made arrangements to meet them, one by one. I watched as these people filed into his office, people like the Washington lawyer Jim Rowe. Jim had been his scheduling man in the 1960 vice presidential race. Johnson behaved terribly to him, and Jim quit. But now he needed Jim because of his strong ties to labor and the liberal wing of the party. He said, "Jim, I want you to know that I behaved like a crazy man and I apologize." I sat there in awe, listening to him. I couldn’t believe it. This wasn’t like Johnson.
Then Rowe, who had tears in his eyes, began apologizing back, claiming that the falling out was his fault. Finally Johnson cut him off and simply said, "Damn it, Jim. Can’t you be content to be the first person the 36th president of the United States has apologized to?" They both laughed, and that was that.
BR: Was Johnson always so blunt and impatient?
HCM: Johnson was a lot of things. He was demanding, overbearing, sometimes self-pitying. He had a lot of limitations, but also many strengths. In my mind, he was a great leader for a country in shock-a country that had just lost its attractive, young president. Not that everybody agreed with that at the time. Many people weren’t sure they could trust this man who was taking Kennedy’s place.
BR: Did you trust him?
HCM: Yes, I did. Johnson said that he would produce on civil rights, that he would cut taxes. He did both. I will never forget sitting on the floor of the House when he made his appearance at a special joint session and said, "We have pledged ourselves to overcome two centuries of discrimination and all of its products, and we shall overcome." Two-thirds of the floor leapt to its feet cheering. Martin Luther King was in the gallery that day, and he was sitting there listening to Johnson use his words. That might not sound like much today, but at the time it was unbelievable that a white, southern president would do such a thing.
BR: Initially, he made great headway. When did that begin to change?
HCM: Johnson, like Kennedy before him, made a huge error when he decided to commit the United States to the defense of South Vietnam. Clearly he was torn about that from the beginning. If you listen to the taped telephone conversations of Johnson with Senator Richard Russell that have since been made public, you can hear the dismay in Johnson’s voiceand that was during his first year of presidency. It is evident that he and Russell, who was then chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, both believed the American people had no interest in fighting a war in Vietnam. You’re listening to two men trapped in the middle of a political nightmare, and they don’t know how to get out.
BR: Do you think the controversy surrounding the war prevented him from running for president in 1968?
HCM: I’m sure it played a part. Protesters were chanting in Lafayette Park, "Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?" That had to have affected him. But things really got hot when college kids were drafted. Southerners had turned against him because of his civil rights program. There were riots on college campuses, and race-based riots in several cities.
When he first told me he wasn’t going to run for president, I didn’t believe him. I told him he was the only one who could get Congress to do anything. But he disagreed. He said: "Congress and I are like an old married couple who have lived together for too long."
BR: Do you think he could’ve won?
HCM: I think so, if Wallace had been in the race as well as Nixon. LBJ would have carried traditional Democrats, African Americans, and Hispanics, a lot of blue-collar voters, and some moderate Republicans. His success in taking over the government in 1963 was spectacular. His victory in 1964 was unmatched, and he had brought home the bacon for millions of Americans. But people felt that he turned his back on what had once been his home base-the South.
Ironically, I think there are similarities between Johnson and Clinton. Clinton likes to be compared to Kennedy, who was very debonair, but I think he’s more like Johnson in some respects. Both men had a feel for the racial issue. Both had a passion for improving education. Both were dissemblers. And there’s no doubt Johnson was fond of women, though he was more grown-up about it than Clinton.
To this day, Johnson is still the smartest man I’ve ever met, although maybe not the wisest.
BR: What was it like watching his fall?
HCM: I don’t know that he did. It’s not like he was defeated. He more or less threw in the towel. By that time, Johnson had become like family to me. I wrote in my book that at the end, I felt love, rage and grief. I was proud of what he’d accomplished, and dismayed by his tragic failures. It’s like the way one regards one’s own family, it can’t be judged in terms of like or dislike.
When it was finally over, and he left the White House, I was exhausted. I saw him off on inauguration day, as he left Washington. As I watched him get on the plane, I felt officially powerless, and oddly, relieved.
Toward the end of his administration, he asked if I’d go to Texas to be dean of the new Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas. I told him that was a terrible idea. I wasn’t a scholar. I was a lawyer and a political staff man, and I had no business doing that. He called back and said the president of the university had said it was okay. I still declined, but he was persistent. Finally, I said to him, "I’m 39 years old. I’ve learned to speak without fear or hesitation to Cabinet members, generals, businessman, senators, and congressman. I’m not intimidated or overmatched by anybody-except one person." I told him he’d always be too much for me to handle. That seemed to please him, a little, and he dropped it.
BR: What was it like after that, life without the White House?
HCM: I took a month off, to relax. Then I joined the law firm Verner, Liipfert, and Bernhard, at the urging of Berl Bernhard, my best friend. I’ll never forget my first day of work. I walked out of my Chevy Chase home, and for the first time in years, there was no car to drive me. No one waiting for me. So I walked up the street two blocks, and hopped on a bus. That was my first real awakening that things were different.
I’d never even been in a law firm before. I’d seen plenty of lawyers, but I had no idea how they practiced. My first months were pretty unproductive. Eventually I was invited to lunch with all of the partners. Jim Verner asked me if there was a mistake in my hours, because there were so few of them. Talk about total innocenceI never even wrote down my time.
BR: Were you having second thoughts about your career choice?
HCM: Perhaps. I wasn’t too cranked up about the law. My first case was at the Civil Aeronautics Board and our firm represented Northwest Airlines. My job was to persuade them that Northwest should be chosen for service from Islip, New York to Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and Chicago. At that time, they were trying to relieve the congestion at Laguardia and Kennedy. I remember standing before these five board members, two of whom were falling asleep and one looking at me with what seemed to be suspicion, and thinking that one year ago I was helping the president of the United States conduct a foreign negotiation, and look at me now. I kept staring back at the guy who was looking at me suspiciously, trying to figure out if he had been appointed to the board by Johnson. I lost that case, and yes, I guess I decided that maybe this wasn’t my career after all.
BR: What changed? Why did you stay?
HCM: I received a call from William Coleman, a renowned Philadelphia lawyer appointed by Nixon to the Price Commission. He asked me to take his place representing the Philadelphia Enquirer on price and wage problems. And after that a bunch of things started to happen, not just for me, but for the firm. Joe Albritton came to Washington and made a bid for the Washington Evening Star. Berl Bernhard was his counsel. Albritton bought not just the Star, but Channel 7, too. All of the sudden, our firm needed litigators to try libel suits, as well as communications and transactional lawyers. Pan American Airways asked me and Berl to help them in Washington. I’d say that period marked the beginning of my career as a private lawyer.
BR: Do you have any regrets?
HCM: None. I mean, I spent nine years working closely with a man who was Majority Leader of the Senate and President of the United States. I was a kind of junior partner to Secretary Clark Clifford, and was able to play a role in helping the United States start to wind down its participation in Vietnam. I’ve helped this firm grow, and remain a happy place to work. I’ve persuaded a number of fine human beings to join the firm.
So, no. I have no regrets. I’ve had good fortune throughout most of my life. I’m married to a woman I love, and I have great kids. I’m lucky to have done the things that I’ve done and to be still at it today.