ORAL HISTORY OF
HARRY C. MCPHERSON, JR. – SIXTH INTERVIEW
It is Monday, February 24,2003. This is the sixth day of our interview process.
Mr. Vanderstar: We left off with Harry McPherson leaving Texas and coming to
Washington to be assistant counsel of the Senate Democratic Policy Committee. And your
starting salary was $4,600.
Mr. McPherson: $4,600.
Mr. Vanderstar: College educated and law school, years of service, and so on.
Mr. McPherson: (laughter) Yes.
Mr. Vanderstar: Is there still a Democratic Senate Democratic Policy
Mr. McPherson: There is. It is not quite what it was when I went to work for it.
In those days, it was chaired by the Senate majority leader. It isn’t now.
The members of it were what Lyndon Johnson, my boss, called “whales.” I once
asked him whether we were going to have any luck passing the Civil Rights Act in 1963, and I
said, “A lot of these fellows have been speaking up about it, including a couple of surprising
people. I’m beginning to get my hopes up about it.” And Johnson just shook his head and
looked at me as if I were too dumb to spend any time with, and he said, “The minnows. We’ve
got a lot of the minnows, but we don’t have any of the whales.” The whales were the people,
using another metaphor, who were the dukes; if Johnson was king, they were the top nobility, the
people who represented substantial parts of the Senate. Richard Russell, the South; Lister Hill,
the South. The South had 10 of the 13 major committee chairmanships, and Hill was a
nationally-oriented senator except in civil rights terms, as Russell was. Warren Magnason, the
Pacific Northwest; Clinton Anderson, the Southwest; Hubert Humphrey, the liberal representing
that part of the Senate. They were the main fellows, and when they gave their okay to move
ahead with legislation, that was a pretty good sign. At least the senior figures in the majority
party were prepared to do that.
Mr. Vanderstar: Were the whales on the Policy Committee or was it all the
Mr. McPherson: No. The whales pretty much constituted the Policy Committee.
Mr. Vanderstar: Okay. So this is different fiom the caucus, the Democratic
Mr. McPherson: The caucus is everybody. The Policy Committee, as I tried to
explain within indifferent success in my book, A Political Education, was an idea of political
scientists in the ‘40s who thought that the Senate suffered fiom not having something of an
ideological bent, that it would be better if ideas could be raised for Senate consideration and
debated on ideological grounds, so that it wouldn’t be just a back-scratching enterprise, a pork
barrel enterprise, but would be one in which the country would see these big issues debated.
So the idea was to have a policy committee that would put the stamp of the
leadership on various programs and say, “This is what we Democrats are for.” It didn’t really
work out that way. By the time Johnson became majority leader and chairman of the Policy
Committee, it really was the leaders of the Senate meeting a couple of times a month to talk
about legislation that was working its way out of committee or already reported-to try to decide
what made sense to take up and consider and pass. There were certainly differences, but unless
somebody just made an all-out personal appeal, most bills didn’t get blocked in the Policy
Committee. The committee would either decide to let some bill have its day or would decide
there were too many problems for the Democratic Party-the party in the scheduling role of
legislation-in bringing a bill up because it would expose too much hostility between parts of
Mr. Vanderstar: Okay. So this really was policy in a sense of the word, I mean
the title wasn’tMr. McPherson: A kind of practical sense.
Mr. Vanderstar: Yes, political policy, in fact. You referred to your book. Let
me right now put on the record, this is very important to this series, you wrote a book called A
Political Education, subtitled, “A Washington Memoir.” That was published in 1972, then in
1988 you wrote a postscript and it was republished, and then in 1995 you wrote a new preface
and it was published again by the University of Texas Press, And that’s available for anyone to
read. I must say, a very interesting book. I bought it this summer in Ashville, North Carolina, in
a bookstore called Malaprop’s.
Mr. McPherson: An appropriate name.
Mr. Vanderstar: And it cost me $19.95 plus tax.
Mr. McPherson: Oh. (laughter)
Mr. Vanderstar: Money well spent.
Mr. McPherson: (laughter) Nice to know about Malaprop’s.
Mr. Vanderstar: Yes. That’s a book that we’ll probably refer to from time to
time, but, as I’ve indicated, it’s not my purpose to go through the book because it’s already 400
and some-odd pages of printed text, and we don’t need to go through that. It does describe your
work at the Senate from ‘56 until ‘63. So you stayed at the Senate even though Senator Johnson
had become vice president and then, of course, president.
Mr. McPherson: I did, working still as counsel to the Policy Committee and then
as counsel to the new majority leader, Mike Mansfield, and the majority whip, Hubert
Humphrey. Mansfield asked me to remain with him, and I did.
There was nothing for me to do, really, for Lyndon Johnson as vice president. He
didn’t really need a counsel in the role that I had grown into. So I went with Mansfield. I
thought maybe, with John Kennedy being elected president and knowing a number of the people
around him, I should probably do what others did and at least consider working in the executive
branch in the Kennedy administration.
So I went down to see a fellow named Ralph Dungan, who was a very goodnatured fellow that I had known for several years when he worked for Kennedy in the Senate.
Now he was doing personnel picking at a certain level; he wasn’t looking for cabinet officers.
He was very positive, and I was considered okay by the Kennedy people. I’d known them on the
Hill and had been around them a good deal, and a lot of my interests as a staffer and as a person
ranged beyond, I should say, the conventional interests of a young Texas lawyer working for
I got involved in a number of seminars in arms control. I got to know Leo
Szilard, the physicist, who was conducting a kind of physicists’ political seminar in which he
was the main student, so it seemed to me. He thought that senators would respond to shrewd
political advice that would encourage them to back strong measures of arms control. Szilard had
been one of the fellows, along with Einstein and Ferme, who had persuaded FDR to launch the
Manhattan Project. After the war he decided that once was enough, that the United States had to
lead the way toward an arms control regime. He, with the counsel of several people who knew a
lot about arms control, picked out a few people on the Hill who had politically significant staff
roles and who were thought to be capable of understanding these arguments and of perhaps
talking to their bosses in a way that would do the country good. I was one of those that they
picked. So I spent a fair amount of time with Szilard, Hans Morgenthau, a number of other
scientists, political scientists, political theoreticians, who hoped to educate me sufficiently so
that I would educate LBJ and subsequently Mike Mansfield.
I had an interest in the arts. I had an interest in theoretical politics and well as
practical politics, and I got to know a number of people in New York, Boston and Washington
who taught at Harvard, Yale and Columbia, and others who belonged to the business-politicalsocial world of New York. How these things happen would require more time than we should
spend on it here, but I became a person of interest to a number of people in the financial and big
business worlds as well as in the universities, simply because I had a job in the Congress that got
me right into the middle of the room and allowed me to write memoranda-some of them half a
page, some of them 30 pages-addressed to people in power.
I was somebody that these people could talk to each other about. “Well, I was
talking to Harry McPherson about this, and you know he works for Lyndon Johnson,” “Yes, I
was also talking to him just the other day,” and so on. (laughter) What it all amounted to, I
don’t know. I had a lot of fun because I was learning for the first time something about the
business world and the academic world, those large east Coast universes that are outside the
orbit of Washington politics.
Mr. Vanderstar: Well, that stimulates a bunch of questions, so let me try this one
on you. You were a staff lawyer at the U.S. Senate; you worked for Lyndon Johnson but you
were employed by the United States Senate.
Mr. McPherson: Right.
Mr. Vanderstar: And you are writing memos of a half page up to 30 pages about
issues and so on. Was that all considered to be private to Senator Johnson, to the committee, to
whatever group, or was it material that could have been exposed outside of the Senate?
Mr. McPherson: Good question. I think at the beginning it was particular to
Johnson. It was unlikely that he would show it to anybody. It wouldn’t matter that Harry
McPherson had written something that took a particular view.
But one time in the late ‘50s Eisenhower nominated Admiral Lewis Strauss to be
secretary of commerce. Strauss had chaired the Atomic Energy Commission, and in doing so he
had run afoul, to put it mildly, of Senator Clinton Anderson of New Mexico, who despised
Admiral Strauss. I can’t even remember what the issues were between them. The nomination
came down. Eisenhower was very popular. It took a lot of thought for Lyndon Johnson to
decide whether to attack a cabinet nominee of Eisenhower’s, especially a nominee who was a
man of high reputation and standing in the national community. At the same time, he sure as
hell didn’t want to get on the wrong side of his friend Clinton Anderson and the others who felt
pretty much as Anderson did.
He asked me and a colleague of mine, an extremely intelligent young Texas
lawyer whom he had brought up to work with me, a fellow named Jim Wilson from the law firm
in Austin of McGuiness, Lockridge & Kilgore-years later general counsel at Brown & Root,
and still one of my best friends in life. He asked me and Jim to write a paper. He said, “I want it
to be well balanced. I want you to tell me all the pros and then I want you to tell me all the cons
and I want you to really research this thing. It’s got to be right, both sides, pros and cons. Don’t
you let there be a sentence in there that can be challenged for accuracy. You can draw
conclusions, that’s fine, but let there not be anything in there that’s not right.”
We researched Strauss’ career and produced about a 20-page memorandum, about
half and half, pros and cons. We wondered what on earth happened to it until the day the vote
came. I remember it was a fascinating vote, extremely close. Johnson had, as usual, his tally
sheet with his markings that he had made before the vote, how he thought it would go. I
remember Margaret Chase Smith of Maine, whom Johnson shamelessly courted throughout her
period as a senator. (laughter) When the clerk said, “Mrs. Smith,” she said, “No.” I can still
hear the very loud “God damn!” of Barry Goldwater.
Mr. Vanderstar: Oh, my. (laughter)
Mr. McPherson: You could hear it all the way up in the gallery. He was so
astounded. Well, Strauss was beaten. That afternoon, Jim and I got the memo back. It said,
“You boys get an A+.” I spoke a week or so later to Mary Margaret Wiley, Johnson’s secretary,
who’s now Mary Margaret Valenti, the wife of Jack Valenti.
Mr. Vanderstar: Oh, yes.
Mr. McPherson: I said, “Jim and I were really thrilled to get that back.” She
said, “YOU should have seen him use it. He read the pros to the people against Strauss, and he’d
say, ‘Now, this is what my lawyers tell me, and you want me to go against this fellow when my
lawyers are telling me . . .”’ And he’d only read them the pros. (laughter). And then the other
guys, when the pro-Strauss people would come to see him, Johnson would read them the cons.
“How can you support a man like this? This is what my lawyers tell me.” (laughter)
Mr. Vanderstar: That’s pretty vintage LBJ, isn’t it?
Mr. McPherson: Vintage. And when you asked me whether these memos got
made public, yes they did.
Later on, the longer I worked for him and then worked for Mansfield, I became
well enough known so that I wrote memos, many of them, with an understanding that they
probably would be shared with a number of people. Not all of them, but I would doubt if
anywhere on any of the memos I wrote then or in the White House, curiously, you would find
anything like “For the president’s eyes only” or whatever. I just assumed that whoever got hold
of them, Johnson or Mansfield or someone with whom they were speaking, would have sense
enough to treat them as confidential memoranda. But I didn’t seek to wall them off from other
Mr. Vanderstar: You left that to the recipient.
Here’s another aspect of the same question. Did you ever make speeches or write
articles for public consumption? Did you write Op-Ed pieces or articles for the Atlantic Monthly
Mr. McPherson: A few.
Mr. Vanderstar: This is while you are working at the Senate?
Mr. McPherson: Yes, while I was working there.
As you and I discussed in earlier sessions, I had gotten interested in the church
and in the relationship between politics and religion, the relationship between political ethics and
religion, and because I was working in politics and in the room with senior politicians, I guess it
gave what I had to say in church groups a certain pizzazz. And I occasionally I would write
something for some publication that would reflect my take on that relationship.
Mr. Vanderstar: Your reference to ethics and the church things brings to mind a
comment you made one or two sessions ago about a discussion group you were in at St. Mark’s
of people who were not necessarily professional people or whatever and that you found that
useful. Did that tie into what you were just talking about, ethics and government and so forth?
Mr. McPherson: Yes, I guess it did. In the book, A Political Education, I used
my experience in chancel drama, in writing and directing and acting in drama with people who
might include, in any given play, 10 or 12 people who were car mechanics, housewives,
painters-a whole variety of people who had very little to do with the law or with professional
life at all, in fact, many people who had no background in literature, to say nothing of drama.
But what I found was that in directing them, starting off with very fixed lessons and steps that
they might go through to learn how to say a sentence with meaning, after a month or so of my
intervention in everything they did-stopping them every five sentences and saying, “Wait,
wait,” I was like James Levine with a third-rate orchestra, stopping them after every three
bars-after a month or so, I not only didn’t have to do that, they were ready to go forward
without me. I remained useful to the extent that I had a role myself and to the extent that I could
arrange for the pot-luck supper to be served on time, but as far as the rhythm and the music of
the play went, they got it. They read it themselves, and it struck me-a point that I was trying to
make in the book-is that this was like something the way a democracy ought to work, that you
have a leader who sets the general course but whose main function is to empower, to liberate
people and give them a sense ofhow to do something, which they then do without being told at
every step how to do it. They are free persons exercising free will and doing it with skill and
Mr. Vanderstar: Well, I guess a lot of people would say that one of the primary
points to education is to accomplish that with people.
Mr. McPherson: Exactly.
Mr. Vanderstar: And you were engaging in an educational process.
In dealing with people in the church, did you have occasion to talk with them, to
get their views about such things as ethics and politics? Your book, at least one chapter, is pretty
much about the whole notion of can you really have ethics in political life, and it is a very
intriguing question. Did you get into that sort of thing on any scale?
Mr. McPherson: Yes, I did. There was at least one diocesan meeting, and at
least in a number of churches groups were convened for the purpose of talking about the
significance of religious belief to contemporary issues. I can’t tell you much about it except that
I recall speaking extemporaneously about these issues.
I found many people who went to church a lot, and made a big thing of their faith,
often less impressive as moral guides than people who showed no particular formal attachment
to religion, but seemed to be thoroughly involved, engrossed, in issues in a way that I thought
gave their expression a religious cast. When you think of ethical issues-I think I recited a
simple one one time in a debate on a foreign aid bill in the Senate: Hubert Humphrey made an
impassioned speech about poverty and famine in India, and he called on the Senate to
appropriate a few million dollars to enable a couple of hospital ships to anchor off the coast of
India; from there they would send physicians and medical teams to vaccinate people and to treat
people with various diseases. Like almost everything Humphrey ever said, it was enormously
thoughtful and passionate in its commitment to a human goal. Bill Fulbright got up right after
Humphrey finished. He was the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. He paid tribute
to Humphrey for the passion of his speech, and he said, “I’m afraid that if we kept many millions
of Indians alive, we would worsen the population pressures on the rest of them. It would
become not a benefit to the people of India but a bane to them. Until India and the world can get
a grip on overpopulation, we cannot, we should not, in my view, intervene to”-well, I guess he
didn’t put it quite this way although knowing Fulbright maybe he would have-“intermpt the
course of nature that levels out the population spike to some more manageable degree.”
Mr. Vanderstar: My goodness.
Mr. McPherson: The fact that they debated in those terms struck me as dealing
with ethical and moral issues.
Mr. Vanderstar: The overcrowded lifeboat issue.
Mr. McPherson: Yes, absolutely.
Mr. Vanderstar: Let me go back to an aspect of your work that I don’t think you
talked about in the book. I was asking you about whether memos you wrote were for private
consumption, and you said you left it to the recipient to decide how widely to distribute things, if
at all. One the words that everybody knows now who lives in Washington is the word “leak”
and there are a lot of viewpoints about that. Some people call it the “bureaucrats’ revenge” and
others call it “active extreme disloyalty” and we sometimes accuse people of violating criminal
laws. Did people leak things, did people talk about leaking things, did reporters get access to
people in power and get confidential information that perhaps they shouldn’t have? Could you
just talk about that subject? That could be a whole seminar for Marvin Kalb or somebody, but
for now, just give me your thoughts.
Mr. McPherson: Of course, the answer is Yes, they did. I have the feeling that
they either didn’t get leaks then at the rate they get them now, or the game wasn’t played quite
the way it is today, or they simply got the leaks and didn’t use them as they would today. You
had the impression that the professional news reporters of that time understood discretion. The
Washington Post correspondent covering government, Eddie Folliard, I can’t remember who
covered the Senate.
Mr. Vanderstar: Chalmers Roberts?
Mr. McPherson: Chal Roberts; Samuel Schaffer of Newsweek; Russell Baker
who was covering theI have to interrupt and tell a wonderful story. It’s bad for the sequence, but it’s too
good to forget. Russell Baker one day was walking through the halls outside the Senate
Chamber. Vice President Johnson burst out of ai elevator and he saw Russ and said, “Come on
in here, come on it, let’s talk.” He said, “I’ve just been to the zoo. It’s really been interesting.
I’m on the board, you know, of the Smithsonian and had an interesting meeting about the Zoo.”
And Russ shook his head, imagining Lyndon Johnson coming back from a meeting at the Zoo
(1 aughter) .
And Johnson, after they got in Johnson’s office right off the Senate Chamber,
started to rave about the administration’s failure to use him as a lobbyist and as an effective force
in the Senate. He said, “You know, I don’t know why this is, I just can’t”4f course he knew as
well as anybody else-“but it’s just terrible that they’d lost all these votes” and mentioned
several votes that the administration had lost. He then hit the buzzer and his secretary, Ashton
Thornhill in those days, came in. Johnson, while talking to Russ, very rapidly wrote something
on a piece of paper and shoved it at her, and she leaned over and wrote something on it and gave
it back. Johnson shoved it back to her and just kept talking. She walked out with it.
He went on for another 10 or 15 minutes using Russ Baker as a sounding board
for all his gripes about Bobby and Jack and the Kennedy crowd. When Russ was leaving-he
knew Ashton Thornhill very well-he just thought it would be interesting, so he went over to her
and said, “What was he writing? What kind of a message was he writing to you?” And she
reached over into the trashcan and pulled it out and pushed back this rumpled up thing that said
“Who is this I’m talking to?” (laughter)
Mr. Vanderstar: Oh, dear. That might have been best left unsaid. (laughter)
Mr. McPherson: Anyway, the pros up there like Phil Potter of the Baltimore Sun
did not seem to play Gotcha! as much as they do today. The advocates of today’s journalism
would say that they were all tame kittens, like Scotty Reston, about whom a book was recently
published that makes him seem as if he was a guy who always gave the people in power what
they wanted-that they were all that way. I thought on the contrary that it was a pretty good
relationship. You could share things with people without feeling that they were going to abuse
what you told them.
All this time I’ve not spoken about a character on the staff level who was vastly
more involved with the politics and personalities of the Senate than I was. His name was Bobby
Mr. Vanderstar: Oh, yes.
Mr. McPherson: He was the secretary of the majority, secretary of the
Democrats. He was a raffish character. From South Carolina, extremely smart. Bobby had
figured out at a fairly early period something that I did not figure out until about 20 years; this
will truly sound like you are talking to the ultimate simpleton. Bobby figured out that the key to
everything in politics was money, campaign contributions. Occasionally I’d get a whiff of this,
but I had nothing like Bobby’s profound involvement in raising money from wealthy people and
As I became a go-to guy on legislation, Bobby was the go-to guy for getting
reelected and getting people to commit campaign funds. He had less to do with the shaping of
legislation than he had had in earlier years. I would on occasion be asked to go to lunch in his
office with him and some big potential giver of campaign contributions, and I would be asked to
talk about what was going on with respect to the legislative scene. This helped Bobby in his
dealings with such people.
Mr. Vanderstar: So people got the inside word from inside.
Mr. McPherson: Yes, and when I left the room, Bobby would talk to them about
who needed help and how to make friends on the Democratic side.
Mr. Vanderstar: Okay, and those are good stories, but let me go back to question
of the relationship with the press. It wouldn’t have surprised me if you written in your book that
you as a counsel to the Senate Democratic Policy Committee had regular sessions with key
journalists to keep them abreast of what the thinking was-to the extent you were free to reveal
it–of the committee or to alert them to what was coming up so they could bone up and be ready
for it or anything of that sort. What’s the story on that?
Mr. McPherson: I guess when I became well enough known on that job I did talk
with a lot of reporters. These weren’t regularly scheduled events. There’s a Senate dining room
in the Capitol, and next to it there’s a place where ordinary citizens go for meals, and in the years
before it was possible for staffers to go into the Senate dining room. I would have coffee with
reporters in there. Occasionally a senator like Gene McCarthy, who liked to be with reporters
and tell stories, would come join us. Everybody would have a good time talking about the issue
of the day. I made myself available for conversation with reporters there, on the phone, and on
social occasions in the evenings. I was always worried that I would say something that Lyndon
Johnson did not want said.
There was working for him, in addition to me after Gerry Siege1 left, a press
secretary and writer named George Reedy, who became Johnson’s first press secretary after he
became president, the first one that he appointed after Pierre Salinger left. Reedy was a former
United Press reporter, a former whiz kid, literally, one of the original radio Whiz Kids (laughter)
of way back, a very bright man who was really taken with Lyndon Johnson and who conveyed
great stories about Johnson to his reporter fiiends, usually at an Italian joint over near the Florida
Avenue market in Northeast, near the wholesale produce market. George would go over after
eight o’clock at night and have three or four martinis and talk to reporters. A lot of them thought
the world of George. He would lay out the grand scheme that Lyndon Johnson had in mind, and
it would always be one that was extremely reasonable, extremely fair, commonsensical, straight
down the middle. That was the Lyndon Johnson of the late 1950s, and it’s a very different
Lyndon Johnson that had to emerge in the O OS, after Kennedy’s assassination. George found the
aggressive liberal Johnson very difficult to articulate. He really was the centrist, he was the
Senate leader’s centrist spokesman with the press. The guy who did not shake the foundations.
Even when Johnson went after the Civil Rights Act in 1957, it was Reedy’s task to cause the
press to see that as the centrist path between extremists on either side.
Mr. Vanderstar: Okay. Now, so Reedy was being-I don’t want to overload the
word-but used by Senator Johnson as a vehicle for educating the public through the journalists
about whatever he was trying to get across.
Mr. McPherson: Very much.
Mr. Vanderstar: Where you ever used in that way, in a different capacity?
Mr. McPherson: Not often. A couple of times in 1960, when we had
controversial matters in which Johnson wanted to come out right in the public eye, he saw I had
a number of friends in journalism and the press. He asked me to get them to see things his way.
Usually he wanted them to understand why things couldn’t get done. I tried, but I don’t think I
had a lot of success.
Mr. Vanderstar: Were you a source for journalists of stones about disagreements
within the Policy Committee or tensions within the Policy Committee or did you try to adopt a
vanilla approach to reporting on what was happening?
Mr. McPherson: I wouldn’t have talked about that. It would have made the
fellows within the Policy Committee suspicious of one another. They would have figured
somebody had to be doing that, and the only staffers at their working luncheons were me, Bobby
Baker, and the secretary of the Senate, Skeeter Johnston.
Mr. Vanderstar: Let me ask you now just to summarize what you did for the
Policy Committee, what was your job, how did you carry out the work?
Mr. McPherson: I started right out of law school. I was given the responsibility
for what was called the Calendar Committee. Once every two or three weeks the Senate
calendar would build up a whole lot of bills that had been reported out of committee but not
scheduled for debate. Many of them were private bills or bills of very limited scope. There was
a Calendar Committee that was supposed to be briefed by a counsel, me, about each of these
Mr. Vanderstar: The Calendar Committee was a committee of senators?
Mr. McPherson: Of senators. They were all freshmen. This was not a duty that
you sought out, it was a chore. Still it was a good way for them to learn about the Senate. I must
say that the committees that I served in those early years were terrific. I learned a lot about the
Senate and came to be on good terms with a number of senators. Ed Muskie, Phil Hart, Herman
Talmadge, Joe Clark, Sam Ervin.
On the morning of the appointed day for a calendar call, I would show up in the
Democratic lobby off the floor with my books-big notebooks of bills and reports for each one
of these guys. These were hard to carry sometimes-200 or 300 bills and committee reports in
each one. And I read them all. I think this is really not the case today because I don’t believe
that private claim bills and immigration bills and things like that for individuals are considered
by the Senate any more. These were cases where, for example, immigration law would bar
somebody from remaining in the US., would require his or her deportation, or would not allow
a family to join someone already in the States. It would not allow a brain-damaged child to be
brought in to live with family. This would be someone, let’s say, with profound mental
disabilities, perhaps hereditary.
Senator A1 Gore, Sr. of Tennessee, a state with quite a lot of such people up in the
mountains, had a standing rule that he objected to any bill that would allow a person to
immigrate into the United States who was mentally disabled. It was a tough thing for him to say.
Senator Wayne Morse had a standing request that the Calendar Committee object
to any bill which granted property to a person or a state or a city, a town, township, without
payment of fair market value for the property. There might be some winning argument for the
federal government turning over the property to an individual or a local community, but Morse
had gotten involved in a fight over one such matter one time and had decided that, by God, “The
federal government should get paid for whatever, it doesn’t matter whether there’s a plausible
case for doing it. That’s fine, I’m not against that, but I just want the government to be paid the
fair market value.”
There were quite a number of senators who had these particular interests. I would
go over every one of these bills, including some very substantial bills that were general law
instead of individual particular relief matters, with my two or three members of the Calendar
Mr. Vanderstar: Are you saying every bill that was going to go out on the Senate
floor you went through?
Mr. McPherson: Except for the really big bills-appropriations, authorizations,
And I learned to do it rapidly. I’d say, “The next five bills have no issues in
them.” After half a year of doing this, I got a feel for how this stuff went, so if I had questions
about a bill, either private relief or private claim bill, I would call the committee staff before the
day of the calendar call and ask some questions about it. And if I still had questions, I would
say, “No. 1244, here, would do so-and-so, and it doesn’t seem to me that it makes much sense,
and it’s the view of the General Accounting Office, the view of Interior Department or whatever,
that this is not a good deal for the government. I think it ought to be objected to until somebody
can show us a better reason for doing it.”
Mr. Vanderstar: You would say this to the Calendar Committee?
Mr. McPherson: Yes, and they would say “okay” much of the time, unless some
fellow senator had spoken to them beforehand on behalf of the bill. We spent a couple of hours
at this review, and then we’d go on the floor. After the morning business was over we’d have
calendar call. The clerk of the Senate would rattle off in a machine-gun fashion (loud voice)
“Calendar 1254, Senate 21 14, a bill for the relief of John Vanderstar. Without objection the
bill’s passed. Calendar 1245- ” and so on, like a tobacco auction. (laughter)
Mr. Vanderstar: And you were listening carefully to this.
Mr. McPherson: Oh, yes. Usually I had several days’ notice before all this
would happen. My phone would ring quite a lot in my little office-staffers calling me, saying,
“My boss wants to object to so-and-so.” Frequently, bills would be reported out of committee
over the objection of some senator. He still didn’t like it; he wasn’t going to throw his body in
front of it but he sure as hell was going to object to unanimous consent passage. At the end of a
session of maybe a couple hours on the floor, the Senate would have passed 150,200 bills.
When the clerk called the Civil Rights Bill, the Defense Appropriations Bill and so on, one of
the Calendar Committee senators would just object to it.
Mr. Vanderstar: Would all the bills all be called?
Mr. McPherson: They would all be called, the numbers would be called and one
of the senators on the committee would say, “Objection.”
Mr. Vanderstar: And that defeated unanimous consent.
Mr. McPherson: It defeated unanimous consent and kept it on the calendar. It
didn’t harm the bill in any way, it just meant this was not an appropriate bill to pass without
Mr. Vanderstar: Okay.
Mr. McPherson: Sometimes there would be a little debate. Usually the hour
before that preparation session, and maybe the hour after the Senate went in but before the
calendar call began, was really fun. All kinds of people, including senators, would come to me
and say, for instance, ”You know, I don’t object to that bill that would change the speed limit on
Indian reservations, but I’m troubled about the Class 4 roads there because there are a lot of
people just with wagons, and if you let people drive at 50 miles an hours on those roads,
somebody’s going to get hurt. And I’ve talked this over with Dennis Chavez, Senator Chavez,
and he says it’s all right, so I’ve got a little amendment here.” He’d give me the amendment and
it would say, “Provided that on Class 4 roads the speed limit shall remain 40 miles an hour.”
When it came time I had to be ready. When it got called I’d have to shove one of my senators,
who would get up and say, “Mr. President, I’m asked by Senator So-and-so to offer the
following amendment. My understanding is that the chairman of the committee has said he is
amenable to the amendment.” The chair would say, “The clerk will report the amendment.” “Is
there objection?” No objection. “Without objection, the bill as amended is passed.” So, we did
One day, I remember, we started at 12:30. There were, I don’t know what it was,
something in the air, in the stars or the sunspots or something, but there must have been 30
senators on the floor and they were all taking part in this calendar call. Many of them said,
“Give me an explanation of that bill,” and I’d circle stuff in the report and hand it to Muskie or
Joe Clark and he’d get up, “Mr. President, this bill does so-and-so.” Finally, about four o’clock
in the afternoon we hadn’t had a bite of lunch, and we were just sitting in a pile of papers and
amendments, exhausted. I had a headache and I’m sure everybody else did who had any part of
this. We were right down to the very end of the calendar call, when somebody got up and started
to make a speech about some little chicken-feed bill. Muskie looked at me and said, “I used to
be governor of Maine.” (laughter)
Mr. Vanderstar: And now look at me!
Mr. McPherson: Now look at me. I’m sitting here, a former governor, at four
o’clock in the afternoon listening to some guy rattle on about something he doesn’t know
anything about, and I don’t care anything about, and I can’t leave.
That was my first job.
Mr. Vanderstar: How long were you in that role?
Mr. McPherson: I did it for several years. That was the first thing Gerry Siege1
handed to me for me to handle. Then after about a year and a half, he left for Harvard, and I
became the guy who went to the Democratic Policy Committee luncheons where I did the same
thing-went over bills on the calendar with the committee members.
The most extraordinary difference between politicians then and now is that the
guys who were on the Policy Committee then, Russell, Kerr, Magnuson, Anderson, Humphrey,
were essentially professional legislators who were not thinking about being on the Sunday talk
shows. They loved publicity-I mean, politicians by nature love publicity-but they weren’t
absolutely riveted on the way they stood any particular day or week in the press and in the polls.
They thought their main job was to be a legislator. So, if you were enough of a leader to be put
on the Policy Committee, if you were going to be one of the men to whom people would turn for
serious legislating, you just kind of assumed that along with that went the chore of going through
the whole damn thing.
Of course, these people on the Policy Committee had been in the Senate, by the
time I got there, for 25 years, and they were major figures. They didn’t need to be taken
carefully through each bill, as the freshmen did. At the Policy Committee luncheons I would say
that “The next five bills are immigration bills, no problem with them.” Or I would say, “One of
them has a Gore problem with a mentally impaired child,” and I’d just keep going.
Every now and then I would talk about a claim bill that I thought raised an
interesting issue. And the fact that I could do that, that I felt that it was all right to do that tells
you a lot about them, about the fact that they were legislators.
Sometimes the merits of these bills weren’t the only issue. William Jenner of
Indiana, one of my least favorite senators, pushed a bill for several years for the Goshen Veneer
Company of Goshen, Indiana. In World War I1 somebody had the bright idea that we should try
to build wooden airplanes. We didn’t have enough aluminum and bauxite so we ought to try
wooden planes. The Goshen Veneer Company leapt into this and designed and produced planes.
The Air Force just said, “Not on your life.” And the Goshen Veneer Company, having never
been asked by the Air Force to produce anything-this was a self-starter on their par-had tried
to get paid for their expenses ever since. It amounted to several hundred thousand dollars, not a
giant sum in today’s terms, but in those days it was rather hefty. I thought it was a terrible bill
and told the members of the committee that, and they thought it was, too. We got to the end of
the session and weren’t about to take that bill up or to schedule it.
One day Johnson was walking to the floor. By this time I had become his floor
counsel. I had to make up a list of things to do every day. I would spend my afternoon the day
before and my morning talking to senators’ staffs and committee staffs, “Are you ready for
this?” “Can you get that amendment ready?” “HOW long will it take?” Then I would give
Johnson a list of bills that could be motioned up.
One day he said, “Put that Goshen thing on there.” I said, “The Goshen Veneer
bill?” He said, “Yes, that’s it. The Jenner bill.” I said, “Senator, that’s a terrible bill, the Policy
Committee’s against it, and they’ve been against it every time.” I really got worked up. Johnson
said “What’s the number of it?” Then on the floor, its the first bill he calls up. Jenner was over
there just smiling, you know, by God he was going to deliver for Goshen, Indiana. On the next
bill Johnson said, “Mr. President, there is legislation that would liberalize the immigration laws
and would expand the quotas and permit family members and professionals to come in. It will
mean about 25,000 to 30,000 new immigrants here. The senator from Indiana has had very
serious concerns about this legislation, and he has quite understandably asked that it be held up
for the last several months while he explored it. I’m extremely grateful to him that he has today
found it possible to allow us to schedule this bill.” (laughter)
Jack Kennedy was in favor of a Mark deWolf Howe-drafted piece of legislation
that would remove the loyalty oath requirement h-om those receiving National Defense
Education Act loans. This had become a big civil liberties issue. Every time I put it on the list,
Johnson would say, “No, no. I don’t want that bill.” I came back with it several times more, and
Johnson would say with great asperity, “You know, I’m not taking this up. I don’t care how
many times you put it there, we’re not taking it up.” Obviously, I thought, he didn’t want to help
Kennedy because this was 1960 and he was running for president.
Here let me tell a story about the press and H.R. 3. In this period, at the end of
the ‘50s civil rights and anti-communism were hot issues. Judge Smith of Virginia, Howard
Smith, the chairman of the powerful House Rules Committee, authored a bill, a tiny little bill,
three lines long, known as H.R. 3. What it said was, “No act of Congress shall be construed to
indicate an intent by Congress to occupy the field in which the act operates to the exclusion of
any state laws on the same subject matter unless the act expressly provides for that effect or there
is a direct and positive conflict between the act and the state law so that the two cannot be
reconciled or consistently stand together.” That would be quite a change in the law of
preemption. That bill passed the House because Judge Smith wanted it. We just blocked it for
months in the Policy Committee. Finally in one Policy Committee meeting, Johnson said,
“We’re going to have to take up that H.R. 3 bill.”
I’m sure there were five lawyers at Covington & Burling representing as many
industries who suddenly realized what this would mean to the industries that had been operating
under Federal preemptive laws, for a long time-just imagining what it would be like to have all
the states suddenly licking their chops and getting into the same field.
Johnson said, “Well, we’ve got to give him a chance here. We can beat him.” I
tell the story in my book about what went on. That night they were not able to table it. Richard
Russell, having spoken for H.R. 3, leaned over Johnson’s shoulder and said, “Lyndon, you’d
better adjourn this place. They’re going to pass this goddamn bill.” And Johnson made the
motion to adjourn and get out of there and narrowly won the motion to adjourn. It was very
unusual for a majority leader not to be able to adjourn the Senate. And he came very close,
because there was such a build up of feeling about this. It would be a triumph for the South, for
the extreme conservatives, for the states’ righters and all that.
Well, Johnson walked over to Humphrey and said, “I don’t know what happened
to you, I can’t imagine what happened to you. You told me you had this thing licked and I
just-” and he turned around. All these reporters were crowding around him because they had
come down out of the Chamber. He saw Tony Lewis of the New York Times, who he knew was
certainly the smartest writer when it came to constitutional issues and said, “Come on” and just
took him upstairs and started pouring whiskey and talking about how stupid Humphrey was and
how stupid Tom Hennings of Missouri was and “if it weren’t for me, this whole thing would
be-” and then he started placing calls to people. One of them went down to Brice Harlow, who
was with Eisenhower. He said, “Now, you’re going to have to put in a call to Wallace Bennett,”
whose son Robert is now in the Senate and who was then in the Senate himself, from Utah.
Wallace Bennett had been national chairman of the chamber of commerce. Very conservative
guy. He said to Harlow, “You’ve got to call Bennett and get him off this thing. The president’s
got to call him or you’ve got to call him and tell him the president wants this bill to be defeated.”
The motion to table the bill had lost the night before 49-41, and the next day
Wallace Bennett made a motion to reconsider the vote on tabling. I don’t think that’s supposed
to be done, but at the moment nobody got up to make a parliamentary objection. Before you
knew it, we were reconsidering the motion to table, and it camed. They voted to table H.R. 3. It
was dead meat.
Tony Lewis went back to the Times office at three or 3:30 in the morning with
several belts of whiskey in him and wrote a piece that made Lyndon Johnson seem 20 feet tall.
Tony said, “It was the damnedest night I think I’ve ever spent in my life.” Johnson was just
relishing picking up the pieces after.
Mr. Vanderstar: I think you told me the other day one of the courses you took at
Texas Law School was on legislation.
Mr. McPherson: Yes.
Mr. Vanderstar: I’ve never taken a course specifically labeled “Legislation.”
Were there times in your period of time at the Senate when you reflected back on how useful or
not useful that course had been?
Mr. McPherson: Certainly, if taught by a really fine scholar with a love for the
legislative process, I think you really need to have both of those to do it well. We had a lawyer
here who is now the Director of Legislation for the Smithsonian, Ne11 Yates. She had been
counsel of the Senate Budget Committee, and she was one of a handful of people in Washington
who understood the Budget Act and how it works. Her expertise became absolutely crucial in a
number of matters for clients of ours-whether or not something had been fixed forever,
whether it could be undone, whether passage in the Budget Act would make it impossible to deal
with it in separate legislation. I never did understand it, still don’t. Ne11 could teach a valuable
course in legislation, centering it on the Budget Act.
Mr. Vanderstar: I wanted to ask you about your personal life during this period,
so let’s take a few more minutes if you don’t mind. Let’s go back. You and Clay came up here
in January of ‘56. You were on the Senate payroll until ‘63, and then you went into the executive
Mr. McPherson: Right.
Mr. Vanderstar: Were you married that whole time?
Mr. McPherson: I was and had the first of our two children in 1958, a daughter,
and the second one, a son, in ‘64 when I was in the State Department.
Mr. Vanderstar: And what are their names?
Mr. McPherson: The daughter is named Coco. She was named Courtenay for
her aunt, Courtenay Sterner. But she’s now Coco McPherson. Peter McPherson is his name.
Mr. Vanderstar: Peter, okay.
There’s a woman basketball star from the University of Georgia whose name is
Coco. She’s one of twins who are both in the professional league. Just thought you ought to
Let’s see, you came up here in January ‘56 and Coco was born in ‘58. Where did
Mr. McPherson: On two floors of a row house on Capitol Hill-on New Jersey
Avenue, S.E., just below the House office buildings. A very nice street, and it was a pleasant
enough place. In ‘60 we bought a house on Sixth Street, S.E., between East Capitol and A Street,
S.E. A house that a couple of years after we left it was occupied by an officer of the
Metropolitan Police Force named Donald Graham.
Mr. Vanderstar: Donald Graham?
Mr. McPherson: This is the Donald Graham who was the publisher of the Post.
He was working as a cop for several years to learn something about the city.
Mr. Vanderstar: I didn’t know that.
Mr. McPherson: Yes. He and his wife moved into our house.
We lived there for six years, had our son, and one day I just got uncomfortable
about living on the Hill with kids. I think it was after the second person was found wandering
around in our living room that we’d never seen. So I found a house in Chevy Chase Village,
maybe two blocks from Chevy Chase Circle in Maryland. We bought it and lived there.
Mr. Vanderstar: What street was it on?
Mr. McPherson: On West Irving.
Mr. Vanderstar: West Irving, okay. And that was in ‘66.
Mr. McPherson: ‘66. And I lived there during the three years of the White
House, the last three years of the White House. I was picked up there every day by a White
House car. Pretty nifty.
Mr. Vanderstar: When you were living on Capitol Hill, did you walk to work?
Mr. McPherson: Walked to work.
Mr. Vanderstar: Okay. And did you eat your lunch at the Capitol? the Senate
Mr. McPherson: I ate at the Senate, usually at that little restaurant next to the
Senate dining room. When I started out, my office was on the third floor of the Capitol
Building. If you are driving up Constitution and your start up the hill and you look to the left
side of the Capitol on the Senate side, I was in the corner office on the third floor. There were
five or six of us in that office, including a wonderful woman named Grace Tully, who had been
Mr. Vanderstar: Sure.
Mr. McPherson: She and I became friends, and she became godmother to my
daughter Coco. Clay was a Catholic convert, and we decided that Coco would be baptized and
confirmed a Catholic. We needed a good solid Irish Catholic godmother, and that was Grace.
I walked up from New Jersey Avenue past the east front of the Capitol and in to
the Senate side of the building, every day. Then the Policy Committee staff was moved to
wonderful office space right across a little hall from the old Senate Foreign Relations Committee
room. If you walk up a ramp alongside the building so as to go into the Senate wing of the
Capitol, you pass right by this splendid office. It was a great big Victorian, elaborately
decorated room, right at the bottom of a set of stairs that, taken two at a time, would allow me to
get up onto the Senate floor in about 35 seconds when an emergency was on. It’s also an office
where one could hear the Capitol guides walking by in the summer, when we’d have only a
latticed door between us and the hallway. One of them in particular I rejoiced in listening to
because he would tell his tour group the most amazing things. This fellow Brumidi had done all
these murals in the Capitol, mythical figures, the Spirit of St. Louis, all kinds of things. You
would hear this guide occasionally saying, as a hot afternoon wore on and the gum-chewing
young people in the group stood vaguely listening to him, “Art critics have told me” (laughter)
“that the paintings on these walls may be favorably compared to work of the Eye-talian master
Michael Angelo.” (laughter)
Mr. Vanderstar: That’s wonderful, that’s wonderful. Was that the Democratic
Policy Committee office?
Mr. McPherson: That was the Policy Committee, yes. The Calendar Committee
didn’t really have its own office. I was the Calendar Committee.
Mr. Vanderstar: Okay, where ever you wereMr. McPherson: Where ever I was.
Mr. Vanderstar: So, you stayed at the Senate, you didn’t leave the Senate when
Senator Johnson ran for president.
Mr. McPherson: Right.
Mr. Vanderstar: You didn’t work on the campaign.
Mr. McPherson: I didn’t. I knew very little about that campaign. I will mention
a couple of the funny parts of it. About the time Johnson announced that he would run,
somebody in the office-in the so-called Texas office, his regular Senate office as a senator from
Texas-typed out and was about to mail a letter to Miss Carmine deSapio (laughter), Tammany
Hall, New York, New York. It was a metaphor of the gap between LBJ and national politics.
That reminds me of something about the ‘60 campaign. It was my chore once a
week on Thursday or Friday, whatever the last day of legislating during the week was, to go to
Johnson’s desk in the Senate and rifle through it and take out of it everything he had stuffed in it
during the week. Mainly these were roll call tallies where you’d see what he thought was going
to be the vote and then, if there was a difference, you’d see a question mark or some kind of an
X where he’d been wrong.
One day, during the early months of 1960, I found a black notebook that said
“Indiana” on it. I opened it up and realized that John Kennedy had been sitting there at
Johnson’s desk while he was managing a bill on the Senate floor and was clearly responsible for
it. In such cases Johnson would often invite the senator to come down and occupy his chair and
desk because it’s the one where someone is most likely to get the attention of the presiding
officer. It’s right in the front of the Chamber. Kennedy had come down to manage a labor
This book was fascinating. I sat there in the chair reading about county chairman
and about labor representatives, about discussions with various people, mayors and so on. This
was a report from the team that the Kennedy campaign had sent to Indiana, their report to him
about what they needed to do to assure that they would carry the Indiana primary. I started to
walk it in to Johnson and say, “Look here, this is what the other side is doing, what your
opponent is doing.” I thought, “You know, he’s not going to do this. This is not going to matter
that much and, anyway, it’s dirty pool. I shouldn’t be doing this.” You can tell what a lousy
political operator I was for me to think it’s dirty pool (laughter) to have something like this fall
in your hands, not because you’ve stolen it from his office but because the senator, the candidate
left it behind. So I just gave it to a page and said, “Take this to Kennedy’s office.”
Mr. Vanderstar: Did you ever get credit for returning it?
Mr. McPherson: I don’t think so. (laughter)
Mr. Vanderstar: I was wondering when you were mentioning that the Kennedy
people were not interested in hiring you for the executive branch they might haveMr. McPherson: Well, I didn’t really finish that story. I went to see Ralph
Dungan and he said, “What are you interested in?” For some reason, the question struck me as
totally baffling. I didn’t know, I guess I thought he was going to say, “How would you like to be
this or that?”
Mr. Vanderstar: Yes. I can imagine somebody in that operation saying, “We
don’t want one of Johnson’s people over here. We’ve got Johnson, that’s enough.”
Mr. McPherson: (laughter) I guess that would be bad enough. Maybe so. By
that time I was counsel to Mansfield, and they wanted to have good relations with Mansfield, so
it probably did not strike them as a brilliant idea to take his counsel away from him. It might
have been an interesting discussion, anyway, if I had had something in my mind, if I had
thoughtMr. Vanderstar: Like arms control, for example.
Mr. McPherson: Yes. Some issue, some job that I might have been reasonably
qualified for. Didn’t work.
Mr. Vanderstar: Had Mansfield been on the Policy Committee?
Mr. McPherson: Yes, Mansfield had been the whip.
Mr. Vanderstar: Oh, I had forgotten that.
Mr. McPherson: Which I may have had something to do with. I think I told
Johnson, when Earl Clements was defeated, that he really ought to think about Mansfield, a very
good guy and a centrist. He won’t drive the South out of the party but he’s not a southerner. It
had doubtless occurred to him as well.
Mr. Vanderstar: Let’s break there for the day.
ORAL HISTORY OF