The Saturday New York Times carried an obituary of Harry C. McPherson, who died of cancer at 82 in Bethesda, Maryland. McPherson was best known as President Lyndon Johnson's counsel and chief speechwriter during LBJ's tenures as Senate majority leader, vice president, and president.
McPherson's death surprised me because I had seen him only two months ago in Washington, D.C., where I had traveled to attend the funeral of another old friend of that era. McPherson, former LBJ chief of staff Jim Jones, former Carter domestic policy chief Stuart Eizenstat, and I had lunch to trade gossip about Great Society and later days but, mainly, to talk about current national issues. McPherson e-mailed me later to thank me for organizing the lunch. He had not seen Jones or Eizenstat for a long period, he said, although all three lived in the capital, and they'd never have gotten together on their own.
Over dessert that day, McPherson said he had a later appointment with his doctor. He did not mention his cancer. You would not have known he was ill. He spoke with great animation of a novel he was rewriting before submitting it to a publisher. The original draft "was really second rate," he said, and need to be reworked before being exposed to anyone's eyes but his own.
You can get McPherson's history from the New York Times obit. What the obituary did not say, however, was that McPherson was the most literate and broad-gauged person to serve LBJ over a long period when Johnson held several offices. Both were Texans but LBJ was rough hewn and profane whereas McPherson was the opposite. While working as Vice President Humphrey's assistant, I sometimes consulted McPherson to get his take on LBJ's probable reactions to initiatives we were contemplating.
One early morning in 1965, I encountered McPherson entering the Pennsylvania Avenue gate to the White House. He had a tennis racket under his arm and, it was obvious, had recently showered. "Does Johnson know you play tennis before coming to work?" I asked, knowing that LBJ would prefer that all were at their desks at dawn. "He probably suspects it," McPherson said, "although I am sure he considers it an effete pursuit."
No one in LBJ's inner circle directly confronted and challenged him when he made mistakes. But McPherson, in his gentlemanly way, could suggest rethinking. At the end of March, 1968, when LBJ was grappling with a go-no go decision on a reelection campaign, he asked Harry to draft a speech for him with two alternative endings — one declaring his decision to run, another declining a candidacy so as to pursue a peace agreement in Vietnam. In the end, Johnson chose the latter ending. It was in part, I thought at the time, because McPherson's draft led more logically to that ending.
McPherson's first marriage ended because of his wife's deteriorating mental health. He met his second wife at a D.C. bus stop. They both took the same bus regularly to work and began sitting together and chatting en route.
After Ronald Reagan's inauguration as president in 1981, I helped organize and then became president of a quasi-official Democratic think tank designed to develop alternative policies. McPherson brought his young son to the organizing meetings, he said, "so that he can see how all this stuff works," and then served as a board member. I left D.C. for good at the end of 1997 but received after then periodic missives from McPherson. In 2007, after reading my memoirs, in which I sometimes treated Johnson critically, he wrote to say that "I think you got Johnson just about right."
McPherson was a person of idealism, great goodwill, and good humor. Working for Lyndon Johnson was not easy, but he did it with grace and effectiveness. He got a lot done but did so without making enemies — a rare gift. At our lunch a couple months back we all agreed that civility had become absent from current national life and decried the current shrill, polarizing politics. McPherson always followed Johnson's frequently delivered advice: "Come, let us reason together." In fact, he probably was the one who called the Biblical line to his boss' attention.
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