Harry McPherson, American lawyer and lobbyist, advisor to Lyndon B. Johnson, died from cancer he was 82
Harry Cummings McPherson, Jr. served as counsel and special counsel to President of the United States Lyndon B. Johnson from 1965 to 1969 and was Johnson’s chief speechwriter from 1966 to 1969. McPherson’s A Political Education,
1972, is a classic insider’s view of Washington and an essential source
for Johnson’s presidency. A prominent Washington lawyer and lobbyist
since 1969, McPherson was awarded American Lawyer magazine’s Lifetime
Achievement Award in 2008. He died February 16, 2012, in Bethesda,
(August 22, 1929 – February 16, 2012)
Early life, education, military service
McPherson was born and raised in Tyler, Texas. He attended Southern Methodist University and received his B.A. in 1949 from the University of the South. Intending to be a poet and a writer, he enrolled at Columbia University for a master’s degree in English literature.
When the Korean War broke out in 1950, however, he enlisted in the Air
Force. McPherson served in Germany as an intelligence officer, studying
Russian troop deployments and plotting targets.
As soon as the Korean War ended, McPherson enrolled at the University of Texas School of Law.
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
He received his LL.B. in 1956. Shortly afterwards, he was invited to
Washington by a cousin who worked for Lyndon Baines Johnson. Johnson,
who was at the time the Senate majority leader, was seeking a young
lawyer from Texas to work for the Democratic Policy Committee, which
Early public service in Washington
McPherson served as assistant general counsel (1956–1959), associate
counsel (1959–1961) and general counsel (1961–1963) to the Democratic
Policy Committee, the Democratic Party’s key legislative policy organ on
the Senate side. His duties included summarizing bills coming before
the Senate for members of the Calendar Committee. An outspoken advocate
for civil rights, he helped draft legislation that became the Civil Rights Act of 1957,
whose goal was to ensure that all African Americans could exercise
their right to vote. After Kennedy was elected with Johnson as his vice
president, McPherson continued to serve as counsel to the Democratic
Policy Committee under Senator Mike Mansfield.
From 1963 to 1964, McPherson served as deputy under secretary of the
Army for international affairs and special assistant to the secretary
for civil functions. His responsibilities included settling civilian
disputes in the Panama Canal Zone and Okinawa, and overseeing the Army
Corps of Engineers.
The following year (August 1964-August 1965) he served as assistant secretary of state in the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs,
which arranged for thousands of foreigners to study at American
universities, for foreign officials and cultural groups to visit the
United States, and for American orchestras and dance companies to travel
Counsel to President Lyndon B. Johnson
In 1966, McPherson and his colleague Berl Bernhard organized the White House Conference on Civil Rights, whose 2,400 participants included Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Thurgood Marshall,
and representatives of almost every major civil rights group. According
to Kevin L. Yuill, “This conference, promised in Johnson’s famous
Howard University speech in 1965, was to be the high point of Johnson’s
already considerable efforts on civil rights.”
McPherson came to believe the Vietnam War was unwinnable, and along with Secretary of Defense Clark Clifford helped persuade Johnson to scale back the bombing of North Vietnam.
McPherson drafted Johnson’s landmark televised address of March 31,
1968, announcing the policy turnaround in Vietnam as well as the fact
that he would not seek reelection.
McPherson’s A Political Education, covering the years 1956 to
1969, is essential reading for anyone seeking to understand Johnson’s
years as senator and president. The book’s thought-provoking conclusion:
Perhaps the most serious question of all was whether we could learn
from our experience and shorten the lag between events and our response
to them. Nearly twenty years passed from the time black Americans began
leaving the South, until the national government began to respond to
their unique problems in the Northern and Western cities. Our
apprehension of the danger to us in the unification of Vietnam under
Hanoi’s rule was the same in 1963 as it had been in 1954. Our political
leaders, like the rest of us, dealt with new phenomena on the basis of
prevailing assumptions. Usually the assumptions were changed only by
bitter experience, not by analysis and foresight. The public’s
reluctance to think new thoughts had much to do with that; so did their
faith, which their leaders shared, that as a nation we were immune to
history. We believed we could afford the lag, with our cushion of power,
wealth, and resourcefulness. Detroit and Tet told us otherwise.
It was Lyndon Johnson’s fate to be President at a time when the cost
of the lag came home. On the whole, he paid it bravely. … He finished
the old agenda, and by painful example taught us something about the
In a 1981 interview, McPherson called Johnson “a vehement, dominant,
brilliant man – not intellectually brilliant in the sense of having a
vast store of reading and knowledge about world history, certainly not
the historian that Harry Truman was. But brilliant in sheer wit, in
sheer intellectual mental horsepower. The smartest man I ever saw.”
He reiterated this admiration in 1999: “To this day, Johnson is still
the smartest man I’ve ever met, although maybe not the wisest.”
Private law practice in Washington, D.C.
Soon after Johnson left office, McPherson joined the Washington-based
law firm Verner, Liipfert, and Bernhard, which he helped turn into one
of the capital’s best-known lobbying firms. (In 2002 the firm merged
with DLA Piper.)
McPherson has counseled businesses, nonprofit organizations, foreign
governments, and individuals on a range of matters involving Congress,
the executive branch, and regulatory agencies. Notable cases include:
- Represented a major television network in the successful struggle to repeal the Financial Interest and Syndication Rules
(the “fin-syn” rule), imposed by the FCC in 1970 and abolished in 1993,
which prevented major television networks from owning any of the
programming aired in primetime.
- Brokered the Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement
in 1998 between Big Tobacco and 46 states, which gave tobacco companies
some immunity from class action suits in exchange for limiting nicotine
levels and paying antismoking groups about $250 billion.
- Represented more than 2,500 Czech-Americans in obtaining
compensation for assets seized by the Communist government of
McPherson has served on several presidential commissions. President Jimmy Carter appointed him to the President’s Commission on the Accident at Three Mile Island (1979). President Ronald Reagan
appointed him vice chairman of the United States Cultural and Trade
Center Commission, which planned a 600,000-square-foot (56,000 m2) facility in the Federal Triangle. Presidents George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton appointed him a member of the 1993 U.S. Base Realignment and Closure Commission.
He has also been active in cultural, civic, and political
organizations. From 1969 to 1974 he was a member of the board of
trustees of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Smithsonian Institution. He was on the Board of Directors of the Council on Foreign Relations
from 1974 to 1977, and was chairman of the Democratic Advisory Council
of Elected Officials Task Force on Democratic Policy (1974–76). After
serving as vice-chairman of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, he served from 1976 to 1991 as its general counsel.
From 1983 to 1988 he was president of the Federal City Council, a civic
organization of business, professional and cultural leaders in
Washington. From 1992 to 1999, he served as president of the Economic Club of Washington.
Recently McPherson helped the board of DLA Piper’s international pro
bono division institute a program that sends Northwestern University Law
School professors to teach at Ethiopia’s underfunded Addis Ababa
University School of Law.
McPherson married Clayton Reid in 1952; the couple had two children,
Coco and Peter. He was divorced in 1981 and married in 1981 to Mary
Patricia DeGroot, with whom he has a son, Samuel.
Publications and awards
A Political Education (originally published 1972) is McPherson’s insider view of the nation’s capital from 1956 to 1969. Anatole Broyard of The New York Times described the book as “fascinating to read” and McPherson as “refreshingly candid in both his praises and his criticisms.” A Political Education has become a political classic and is considered essential reading for understanding of LBJ and the Johnson administration. It is frequently cited in two definitive biographies of Johnson, Caro’s Master of the Senate and Dallek’s Flawed Giant.
McPherson is the author of numerous articles on foreign policy and political issues published in The New York Times, the Washington Post, and elsewhere. He served on the Editorial Advisory Board of Foreign Affairs and the Publications Committee of The Public Interest.
In 1994, McPherson was recipient of the Judge Learned Hand Human
Relations Award. In 2008, he was honored with a Lifetime Achievement
Award by American Lawyer magazine.
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