Harry McPherson Text of Interview: February 19, 2003Catherine Nugent2022-05-17T12:18:36-04:00
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ORAL HISTORY OF
HARRY C. MCPHERSON, JR. – FIFTH INTERVIEW
This is February 19,2003. We’ve just been through the presidential holiday snow storm
in Washington and this is day five of the interview series with Hany McPherson.
Mr. Vanderstar: When we left off, you were starting law school and I wanted to
go back before that and first ask you to think about and talk about the people and events that, as
of that point, as of fall of ‘53, had had a major influence on you in one direction or another.
Your mother was obviously one such person and, of course, your dad and your grandfather;
you’ve spoken about all three of them. But were there other people that you encountered or
events that you became aware of that had a really powerful influence on the way your life was
going at that time?
Mr. McPherson: I think we’ve probably covered some of these in earlier
sessions and one always starts with teachers.
Mr. Vanderstar: Yes, that’s true.
Mr. McPherson: We’ve all been influenced mostly for the good by teachers.
The two sisters I’ve spoken of. Sarah Marsh and her sister Mitty Marsh both had a big impact
on me. An American Indian woman married to an oil man, a woman named Meryl Chapman,
spent the day with me after my mother died and had more to say to me at that point that meant
something to me than anyone else did. When I got to Sewanee, I guess is the next time that
anyone had a major effect, and those two fellows, Charles Trawick Harrison and Thomas Govan,
affected me quite a lot.
You know, you find that environments themselves sometimes have a huge effect.
I was taught about the South by being at Sewanee, in part by driving around and visiting people
in their homes, but as much by simply getting to know young men of my age or a little older
from Mississippi, Alabama, South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia. They all
had different ways of looking at life, many of them steeped in southern culture, in a kind of
relaxed, warmly generous way that southerners sometimes have, and that conveyed a lot to me
about how to behave toward other people and what to appreciate in them. I guess those are the
ones that come immediately to mind. The entire environment certainly doesn’t mean everybody
at Sewanee, but I think at least 20 or 30 fellows from these various regions became important to
me-influenced me, you could say.
I enjoyed my father’s friends but for the most part they weren’t people whose turn
of mind I was eager to follow, to become like; nothing wrong with them, nothing at all, they just
didn’t have quite the interests that I did.
I mentioned in an earlier tape Reverend Meade Brown of the Episcopal Church. I
think the reason I still remember him without having known him profoundly is that he was both
interested in and sympathetic to my interest in larger, what shall I say, ontological questions,
questions about meaning, and, like an enormous number of young men and women who grow up
in simple towns, towns without universities and without a lot of university-bred people, I was
hungry to know more about life in its deeper aspects, and so I was eager to connect with
anybody who seemed to be similarly interested. So this clergyman who read a lot, drank a lot
and didn’t sound like a blowhard as many of the Protestant ministers did in my home
town-many of the Baptists and Methodists who came on like steam engines-this Meade
Brown was a very cultivated man and could have had any number of callings within the church.
Simply the fact that he was interested in serious matters meant a lot to me and drew me to
wonder whether I wanted to be in the church. It was not because I had any profound belief in the
Gospels or in biblical matters, but I was drawn to him and to what he was doing because of it
concerned serious matters in life, and I was keen to be similarly involved.
Mr. Vanderstar: Did you ever pursue in any way the notion of perhaps going
into the ministry? Did you think about it seriously?
Mr. McPherson: I talked to him about it when I was 14 and he said, “I wouldn’t
rush it if I were you. You’ve had a hard blow”-I’d lost my mother-“and I think instead of
committing yourself to anything like that now, just go ahead and live your life out and learn as
much as you can and then at some point it may strike you that you want to do this.” He didn’t
really put me off, but he gave me very common sense advice. After that, I don’t know that I ever
was really profoundly drawn to it.
Sewanee has a theological seminary. Several fellows, I think I mentioned them,
in my class went on and became very distinguished clergy. Most of them went to seminary
either at Sewanee or at Virginia Seminary in Alexandria. One was comfortable at Sewanee
being with young men who were headed for the ministry even though one didn’t plan such a
thing one’s self. You felt fine with them, and you played baseball and football and went to
dances and lived normally with them. While the guy across the coffee table was going into
forestry, they were going into the ministry. They didn’t seem peculiar because of that but, at the
same time, they didn’t necessarily seem magnetic.
Mr. Vanderstar: Now, the seminary at Sewanee is an Episcopal seminary.
Mr. McPherson: Yes. Virginia Seminary in Alexandria is also Episcopal.
Mr. Vanderstar: Did the presence of that seminary on the (Sewanee) campus
have any effect on you and on the life of an undergraduate, or was it just removed, sufficiently
removed that it could have been 100 miles away?
Mr. McPherson: Well, in the time when I was at Sewanee, this is not true today,
undergraduates were required to go to morning prayer four days a week. It was at noon. When
the 11 o’clock class let out at noon one went over to this lovely chapel the size of a small
cathedral and went to morning prayers. And then you also had to go two Sundays a month.
Much of our response to that was frivolous. We made up funny words to hymns as we sang
them, very much like, I suspect, public school boys had been doing for centuries in England.
Mr. Vanderstar: Sure.
Mr. McPherson: There were, of course, times when you wanted to plumb some
depths in life, and without having any scientific or psychological or historical training, any
secular way of looking at it, you would, at least a few times, explore the religious way of looking
at it. I don’t remember exactly how I displayed that except in just conversations with people,
asking them what they thought.
Mr. Vanderstar: After you graduated from Sewanee, did the experience of
compulsory chapel serve to draw you in or repel you from church, at least for a while?
Mr. McPherson: I don’t know. I think what drew me, has always drawn me to
the church to the extent that I’ve drawn in any serious way, has been individuals wearing the
collar. More than intellectual pursuit or more than some religious experience, it’s been some
person, some clergyman who seemed to be living on a plane that was more serious than others
were, and I remember one time when I had gotten pretty much involved in St. Mark’s Church, on
Capitol Hill, an old church right behind the Library of Congress.
It might be worth telling you this if you don’t mind me skipping ahead a little bit.
Mr. Vanderstar: Not at all.
Mr. McPherson: I came up here with my then wife to work for Lyndon Johnson
and for a few months we lived in a dreary, Soviet-style apartment house in Arlington, (laughter)
and then we moved into two floors of a row house on New Jersey Avenue, SE, just down below
the House Office Building. I started going to St. Mark’s Episcopal Church. I’m not sure why. I
guess I was just kind of hungry for some sort of connection, maybe somebody said, “It’s good to
have some sort of religious community,” and I realized I didn’t have such a thing so I started
Bill Baxter was the minister, a robust, big-spirited person who had, I was to learn
in later years, a lot of flaws as well as a lot of very strong attributes. He preached a sermon one
Sunday that rather irritated me. I went back to have coffee in the parish hall. He asked me how
long I’d been in Washington, what my interests were and so on, and I somehow managed to say
that “I really didn’t think much of that sermon you preached because I think you left out a very
serious side of the issue.” He said, “Let’s go have a drink at Cole McFarland’s house”; Cole was
an architect who invited people over to his house on Capitol Hill after church. After we had
talked for about half an hour over there and I told him what I objected to–he was such a goodspirited person that he accepted this without much complaint-he said, “How would you like to
teach the adult confirmation class?” (laughter) And I said, “I wouldn’t know what to say,” and
he said, “Yes, I think you would.” And I said, “Tell me what you think I can do.” He said, “I
think you can take people down into the depths with some of the reading that you have done over
time, Dostoyevsky and Kafka and so on, and when they really get down there they can hear the
Christian message.” And I said, “But I don’t know what the Christian message is, I don’t know
how to say it.” “Don’t worry about that right now,” he said, “and by the way, next Sunday I’m
going to call on you to stand up in the church and say what you just said to me about the sermon
I just preached.”
Mr. Vanderstar: Oh, boy.
Mr. McPherson: Well, I went, and he said, “We’re going to start something here
in the church and we’re going to call it ‘The Stranger’s Sermon.’ I’m going to call on a stranger
to respond to my sermon.” And he pointed out Harry McPherson who had just come up here
from Texas. Well, I got up and told the congregation of St. Mark’s Church what I thought about
his sermon. That began a very interesting relationship with Bill.
One evening I was working late in the Senate when Bill called and said, “We’re
rehearsing a play called The Sign ofJonah” by, I think, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. It had been done at
the Berliner Ensemble in East Berlin. Jonah was a U-boat captain. The vessel had been hit by a
depth charge, and it was at the bottom. Then it’s raised as Jonah realizes his helplessness in the
situation and calls out for God’s help and is redeemed. Bill said, “One of our prophets has
gotten sick, would you come read his part?” I said, “Sure.” So I went over there and read it
and-although you can’t tell from my snow-clearing voice because I’ve been out two days in the
snow-I have a very big voice and I am a ham. I love to act, as you probably do, too. So I read
it with power, and there was a lot of mumbling by the director and some others, and they said,
“Instead of reading that, why don’t you be Jonah.” So I became the captain. And then after
interfering with the direction during the next several nights (laughter), the director, a very nice
woman, said, “Only one ofus can be the director. Why don’t you be the director?” (laughter)
So I became the director and Jonah and in the next five or six years I wrote two plays and acted
in them and directed them.
In other years we did Mother Courage and Her Children, by Brecht, my thenwife playing Mother Courage; we did Brand by hen; we did The Bald Soprano of Ionesco; we
did all these avant-garde plays. And that was a huge experience for me. During that time, Bill
Baxter kept drawing me into things that he was doing in the church. He even got me elected
Senior Warden of the Church.
Mr. Vanderstar: And, for the record, Senior Warden is sort of the most senior
civilian in an Episcopal parish?
Mr. McPherson: Yes, the parish has this little body of vestry people, and I don’t
know really whether they are empowered to make decisions or whether they just give counsel to
the minister. In any event, they help with a lot of practical affairs of the church. And I was the
Senior Warden for several years.
One day, I was driving out to the airport with Bill and another clergyman. I think
we were going someplace where the two of us would talk about politics and religion. We sort of
had this shtick as they say on Broadway; I was the religiously sensitive politician, Bill was the
politically sensitive clergyman. We would go and talk about political life and challenges and the
church. Bill was asked by the other clergyman something about my beliefs and how he had
gotten this person so involved. Bill said, “Well, let’s let him say. What are your beliefs and why
are you committed to the church?” And I forget what I said, but it was most certainly not
credible. The truth was this: because I have a new, serious and very positive friend who is
involved in the church, and you have created in me and maybe 50 other people in St. Mark’s
what really amounts to a Christian community that is invaluable. A place and a group of persons
to whom one could turn in times of trouble, and they weren’t all professionals, they weren’t
scholars by any means. They were house painters and barkeeps, all kinds of people who became
important to one another. That experience, being in a rich community of persons enriching each
other, was the closest thing to a religious experience I think I ever had, closer than I ever got by
study, or searching for the truth of Christianity.
Mr. Vanderstar: Well, we’ll probably come back to that point from time to time
as we talk about your career in government and your career since then. Now, let’s go back to the
chronology and get you back to Austin, where you and Clay were in your 25 dollars a month
apartment in Austin and that expensive tuition, it was 55 dollars a semestaMr. McPherson: Right. (laughter)
Mr. Vanderstar: -which sounds so hnny looking at, looking back from 2003.
Let’s talk about law school. I’m not sure I have a sense of why you decided to go to law school.
Mr. McPherson: Well, there were three things. One was that I needed to have
some occupation that would pay the bills. Another is that I wanted to do something involving
speech, words, and ideas, and law was certainly one of the preeminent ones for that.
And the third, as I think I mentioned in an earlier session, was the concern that the
American people were going to be beset by people like Joe McCarthy, demagogues who would
attack them, and that they would need counsel. I guess if I’d have known more history and had a
larger sense of the things that happened in life, I might not have thought about that at all
because, this would pass, it always had before. There were people like McCarthy in existence
throughout American history, and they’ve finally been done in. But I was at an impressionable
age, and I was extremely worried sitting over there in Germany in the Air Force and reading
about my country and its wrestling with Joe McCarthy. So I thought I would become a civil
rights lawyer or a civil liberties lawyer. Those three things, the G.I. Bill, my wife’s school
teaching, and my father’s 75 dollars a month made it the thing to do.
Mr. Vanderstar: And how did law school grab you in view of that background of
Mr. McPherson: Well, I was profoundly unprepared for law school. I had no
economic or practical knowledge. I mean, I really didn’t know what a mortgage was, I didn’t
know many commonplace things. I drove up to register in law school. I had a 195 1 Ford, and
right next to me a guy drove up in a 1946 Plymouth Coupe; in the back seat and just stuffed into
every cranny of this Coupe were either his clothes or jars of Vicks Vapo-Rub (laughter). He had
been a Vicks Vapo-Rub salesman (laughter) in Louisiana and had decided that he didn’t want to
do that anymore, he wanted to go to law school. Jerry Kirby was his name. Tall, skinny guy, he
was about 32 and had on an old tom t-shirt.
During the time he was at Austin he started a small loan business, exploiting the
very generous usury laws of the State of Texas making small loans to poor Mexicans and others.
It wasn’t that he was an evil man at all. He was just making some bucks to get by on and he did
it through running a small loan business. He made A’s in law school. He just knew virtually
everything about life that you could know at the age of 32, business-wise.
I remember I was once on a visiting committee to Yale Law School; the ABA
asked me to be part of the committee that every ten years or so examines the school.
Mr. Vanderstar: Is this for accreditation purposes?
Mr. McPherson: Yes. After a couple of days up there, and after talking to these
gifted intellectual persons-Yale has a kind of a philosophical, soaring quality about it-I just
thought, if I had been here I would have been the happiest of humans, if I could have had this
spacious intellectual experience instead of learning about the usury laws and mastering what a
person could keep on foreclosure, as I had done at Texas in those days. And I said to the Yale
dean, “You know, if I were in your shoes, I would cause young students-to-be to come to New
Haven for two or three weeks before school started formally, and I would have them meet
serially with a mayor, a chief of police, with an articulate banker, with a small loan operator, a
used car dealer, a mortician, all kinds of people-not lawyers, but all kinds of other people
involved in economic life and political life in a city. And I would just have the new students
spend as long as such fellows would stand up there and talk to them, two or three hours
answering questions like what do you do, what goes on in the city. This could be a big helpso
that before they sat down to the Rule in Shelley’s Case or the Rule Against Perpetuities, the
many students who had come out of theoretical studies in college and grew up in families like
mine who just didn’t think it was appropriate to bring children into a discussion of family
finances or the descent of property, would have heard somebody say, ‘Here’s what, not saying
this goes on in your family, but here’s what goes on in a lot of families and the kind of thing I
have to deal with everyday’.’’ I thought that might be a pretty good thing. The dean looked at
me with an expression of amusement and said, “Well, that’s an interesting idea.” (laughter)
That’s all I ever heard of it.
Mr. Vanderstar: That’s as far as it got?
Mr. McPherson: That’s as far as it got. (laughter)
I didn’t do worth a damn in the first year of law school. I finally got going in the
Mr. Vanderstar: Well, now, there’s a lot more to the first year of law school than
mortgages and so on, I mean torts and contracts if you have those in first year and civil
procedure are courses that help particularly and don’t require that much knowledge of the wider
world, as you call it.
Mr. McPherson: Yes, that’s true.
Mr. Vanderstar: How did they strike you?
Mr. McPherson: Well, I don’t know, for some reason I couldn’t get my brain
around them and/or didn’t know how to study and felt intimidated by the material and wondered
what on earth? Did I do the wrong thing? I was going to go right straight through so I could get
out a little earlier, and that summer I had a couple of professors who helped me a lot. Texas had
some extremely good professors, then and now. The dean was Page Keeton, W. Page Keeton,
who was a great torts teacher. Keeton on Torts is one of the better case books. Charles
McCormick on evidence. Leon Green also on torts. Joseph Sneed taught tax, he’s been on the
Ninth Circuit for a long time. A great criminal law professor named George Stumberg. These
were really very fine teachers. And I began to do better, I began to get some sense of how to
Mr. Vanderstar: Talk about your classmates, at least in the first year, and
whether you had a sense that everybody in the room was smarter than you were.
Mr. McPherson: Not everybody, but a lot of them, yes.
Mr. Vanderstar: Yes. It’s an intimidating experience at a first-rate law school.
Mr. McPherson: Yes.
Mr. Vanderstar: No doubt about it. How many were in your class roughly?
Mr. McPherson: John, I don’t remember.
Mr. Vanderstar: 1 OO? 500?
Mr. McPherson: In my class, probably, I would guess 200, 250.
Mr. Vanderstar: And mostly young men from Texas?
Mr. McPherson: At that time, yes.
Mr. Vanderstar: That’s a double question: young men? and, from Texas?
Mr. McPherson: Almost no women, let’s say there were 400 in the class. The
more I think about it that sounds closer to the mark. I would guess out of the 400 probably 15 or
Mr. Vanderstar: Oh! Okay.
Mr. McPherson: Despite the fact that Sweat v. Painter was a case involving the
University of Texas Law School, I don’t think we had a Black, or if we did, it was one or two.
Mr. Vanderstar: Well, now, you were a little older, you were not fresh out of
college when you went to law school, you had a few yearsMr. McPherson: -well, three years in the Air Force and one year at Columbia,
so I was 24.
Mr. Vanderstar: Okay. And Jerry Kirby was 32. Did you two guys stand out in
terms of age.
Mr. McPherson: No, no. A lot of people were in their late twenties. In fact, a
number of guys had been in the service, as I had. This was Korean War time, and a lot of people
had gone off to serve.
Texas had at that time a six-year program so that a student could start as a
freshman in college and in six years be out of law school.
Mr. Vanderstar: Get the A.B. then the LL.B.
Mr. McPherson: Getting both of them, which always struck me as a terrible idea.
I’ve told I guess a thousand applicants for a place here in the firm, and the people who are
coming straight from college, that you’ll do what you want to do but in my profound judgment
you would be well served to take a year or two off doing something else and then go to law
school. I think they would be much better served.
But we had a mix of all those: people like me who had some time in the service,
and like Jerry Kirby who had been selling Vicks VapoRub. (laughter) I think we were probably
90 percent Texans. It was by far the dominant law school in the state at the time. SMU got to be
quite good thereafter. Baylor got to be good, and the Houston schools have produced some
pretty good students. But Texas is probably the best and, as in most southern states, an LL.B.
from the state university is a ticket to a lot of things that one would want to do later on in life,
both in law practice and in business, and politics.
Mr. Vanderstar: Let me ask you a bunch of questions about law school. For
example, if you have 400 or so in your class, your first year class, was it divided up into sections
or did you go to a class with 400 students?
Mr. McPherson: No, it was in sections.
Mr. Vanderstar: Okay. And how many hours a week would you be in class and
how hard did you study?
Mr. McPherson: Just going back to your torts, property, procedure, con law, and
contracts, those five in the first year. In the summer, employee relations, which was workmen’s
comp and a smattering of labor law, and a course called “Injuries to Relations.” That really lit
my fire. It was taught by a marvelously articulate, bourgeois-shocking lawyer named Leon
Green. He was a dean at Northwestern for many years, and Page Keeton persuaded him to come
down. The two of them taught torts, so one section went to Dean Page Keeton and the other to
Green. I had Keeton for torts but I had Leon Green for “Injuries to Relations,” which included
slander, libel, all the non-physical torts, injuries to reputation, standing in the community and so
on. A wonderfully taught course and wonderfully interesting, and it helped me get going.
Thereafter, I had Charles McCormick for evidence; he was one of the truly great professors. I
always thought McCormick on Evidence was a clearer book than Wigrnore, which was the other
one at the time that you turned to; he was a grand professor.
Mr. Vanderstar: You said that when you got into second year, you were catching
on better, probably the summer too. What do you remember about the courses in second year?
Mr. McPherson: Criminal law and George Stumberg, a classic character, a tiny
man who sat leaning back on a stool. Taught only the Socratic method, never made a declarative
sentence (laughter) and drove some of us old Texas boys quite mad (laughter) as we tried to
figure out could possibly be correct as Stumberg would just lead us into these blind alleys and
mazes where we lost our way.
What else? Tax, Joe Sneed, a marvelous tax lawyer, very conservative political
fellow, appointed by Nixon to the Ninth Circuit. Wills and estate, civil procedure, oil and gasMr. Vanderstar: Yes. Good Texas course.
Mr. McPherson: Good Texas course. Better have that sucker. (laughter)
Mr. Vanderstar: What about bills and notes or commercial law or whatever it’s
Mr. McPherson: Yes. And corporations.
Mr. Vanderstar: Corporations?
Mr. McPherson: Yes, corporations, trusts, a course in legislation-a pretty good
one, I mean, legislative interpretation.
Mr. Vanderstar: To what extent were the courses you mentioned elective?
Mr. McPherson: After the first year you had to take criminal law and you had to
take corporations, but I think a number of them were electives.
Mr. Vanderstar: Okay, So, and as you get into third year, pretty much
everything is elective?
Mr. McPherson: Pretty much everything was elective.
Mr. Vanderstar: Okay. Was there any small course or seminar or something that
you took in third year or was third year just all a continuation of the same.
Mr. McPherson: It was for me. I had done so poorly in the first year that, though
I did well in the second and third years, my grades were never good enough to put me on law
I guess, in my typical political way, I was elected president of the local law
fraternity, Phi Alpha Delta. I did that a little and got some guys to come and speak to us in the
fraternity, but for the most part I was learning how to study law, wondering what I was going to
do when I got out of it.
My wife was still teaching, and we were enjoying what at the time was a perfectly
marvelous school and city. Austin had 125,000 people-this was before Willie Nelson and
before much that has caused it to be super popular. It now has about a million and a half and has
changed quite a lot, a lot more concrete and asphalt than it used to have. But it’s a beautiful part
of the world, and we loved it. I thought I would probably end up in a law firm either there or in
Dallas or Houston. I interviewed in those three cities and had offers, but not being on law
review I didn’t get an offer from Vinson & Elkins or Baker & Botts or the big superstar firms.
The best law student, at least one of the two or three best law students, was a guy
named Dick Hall. He and I looked a lot alike, tall blond fellows with big heads. His dad had a
firm in Corpus Christi down on the coast. We’d become close friends. We went up one day to
my home town, Tyler, and talked to several business people, bankers, insurance people, and the
question was, “If Dick and I start a law firm here, in Tyler, would you steer some business our
way?” And what else were they going to say? They all said, “Sure would.” So we went back
and thought very seriously that we might do that. Dick’s father wanted him to come down and
join him in Corpus Christi, but it attracted us to start something of our own. I figured with my
knowledge of the town and the people in it and his brains, that we could probably do a fair job.
In the fall, of ‘55, I got a call from a cousin, Jack High-the fellow who got together
with Ross Perot later. Jack was working for LBJ on his Texas Senate staff in Washington.
Johnson was the Senate majority leader and the chairman of the Senate Democratic Policy
Committee. Jack said, “Senator Johnson wants an assistant counsel of the Democratic Policy
Committee in the Senate. He’s just about working the counsel into the ground. Would you be
interested?” And I said, “Yes, I would.”
A day or two later someone from Johnson’s office called Page Keeton and asked
him if he knew anybody who would be interested. I think that person must have mentioned me,
and Dean Keeton must have said that I would probably do all right. I have a dim recollection of
his telling me that at about the time I was interviewed.
I was interviewed in Austin and pretty much got hired during the interview. I
asked what I would be paid, and the counsel, Gerald Siegel, said, “We’ll let you know about
that.” In a few days word came back that I would be paid 4,600 dollars a year, which I thought
was not very much. I said, “Some of my colleagues, including some who didn’t do quite as well
as I did in the last couple of years, are going to be paid a lot more than that in law firms.” And
the answer was, “Well, Senator Johnson thinks he’d like to bring you along by stages.”
(laughter) So there wasn’t going to be much negotiation about pay, that was pretty clear.
Dick Hall and I and our wives had a very warm, sentimental steak dinner one
night at Schultz Garden, the great place in Austin where generations of law students have been
ruined. It’s a place where you could get a small filet, a very good one, a baked potato, a little
salad and a big mug of ice cold Pearl beer for $1.25.
Mr. Vanderstar: Oh, boy! (laughter)
Mr. McPherson: We said good-bye and said in a couple of years we’ll get
together again and figure out if we want to go to Tyler. But he went off to one of the big
Houston firms and I went to Washington.
Mr. Vanderstar: Okay. Could we go back to law school on a couple of points.
First of all, did you go to school the second summer as well as the first?
Mr. McPherson: Yes, I had to. I wanted to get out in January of ‘56.
Mr. Vanderstar: Okay. And the school, law school allowed that, they didn’t
insist that you graduate in May or June?
Mr. McPherson: No.
Mr. Vanderstar: Okay, good. Did other people do the same thing?
Mr. McPherson: Yes.
Mr. Vanderstar: Okay. Next question. Let’s go back now to the reasons you
thought about going to law school in the first place and, in particular, the Joe McCarthy
influence on your thinking. What happened to that while you were in law school? I didn’t hear
you talk about taking courses in civil rights or civil liberties, maybe there were none, but did that
interest continue or did that kind of fade along with a lot of ideas you had as a young man.
Mr. McPherson: I guess it faded as McCarthy was done in. I went to law school
in the fall of ‘53 and I think the famous Army-McCarthy hearing was in the spring of ‘54 when
Joe Welch said, “Have you no shame, senator?”
That might help explain why I didn’t do very well in law school. I listened to the
radio in the hot little barracks apartment in the afternoons for hours at a time instead of studying,
I was so riveted by McCarthy. But my absorption in McCarthy was probably at its height when I
was in Germany, and probably one of the reasons why that was so was that I was simply over
there and was reading the European press, which was uniformly hostile to Joe McCarthy. That
wasn’t the case in parts of the U.S. I remember visiting my father in Tyler and going to the
country club for dinner one night with him and hearing some of Tyler’s business community
speaking with real warmth about Joe, who was going to be there the next week, “He’s flying
down and we’re having a big dinner for him.” When I got to Austin my wife and I went to a
lecture by the dean of Notre Dame Law School, Clarence Manion. In the question period after
the lecture, which was about states’ rights and so on, he was asked a question about McCarthy
and he said, “I think he’s a godsend.” And I said, “Boo!” (laughter) and I thought the neck of
the man in front of me was going to pop. It turned out he was a man named Ed Clark, who was
the most famous lawyer-lobbyist in Austin and a great pal of Johnson’s. When I mentioned the
incident to somebody, he said, “You know, that’s interesting. I was at a dinner a couple of
weeks later with Ed Clark and some other people and we were talking about the Clarence
Manion lecture. And he said, ‘It was a wonderful lecture; if I hadn’t been sitting in front of
some liberal pup (laughter) it would have been just fine’.’’ I was that “liberal pup.”
Anyway, Leon Green and a man named Jerry Williams, a labor law professor,
were several of the liberal professors in the law school who shared my feelings about McCarthy.
Even the conservative professors were not McCarthy conservatives. They were economically
conservative, but not hard over on foreign or social policies.
I suppose, without the enemy before me all the time and, in fact, with an enemy
who had been defanged to a considerable degree by the censure motion, I had not exactly run out
of interest in civil liberties, but I was not driven by these concerns as much as I had been. I
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began to see that law and law practice would be different than carrying banners. It involved
other skills than just political enthusiasm.
Mr. Vanderstar: One of the other points you mentioned that had made law
school attractive was the whole notion of words and speech, of language being so central to the
law. Did that attitude continue as you got into the study of law?
Mr. McPherson: It did, John. I have confidence that, if I live long enough, I’m
going finally to connect and understand a lot of things. I have only occasionally understood
many things the first time around and have had either to stay with them a long time in order to
understand or to hope that I would come to understand. I have told all three of my children that
their father, whatever his reputation for smarts, is really to be commended for one quality, which
is doggedness-as I have really had to stay after things a lot longer than many of my
contemporaries seem to have done. It has taken me a second or third shot at a lot of things in life
in order to gain even a modest competence in them.
When I was in high school, when World War I1 was being fought, the military’s
physical training procedures became very much in vogue. I remember a young man who had
been in the Navy and for some reason had been medically discharged became one of the coaches
on our football team. He put in a barbed wire fence around our football field and built an
obstacle course with a huge wall about ten feet tall; you were supposed to leap up and grab the
top of it and then bring yourself up, chin yourself. Well, many of the guys in my class, most of
them a couple of years older than I was, could do that. I couldn’t. I could get my hands over the
wall but I couldn’t chin, couldn’t pull myself up. So I went and got an oil barrel that was nearby
and rolled it over and put it up next to the fence and climbed up on it and then got up and over
the wall. And the coach just shrugged his shoulders and let me do it. It must have been clear to
him that this kid was not going to do it the right way and he won’t do it at all the first time, but
it’s important to him that he go over that wall one way or another. And so, I’ve been that way in
a lot of things in life, and I think understanding of legal concepts is probably one of them. I’ve
not been a conventional practitioner in my life, either in government or as a counselor, an
advocate, and a lobbyist, but I am a better lawyer, I understand the law a lot better now than I did
when I was in law school.
Mr. Vanderstar: I guess that’s true of most of us.
Mr. McPherson: But it just took me a lot of tries at it.
Mr. Vanderstar: In going back to the interest in words and speech and language,
did you find in law school that your writing skills and your speaking skills were helpful or did
you find that for lawyers in law school, it’s a different kind of writing and a different kind of
speaking and you were as green as anybody?
Mr. McPherson: That way.
Mr. Vanderstar: The second?
Mr. McPherson: Very much. In fact, having literary interests and even writing
any kind of literary way or even journalistic way isn’t much help in law school, at least so it
seemed to me.
Mr. Vanderstar: And did you get exposed in any direct way in law school to
learning how to speak and write as a lawyer or was that just something you were supposed to get
by osmosis, if at all?
Mr. McPherson: As a writer about legal concepts or as an expositor of the law,
I’m better than I was when I was in law school. I got a little better as a legal writer as I went
along in law school. I came to appreciate language as an instrument of clear analysis. Reading
clear-headed legal thinkers helped. McCormick, for example. McCormick on Evidence is a
book that I’ve gone back and looked at from time to time. McCormick, the gentlest of men, was
a pure writer. I’ve always been struck by his simplicity of expression, which in time affected
me, not as soon as it should have, but then I didn’t have him until the third year.
Mr. Vanderstar: Now, let’s go back to Dean Keeton saying you might be
interested in national politics. Before you got that phone call from your cousin and then the call
from Dean Keeton, had you given any thought to national politics?
Mr. McPherson: No, not in the sense of working in itMr. Vanderstar: That’s what I meant.
Mr. McPherson: 4r working in the government. No, in those days, I mean,
Sam Raybum went to Texas Law School and then went back to law practice in Denton, got
elected to the state legislature, and hardly ever looked back. He was enfolded in politics and
came up here in Woodrow Wilson’s first year. But most of the people that I knew who had a
political interest, and there were quite a lot in Texas-Texas attracted many of such peopleMr. Vanderstar: You mean the University of Texas?
Mr. McPherson: -particularly the University of Texas Law School. It attracted
many young men who had a robust interest in politics. Most of them were like me, mocking of
the political establishment, of the business establishment-most of us in those days were liberal.
There was a group of about 30 representatives in the state legislature called the “Dirty 30” who
just raised hell with the conservative program that was being offered to the legislature over and
over by the business community, and these guys fought it-mostly oil and gas taxation and
things like that. They could be found at Schultz’ Beer Garden in the evening. They had gone to
Texas Law School, maybe a couple of them were still in it. It had a wonderful flavor to it, a
robust, saucy, irreverent flavor.
I think I was the only one of the liberal students who headed for Washington at
the time. Later it became very popular to do that. John Kennedy was the first politician since
FDR to begin to attract young law students to come to Washington. My impression is that, while
some fellows like me in the ‘30s did come up here from Texas and go to work in some of the
agencies, it was not anywhere near as common as it became in the ‘60s. And maybe LBJ’s being
president had something to do with that.
Mr. Vanderstar: Sure. Well, am I right in interpreting what you said that the
University of Texas Law School was a pretty liberal-thinking place, both in terms of the faculty
and perhaps the students as well, or have I misinterpreted it?
Mr. McPherson: I think it is and was. There are certainly exceptions. Charles
Wright was, of course, I’m not sure where you’d put him politically, certainly he was Nixon’s
counsel in the tapes case, but I think it was largely an exercise of his vanity (laughter) as the
Great Scholar of Federal Jurisdiction.
Mr. Vanderstar: Yes. I heard him speak at an ACLU conference, if that helps to
put it into perspective. (laughter)
You were talking about the South in the early ‘50s before Brown vs. The Board
and so forth and so on, but after Sweat v. Painter and so on, and so you felt at home at Texas
Law School with your liberal, probably out-of-kilter with a lot of the society, views on things.
Mr. McPherson: Yes. If you went ten blocks across the campus to the business
school you would have a totally different politics.
Mr. Vanderstar: Okay.
Mr. McPherson: But if you went to the so-called Plan Two at the University of
Texas, where the ablest undergraduates were enrolled, something started, I think, in the ’40s to
induce good talent to come to Austin and not to go off to the Ivy League or to more famously
good schools. Plan Two is largely a humanities program, and it offers about as good an
education as can be had. I think probably the people who taught there were by and large liberal.
You know, the Texas University campus was the scene in the ‘30s of one of the
great academic freedom struggles. The president of the university was a man named Rainey, and
he defended the right of professors of government and political science and literature to use such
things as John Dos Passos’ USA trilogy. The Board of Regents, composed of very conservative
business people, many of whom had underwritten the campaigns of the legislature and of the
governor, fired him, and it became a huge issue. On his side were the entire liberal arts faculties
and, I suspect, much of the law school faculty, as well.
So that the struggle in Austin has not been so much town-and-gown as gown-andlegislature, since the legislature provides the funds for the University-and those funds were
enormous because of oil properties out in west Texas. When the Midland fields came in, the
University of Texas became one of the two or three wealthiest universities in the country. The
university did its best to clear the pipeline between itself and that money and to keep the
legislature out of it. The legislature did its best to make sure that the right things got taught and
the wrong things didn’t.
Mr. Vanderstar: The “right things”?
Mr. McPherson: “Right” in the very political sense of that word.
Mr. Vanderstar: But wasn’t the legislature populated with UT Law School
Mr. McPherson: A number of them, but the “Dirty 30”-since there were a
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couple of hundred people in the legislature, I think they were exceptional. They were beloved by
the press but not widely admired by conservative Texans.
Mr. Vanderstar: So, in the midst of this ferment you got an education and you
and Dick Hall thought about opening a law firm in Tyler, Texas.
Mr. McPherson: Right.
Mr. Vanderstar: What did you envision, before you got the phone call from your
cousin, that you would be doing as your professional life? Writing wills and representing the
Mr. McPherson: Trying cases, representing the local bank-to tell you the
honest truth, I would have been at a loss at the time to write a five-page essay on “What I Think
I’m Going to Do in Law.” I didn’t know how you fitted together the academic world of law and
the practical law of human experience.
Mr. Vanderstar: And making a living as you work.
Mr. McPherson: Yes, on top of that, the necessity to bring home the bacon.
Mr. Vanderstar: You mentioned trying cases and that reminds me, I meant to ask
you, did you develop some special interest in trial work and appellate work as a way of using
your languages skills, albeit in a legal context?
Mr. McPherson: Sadly, no. I very much wish I had. Many years later, when I
was leaving the Johnson White House, I was visited by a number of people who showed an
interest in what I wanted to do next. One of the things that I wish I had done at the time was to
have gone to Ed Williams, whom I knew quite well, and ask him if he would take me into his
law firm. My idea long after the fact was, I should have said, “Two-thirds of the time I’ll be
your bag carrier if you’ll spend some time teaching me how to be a trial lawyer. And the other
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third of the time I’ll do the things I know how to do, which is deal with the government on
behalf of clients. I can pay for myself in that third and over time I will learn how to be a trial
1 awyer . ”
It’s a good question, John, and as I think about it, for the most part, very few of
the academic teachers of law conveyed the zest of a trial practice. They did not say, as a voice
teacher does, “Okay, Luciano, you’re going to hit C flat here in La Forza del Destino. Nope, try
it again. Let me hear you do this.” They didn’t coach us for performance using case law as a
voice teacher uses the notes of the music.
This reminds me of a film called Mozart to Mao, a documentary in which Isaac
Stern is seen in China. This is in the days after Mao was off the scene and I guess Deng Jao Ping
had come on and Isaac Stem took a trip to China. And of course he played the violin. Isaac was
a marvelous, big-spirited man. There was wonderful scene where he’s on the stage with maybe
5,000 young people, probably at a university, filling a hall, and there’s a young woman who has
a violin and a bow. He is going to help her with a Bach Partita. She plays every note correctly,
and it’s meaningless. He said, “You absolutely got those notes right. You were not off one
quarter note. You were right there. But let me show you what Bach was trying to do.” So he
take the violin and he plays the same notes with an intonation and a vibrato and pauses and a
striking power that is just utterly different. It’s like when I was trying to teach people how to be
in the plays I directed. I would give them a sentence, “I don’t think I want to go there.” And I
would then give them five situations in which one would say that sentence, “I don’t think I want
to go there.” Just to have them see that they are all said differently, depending on the
circumstances, and get them to read a text in a way, like Horatio, like the old Professor Long in
college saying, “Nay, answer me!” I didn’t have such a teacher in law school, somebody who
gave me a sense of the romance and the excitement and zest that would make me want to be a
Mr. Vanderstar: And you didn’t have adjunct professors who were practitioners?
Mr. McPherson: No, if such existed, I didn’t go to the classes they taught.
Mr. Vanderstar: So there were no prominent successful jury trial lawyers that
came into your view while you were in law school?
Mr. McPherson: No. The only one, the only lawyer I ever remember thrilling
me was in Tyler, Texas, when I was about 9 years old at, my sainted grandfather had been made
the executor of a very wealthy old lady’s estate. He had made some decisions which were
challenged in a lawsuit. He was defended by a (loud voice) man named Galloway Calhoun-a
marvelous name. (laughter) And Galloway Calhoun defended him with passion and power and
grandiosity; it was florid. God, I loved it. I could smell the tobacco juice and the urine from the
men’s room down the hall (laughter), and I just sat there for hours listening to Galloway Calhoun
defend my grandfather. (laughter) I think he’s the only great lawyer I can remember seeing in
Mr. Vanderstar: Oh, my. All right. Well, it seems to me that’s a good place to
stop because we’ve pretty well covered things up to the time you and Clay got in the car and
drove to Washington.