Harry McPherson Text of Interview: March 12, 2003Catherine Nugent2022-04-26T15:23:48-04:00
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ORAL HISTORY OF
HARRY C. MCPHERSON, JR. -NINTH INTERVIEW
This is day nine of the series of interviews of Harry McPherson at his office. It is March
Mr. Vandestar: We’re going to pick up with your job at the State Department. I
think the book says you were sworn in on your 351h birthday in ‘64. So that would be August
Mr. McPherson: Yes.
Mr. Vanderstar: Did you have a hearing and congressional Senate approval of
Mr. McPherson: I had a brief hearing in which Senator Fulbright, the author of
the Act that I was to administer asked me if I knew anything about it and I said, “NO.” I didn’t
know how to go on beyond that. He said, “Well, do you want to learn?” (laughter) And I said,
“Yes.” I did know Fulbright and a couple of his colleagues who were attending the session, so I
got by despite my ignorance.
I was sworn in at the State Department by Dean Rusk and joined a group of a
dozen assistant secretaries of state; there was an under-secretary in those days, and then there
was a bunch of assistant secretaries. Most of them had responsibility for an area of the world.
Two or three of us had subject matter areas. There was an assistant secretary for intelligence and
research, and I had educational and cultural affairs, which was essentially the administration of
the Fulbright Programs. This was a period of considerable interest on the part of people in the
State Department, and in private life, in international educational and cultural exchange. A lot of
people were sent abroad, a lot of people came here. I think I mentioned in an earlier tape that in
the mid-’70s half the Bundestadt had been exchange students in America.
In the course of the very brief time that I was in this job I met people that I had
been looking forward to meeting as long as I could remember. I got to be good friends, for
example, with Isaac Stem, who was quite something. I was a friend of Abe Fortas, through
Johnson. Fortas and Isaac Stern were very close friends and both fiddle players, of course.
Mr. Vanderstar: Didn’t Fortas do to a lot of quartet playing?
Mr. McPherson: He did.
It was a wonderful experience, traveling about the country and the world in
pursuit of understanding this program. I spent an evening, first having dinner with Eugene
Ormandy and his wife and then going to Philadelphia’s wonderful concert hall and hearing him
conduct. I spent three weeks in Europe, talking to people about programs in Italy, Germany,
France, and Britain. In a few places, a few significant capitals, there were cultural attaches of
particular interest, not federal government civil servants but artists or writers or poets who had
been persuaded to spend a year or two in a foreign capital representing American culture,
dealing with historians and writers and poets in those countries.
Mr. Vanderstar: Were they federal employees?
Mr. McPherson: I suppose they were put on the federal payroll as temporary
employees-people like Cleanth Brooks, the poet and critic, was in London. Shortly after I was
sworn in, the United States’ senior cultural official was invited to join senior cultural officers
from other nations in Mexico City, when the Mexicans dedicated their new and beautiful
anthropological museum. The French senior cultural official was Andre Malreaux. Who would
be the American cultural official? Well, the only person anybody could think of was the
assistant secretary of state for educational and cultural affairs. I suppose it was the only job in
the government that had the word “culture” in it.
Mr. Vanderstar: (laughter) Probably.
Mr. McPherson: So my wife and I went down there. I’ll never forget the look on
the face of the Mexican officials, many of them academics, when they stood at the bottom of the
stairs by the plane, and my wife and I-a 35-year-old Texas political lawyer-came down the
steps to represent the U.S. Luckily, we had a wonderful ambassador, Tony Freeman, who had
no pretensions at all. The visit couldn’t have gone better. He and I took a shine to each other,
and he introduced me to a lot of Mexican artists and writers.
Mr. Vanderstar: Terrific.
Mr. McPherson: Johnson had become president in November ‘63. A couple of
times during 1964 I made tentative inquiries of the White House, meaning Jack Valenti or Bill
Moyers, to see if I should volunteer my services in some way to help Johnson.
At the time Johnson, throughout the latter part of ‘63 and most of ‘64, was
determined-to use his method of pronunciation-“to continya.” He said in a speech he made a
few days after the assassination to a Joint Session of Congress, “Let us continya,” and he really
meant to convey to the country that there would be no turning back from the sort of things that
Kennedy had begun. As part of that, he wanted to keep about him all the Kennedy people he
could for a considerable period. That did not necessarily include everyone in the White
House-though Kennedy’s principal aide, Ted Sorenson, did remain for a time-but it certainly
did include McNamara and Rusk and Willard Wirtz and Stuart Udal1 and others like that in the
Kennedy Cabinet. For one thing, Johnson did not have better choices of his own, but he also
wanted to give the country the understanding that he was not going to make radical changes.
In both of the inquiries I made I was probably told that I didn’t need to worry
about that. So, when I was offered this job in the State Department, I took it, happy to be an
assistant secretary of state at 35 and not particularly unhappy that I hadn’t been chosen to do
something more full of power. The Kennedy people talked about “power” a lot.
There was an interesting task among the assistant secretary’s responsibilities,
which was to chair something called the “youth committee.” Bob Kennedy had started it. I
don’t think you could find it referred to in any statute and maybe not even in most histories, but
it was the product of the idea that, while the United States could not without injury to itself seek
to overthrow governments throughout the world that were being too reactionary or too
intransigent or unyielding, it could make friends with younger politicians, lawyers, writers,
journalists, academics in those countries, so that the next generation of leaders after this one
would be people with whom Americans had considerable contact.
So Bob Kennedy and my predecessor, Lucius Battle, and Cord Meyer of the CIA
created a youth committee. The purpose of it was to use every tool that we had, particularly the
educational and cultural exchange tool, to bring over that younger generation of leaders and to
send Americans of a similar age to connect with them. It was an interesting program and one
that I very much enjoyed chairing.
Finally, some time in November or December of ‘64, after Johnson had been
elected on his own, I guess he figured that he had made the “continya” point sufficiently so that
he could now bring in some of his own people. A footnote to all this, At the end of the Johnson
administration Vernon Jordan became president of the Urban League when Whitney Young
drowned. There was a conference on civil rights at the Johnson Library in Austin in the early
O OS, shortly after Vernon became president. Vernon says that Johnson asked him to step back
into the Green Room with him, behind the stage of the Johnson Library, and he said, “Vernon,
you’re succeeding a hero, just as I did. A lot of people will be looking at you and comparing you
with him, just as they did me with Jack Kennedy.” He said, “Let me just make one strong
suggestion to you. Choose your own people and ask his people, give them time, but tell them to
get out and put your own people in there as soon as you can. I made a big mistake. You
shouldn’t.’’ And that’s a footnote about this period that I was just describing in which Johnson
kept a large number of Kennedy people around him.
Anyway, in November or December of ‘64 Bill Moyers called and said, “The
president would like to know if you would like to come over here and be his counsel.” He said,
“Mike Feldman has succeeded Ted Sorensen as counsel to the president, but he’s not going to
stay long, and the president has promised Lee White that he will give him a year as counsel for
his resume purposes and then will make him chairman of the Federal Power Commission [now
the FERC]. But if you would come over now and learn the job in the course of that year, then
you’ll be made special counsel to the president.” I said, “That sounds like a great idea.” Moyers
said, “Why do you think that?” (laughter) He said, “I know you’ve been having a terrific time
over there and you run your own show; why do you want to go over to the White House?” It
was an amusing question, because both of us were ambitious young men, and the idea of being
brought into the White House in a senior position was tantalizing to both of us.
Bill was doing a lot of things. I don’t know precisely what his title was. He was
not press secretary-George Reedy was at the time Bill made that call to me, but Bill had
succeeded Ted Sorensen as the guy who put together the legislative program on the domestic
side. He also had a lot to do with the politics of foreign policy, more than the specific decisions.
In any event, I said to Bill, “I’d like to come but I first want to testify before Congressman
Rooney. He is the chairman of the Subcommittee on Appropriations for the State Department in
the House of Representatives, and everybody says he is an absolute piranha, that he just devours
all assistant secretaries in the State Department, and as a matter of fulfilling the role of being in
that job, as a matter of pride, I would like to get ready for the hearing and to get through it.”
Mr. Vanderstar: Had you already started to prepare for it?
Mr. McPherson: I had, and I spent the next six weeks, six hours, eight hours a
day with teams of people supplying me with information. Incidentally, this job, which was
certainly not the most influential or important job in the department at the assistant secretary
level, did employ the most people: I had over 400 people in the bureau. A very large crowd of
people worked in educational and cultural exchange. Many were quite able.
Mr. Vanderstar: What did all these 400 people do? What groups were they
divided into, and what were their responsibilities?
Mr. McPherson: Mostly geographical. There was a Far East group, and a
European group, an African group, a Latin American group. They managed the selection of
scholars, conducted contractual negotiations with universities and with the impresarios. They
found the orchestras, the sculptors and all the other artists that we sent overseas. So it was a big
crowd of folks.
A couple of times a week, we-the assistant secretaries-would meet at 8 in the
morning with Secretary Rusk. I think I made an oral contribution to this meeting maybe twice.
What do you say, you know, “Mr. Secretary, the Boston Symphony Orchestra had a wonderful
tour of Moldavia.” (laughter) When the others were talking about a coup d’etat in their area or
about a pitched battle or the kidnapping of an American diplomat, what could I say? What
fascinated me even then was that Rusk seemed to entertain commentary from these assistant
secretaries on a totally egalitarian basis. He listened to everybody with the same patience and
interest-apparent interest, at any rate. Instead of saying, “Oh, God, I’ve got Vietnam weighing
me down. Why are you bothering me with this trivia?” he would listen. Perhaps he was
interested. Perhaps this was the way he maintained morale.
Maybe once every two weeks we assistant secretaries would be asked to an
afternoon meeting with Under-Secretary Averell Harriman. I had a number of friends who had
worked for him-Pat Moynihan was one, Phil Kaiser, later ambassador several times over, was
another. So I guess I had met Harriman on a couple of occasions. I subsequently became a
friend of his, and in his last years I spent quite a lot of time with him. But in those years I would
go to a meeting with my fellow assistant secretaries; Harriman just wanted to be in the loop.
Mr. Vanderstar: Had he attended the morning meetings?
Mr. McPherson: No, these were just for Rusk and the assistant secretaries. The
other senior man not in those meetings was George Ball, who was under-secretary of state. I had
known Ball before I got there, I can’t remember why or how, but we were friendly.
Mr. Vanderstar: Was the legal advisor part of this eight a.m. meeting?
Mr. McPherson: No, he was not. I’m trying to think of who legal advisor was in
the mid-‘60s. It was not Monroe Leigh.
Mr. Vanderstar: Abe Chayes?
Mr. McPherson: Yes.
I would on occasion ask for a meeting with Ball, because he was politically
interesting. Here is a distinction I will not make very eloquently but I’m going to try. Politics
and public policy often seem to be miles apart in this town, but for the discerning eye, they are
frequently intermeshed. Ball had a lot of political smarts. He had been a central figure in Adlai
Stevenson’s campaign, had raised a lot of money and distributed a lot of money in the days
before the rules for distributing money weren’t quite as strict as they are now. He was also a
brilliant man and had a marvelous grasp particularly of European politics. He was very close
personally to Jean Monnet, and so the whole effort to unify Europe as part of what ultimately
became the European Union was encouraged in some subtle but vigorous ways by Ball from
within the department. He despised De Gaulle because De Gaulle was trying to push Britain
aside, trying to push France into a position of unilateral power within Europe.
Mr. Vanderstar: Some people are saying that about France now.
Mr. McPherson: Yes. Johnson, much as he liked and admired George Ball, and
as much as I think he probably woke up in the middle of the night wondering whether Ball was
right about Vietnam, would not follow him into battle with General De Gaulle. Johnson just
wouldn’t do it. He said, “They like him over there. I can’t do anything about that and I’m not
going to do anything but create trouble for us if I launch a campaign against General De Gaulle.”
In any event, my seniors were Rusk-my formal boss, who was always pleasant
to me but was someone that I did not really know until a couple of years later when I began to
spend a lot of time with him, particularly on Vietnam-Ball, and Averell Harriman. I enjoyed
the role but I was keen for the job in the White House. Before I went over there, I showed up in
February of ‘65 before John Rooney with my books and my data and my team of assistants. I sat
down to be greeted with some rough, humorous comment to start the day. You’ve probably got
it in there.
Mr. Vanderstar: Let’s see. According to your book, before you sat down
Rooney asked, “Is this one of the ones that’s going to be cut?”
Mr. McPherson: Right.
Mr. Vanderstar: And then it says in the book, “I blinked.”
Mr. McPherson: Right. (laughter)
Mr. Vanderstar: I take it you had no idea who “this” was in that query.
Mr. McPherson: That’s right.
There was a fellow named Bill Crockett who was the under-secretary of state for
management. Bill was what Lyndon Johnson would call a “can do” man. He would take care of
everything from meeting with foreign heads of state to fixing the plumbing in a congressman’s
suite overseas. Crockett had conveyed the word to Mr. Rooney from the State Department about
the cuts that the department would be willing to make in its requested appropriations. I walked
in knowing nothing of this, and when Rooney opened it up saying, “Oh, we’re going to cut this
one? Is this one of the one’s that’s going to get cut?,” I just shrugged my shoulders.
Mr. Vanderstar: Might he have meant your entire function?
Mr. McPherson: No, he just meant reduce the money.
Mr. Vanderstar: Some piece of the function.
Mr. McPherson: Reduce the request from the probably 40 million dollars that we
were asking to 30 million dollars.
Mr. Vanderstar: Was this one of those periods when Congress and others wanted
to slash the “foreign aid” budget, stop giving so much money to other countries, or was that a
different period of time?
Mr. McPherson: There’s almost never been a period of time when that wasn’t
the case. This one was a little deceptive. Rooney had a few particular gripes, I forget what they
were, but there were a few things that this bureau of mine did that Rooney didn’t like, and he
would either ban them or criticize them. At the end of the day, however, he would pony up
enough money to keep the bureau operating. He was one of those old-line Democratic
chieftains, or, as the chairmen of the Subcommittees on Appropriations are called up in the
House, the “cardinals.” He was one of the cardinals. That same Irish-Catholic net that I talked
about with respect to Mansfield and McCormack and Kennedy worked in those worlds as well;
Rooney was one of them. Tip O’Neill was a leader in the Ways and Means Committee, another
one of these Irish Catholics. A guy named Charles Buckley from New York was the big deal in
public works. Mike Kinvan of Ohio was head of public works.
He’s the one who got a lobbyist in one day and said, “You know, we’re having a
find raiser and we really need your help on it. I mean, you got to take a table. They’re just
terribly hard to sell but, you know, it’s very important for people like you and me that we sell
them.” And the guy said, “Mr. Chairman, you know this the fund raiser was last month.” And
Kinvan said, “I know, and that’s what makes tickets to it so hard to sell!” (laughter)
Mr. Vanderstar: So, let me just interject here, you’re talking about the power
that’s in the hands of a group of presumably urban Irish Catholics in the House.
Mr. McPherson: Yes.
Mr. Vanderstar: As against the southern senators in the Senate.
Mr. McPherson: Many of whom had rural roots.
Mr. Vanderstar: Yes, which is quite a fascinating contrast between the two
Mr. McPherson: It is, and they had to work with each other a lot, because the
appropriations process is one that particularly and inevitably is settled in a conference between
the two Houses.
Mr. Vanderstar: Who were the Appropriations Subcommittee chairs in the
Senate? Were they southerners or Irish Catholics or was there not an identifiable ethnic group?
Mr. McPherson: Oh, there were indeed. The chairman of the Agricultural
Appropriations Subcommittee was Allen Ellender of Louisiana; of the Labor, Education and
Health Subcommittee it was the fellow who I said said about Styles Bridges (accent), “There’s
nobody who has earned the gratitude of his people more than Senator Bridges,” that was Lister
Hill of Alabama; Richard Russell, in addition to being head of the Armed Services Committee, I
think he may have been chairman of military appropriations as well. So, much of the
appropriations power was housed in those same Southerners.
Mr. Vanderstar: All right, you had your hearing.
Mr. McPherson: Yes and a third of the way through that hearing the whole
situation suddenly became clear to me. It took me a while. I’d spent so much time getting ready
for this, I’d been in the barren ugly halls of the State Department being filled with information to
get ready for these hearings, I was so full of data, and I had really forgotten my politics. I’d
forgotten what I’d grown up in for seven years in the Senate, the sense of what this was all
about. It was about people and their relationships, and I suddenly realized John Rooney much
admired Lyndon Johnson. They were both arthl, successful politicians. They know how to
deal. Johnson will ask him for things that Rooney finds hard to give but he will give them.
Rooney will ask for a courthouse to be named for some forebear of his, and it will be named,
Johnson will see to it. So, they dealt with each other. Rooney would have been told that, while I
may be an assistant secretary of state, I’m really one of Lyndon Johnson’s boys and I used to
work for him and I was his counsel. So, he’s going to treat me right. Johnson wouldn’t have
had to call Rooney and say that; some staff guy whom I’d never met before would have told
Rooney, that this fellow coming before him is part of “us,” or was at one time.
Mr. Vanderstar: Okay. So, you had all these people working for you in the
bureau who did the actual negotiating and arranging for these cultural visits, plus you have
people who must have run the Fulbright program and whatever other educational programs you
Mr. McPherson: Right.
Mr. Vanderstar: Your job was kind of to resolve conflicts when they arose
within the bureau?
Mr. McPherson: It was, I guess that’s a pretty good expression.
Mr. Vanderstar: I mean, they didn’t ask you if you thought the Boston
Symphony should go to Moldavia?
Mr. McPherson: No. The value that they may have thought I brought was the
same assumed by the colonels and the assistant secretaries that I worked with in the Pentagon,
and that is a political sense, a sense of what would go down in the Congress, what the Congress
could abide. And that’s essentially what you need in an executive job. You need to advance
your executive department’s policies as far as you can without running into a blizzard of
opposition from Congress that will cost you more than it merits. And I think I conveyed to some
of these people that I had useful experience at that. I knew enough people and could go up and
see members and staff when I didn’t trust my information about a matter, and I could find out. I
could go and say, “We want to do this. Is this all right, is this going to be all right with your
Mr. Vanderstar: Can you think of an example this long afterwards?
Mr. McPherson: Usually on the exchange program it would have to do with
scholars from communist countries coming to the United States, and American scholars going to
communist countries, joining with institutions in such countries in joint endeavors. It was a time
when the word “communist,” or as Senator Eastland would say, “commonist,” governments
were just by their nature intolerable to many politicians. We, in time, learned to make a fist at
them but also get along with them much better than we did in the ‘50s.
Mr. Vanderstar: Did your responsibilities at State include any scientific
exchanges or anything of that sort, or was that housed somewhere else in the government?
Mr. McPherson: I don’t think it did.
Mr. Vanderstar: For example, NASA had been created and they were trying to
build a rocket and go to the moon. I don’t know if in those days they had any conversations with
Mr. McPherson: I don’t either. But we did have the National Science
Foundation and other institutions that have huge international connections.
Mr. Vanderstar: NIH does, too.
Mr. McPherson: I’m sure that in the health field NIH does.
Mr. Vanderstar: Those are in other parts ofMr. McPherson: – other parts of the government, yes.
Mr. Vanderstar: So, you had educational and cultural. Educational was things
like the Fulbright Program.
Mr. McPherson: Yes. In bringing over not just writers of fiction and poetry and
philosophy but economists and modern historians, people who were writing about today’s
Let me back up a little bit just for the sake of completing the record. There was
then and later a tension in this department between people who saw it as a propaganda tool and
those who saw it as an expression of the very best in American arts and humanities. The latter
people thought that the rest of the world and their artists and scholars of the humanities would
connect with ours in a way that would build a profound network of friendship and cooperation
and mutual admiration and understanding, that would not be transgressed and spoiled by
salesmanship. In other words, those who believed that there should be a band of involvement
and connection between scholars and artists, with no overt political aspect, constituted one
The other faction really grew out of the operational realities of the program. The
USIA’s public affairs attach6 in embassies around the world ran these programs in those
countries. The USIA is by its nature a salesman of America, and so they were inclined to try to
put a pro-American spin on whatever kind of exchange we had, whereas the scholars said,
“That’s all very well, but that’s not what real exchange is about. The real exchange is on an
intellectual or cultural level.”
My deputy was a man named Arthur Hummel, whom I liked enormously. A
long-time USIA career official, born in Iowa, moved with his missionary family to China, taught
in China, captured by the Japanese, interned, and turned over to the Chinese communists some
time in the mid-’40s. Arthur Hummel was a superb career bureaucrat. He subsequently became
ambassador to Burma, Indonesia, and finally China. He represented the best of this USIA group.
He did not brush aside the “pure cultural” people at all, but he was realistic about how you got
Subsequently, after I went to the White House, Johnson put the monkey on me to
find a successor for myself in the State Department. It was very hard. I went through a lot of
people. After one fellow that I had nothing to do with did succeed me but only for a short time,
the job was taken over by a fine professor of philosophy at Columbia named Charles Frankel.
Charles was the philosopher king of this first idea of educational/cultural exchange, and he wrote
the classic book about how nations should relate to one another in these matters. He was a
marvelous man who left the government because he couldn’t stand the Vietnam War and went
back to teaching at Columbia. (Hombly, he and his wife were murdered in their home in
Bedford, New York, a few years later, in a senseless killing.)
Anyway, I was quite aware that these opposing views were held by people in my
own department, and I tried as best I could to give both of them a home in a department that I
Mr. Vanderstar: Was USIA under your bureau?
Mr. McPherson: No, it was not. But they supplied the troops, the apparatus for
operating this program abroad.
Subsequently, this program was put into USIA. After Charles Frankel’s
death-he would have hated to see this-the USIA won the battle. Someone said, “This is
foolish. We’re operating this program overseas. Why not put it into our headquarters here as
well?” And it was there for 20 years. Now it’s gone back over to the State Department, where it
Mr. Vanderstar: Is there today an assistant secretary for education?
Mr. McPherson: There’s an under-secretary. Its been elevated a little, although
there are a lot of under-secretaries today.
Mr. Vanderstar: One interesting thing is that back in your day, that job got up to
the level of an assistant secretary heading it rather than being a bureau chief within some other
part of the State Department.
Mr. McPherson: This was, I am sure, entirely Fulbright’s doing. In fact,
Fulbright created the role in the Fulbright Act in the late O OS, and then he became in the early
‘60s the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee; so he was in a position to make it what he
wished, and he insisted on there being an assistant secretary.
Mr. Vanderstar: So that gave it the visibility and clout and the stature that he
Mr. McPherson: Exactly.
Mr. Vanderstar: Quite a fascinating story.
Mr. McPherson: It is. Today many people are beginning to realize the
importance of cultural and educational exchanges with the Muslim world. Mrs. Beers, Charlotte
Beers, has just announced her resignation. She was the advertising lady who was put in charge
of communicating with Islam. To put the role of managing a large American effort to
communicate with the Muslim world in the hands of a woman who had run J. Walter Thompson
is exactly what Charles Frankel thought we should not do. To him, what you needed was a
scholar-say, a university president, who was a historian and had a big head for world affairs but
also could manage a large effort, someone who would bring in a group of Muslim scholars to
counsel with him daily and find ways to invite Muslims in to universities, to the Library of
Congress, to all kinds of ad hoc seminars that you would create for the purpose of giving the
Muslim world the sense that the United States regarded them as something other than assassins.
Mr. Vanderstar: Of course, that description could be viewed as political
propaganda, that approach to the Muslim world.
Mr. McPherson: I suppose so, but it differs from a hard sell of US. successes to
the benighted Mohammedans.
Mr. Vanderstar: The distinction is sometimes elusive.
Mr. McPherson: It is. It bears telling that when Fulbright introduced and argued
for his program on the floor of the Senate back in the O OS, he used terms that made it quite clear
that he was at least as interested in educating Americans about the rest of the world as the rest of
the world about America. He talked about having been a Rhodes scholar, having come from a
poor, backward state, Arkansas, and having gone to Europe and having his eyes opened to a
much larger perspective of civilization than he had been aware of in Arkansas, and that he
wanted that for Arkansans as much as he wanted people in Krakow to know about southern
music. It is interesting that he would be followed to Washington a few decades later by another
Arkansan Rhodes scholar.
Mr. Vanderstar: Do you remember if Fulbright ever got into this issue of the
humanities scholars on the one hand and the political propaganda people on the other hand?
Mr. McPherson: I think if you put it to him, and I never did, but if you put it to
him as I came to understand it he would probably side with the educators and the philosophers
and the artists over the hard-charging advertising side-if for no other reason than that the hard
chargers offended him aesthetically. On the other hand, he was quite aware that somebody had
to operate the thing, and there was a system in the so-called cultural attaches who were all USIA
people around the world, and they could handle it. They could get the students on the plane and
the professors established in apartments in cities where they were going to teach, and so on.
Mr. Vanderstar: He might also have felt the need, in order to sell the idea and the
appropriations to the Congress in the first place, to suggest that it had political implications and
that it would advance the United States’ interests abroad.
Mr. McPherson: Yes, that’s true.
Mr. Vanderstar: It would be interesting to go and look at the hearings and so on
that led to that, but probably somebody’s done that. (laughter) Just not you or me.
Let me now ask you about this period, ‘64, especially ‘65, about your personal life.
Mr. McPherson: Yes.
Mr. Vanderstar: Your son was born in ‘65, so you were already at the White
Mr. McPherson: Yes I was. I have a daughter born in 1958 who went to school
at Beauvoir. Then a son born in ‘65 who also went to Beauvoir. I became a Trustee of Beauvoir,
where I served under the chairpersonship of Madeleine Albright. (laughter)
Mr. Vanderstar: Oh, boy. What a town this is.
Mr. McPherson: Right.
Mr. Vanderstar: You were still living on Capitol Hill?
Mr. McPherson: We lived on Capitol Hill. We bought a house in 1960 at 24
Sixth Street, S.E., between A and East Capitol, and worked on it some, developed it a bit. I got a
little nervous about safety conditions around there, and in ‘66 moved out to a house in Chevy
Chase Village on West Irving Street.
Mr. Vanderstar: Yes, okay. So Peter was born while you were at the White
House and you moved to Chevy Chase a year later while you were at the White House. So those
are two important parts of your personal life while you are working at the pinnacle of American
politics and policy.
Mr. McPherson: Chevy Chase Village was a great place to move to. I went
there because there was a guy who worked for me in the Pentagon who lived across the street,
and we had become friends. His name was Owen Smith. Owen and Joanne Smith had five kids.
He was a great friend of Steve Ailes, the under-secretary of the Army, a Steptoe & Johnson
partner. Owen was the founding editor of a magazine called the Maine Coast Fisherman which
was beloved of people up and down the coast, including a lot of bankers and lawyers and Wall
Street, who took it and read it faithfully. He was wonderfully amusing. He had an office above
a bar in Rockland and lived in Camden.
Let me tell two Owen stories.
1. Owen said that one morning it was about five below, and lobstermen came
into the bar downstairs, below Owen’s office. They had been out hauling in a catch. Owen was
typing out “the Maine Coast Fisherman” when he heard one of these fellows, who were rimed
with ice when they came in, yell, (accent) “Build me a goddamn dive bomber, darlin’!”
(laughter) That was a shot of whiskey in a glass of beer.
2. Owen ran for the state senate as a Democrat. He was close to Ed Muskie, who
was the popular governor of Maine. But Owen ran for state senate from Camden, which always
elected Republicans. Owen was so beloved that he had a shot at it. On election night the count
was very close. He was closer than any Democratic had been in a long time. He saw that the
offshore islands, Vinalhaven and North Haven, had not reported. So he called Charlie the
lobsterman, who was his guy in North Haven, to see what the count was. He got him on the
phone at about 11 o’clock at night and said, “Charlie, this is Owen.” “Hey, Owen,” He said,
“Charlie, it’s really close. What’s the vote over there?” “Vote Owen?” “Yeah, I mean for the
state senate.” “Oh, goddamn, is today election day?” (laughter) He said, “We was up early out
there on the pots, you know.”
So, with a man like that, how could you resist him? I wanted to live near Owen
Smith, if I could, so we found a house on Irving Street in Chevy Chase across the street from the
Mr. Vanderstar: What was he doing in Washington?
Mr. McPherson: He was working for the deputy under-secretary of the Army for
international affairs. He had a role in Panama. Ailes had persuaded him to come down and
spend some time in Washington. It just happened that I got into that job and, therefore, became
his boss. But we were good friends, and I was delighted to move out there because my daughter
and his kids had also become good friends.
Mr. Vanderstar: While you lived on Capitol Hill, initially, your daughter, Coco,
went to Beauvoir, all the way up to the National Cathedral area.
Mr. McPherson: Yes, that’s right. The usual carpool.
Incidentally, about her and living on Capitol Hill: Coco McPherson probably
features in more newspaper photographs than any child of her time because LBJ and Lady Bird
came often to our church, St. Mark’s Church. On the front page of the Times one day Johnson’s
got her by the hand, talking earnestly to her.
Mr. Vanderstar: To Coco?
Mr. McPherson: To Coco. She was five and she looked very pretty in her dress.
The Times’ caption was something like “LBJ Gets Brush-off from Blonde”! (laughter) He had
invited her to the White House for lunch, and she said she was going on a picnic, thank you, so
she didn’t want to go. (laughter)
Jack and Mary Margaret Valenti bought a house right next to St. Mark’s on Third
Street, and the Johnsons and we would all go over there and have a glass of sherry after church.
Coco would go frequently. We would go a number of times to the White House and swim in the
indoor pool there. Johnson was fbn with her. He had a good way with him about children.
When he was vice president my first wife and I and Coco went to Texas to see my
Dad, and we drove down to the Hill Country-I wanted to show it to them. We were in
Fredericksburg, Texas, an old German community about ten miles from the Johnson ranch. I
had been working for Mansfield for about two and a half years, I guess, and hadn’t seen a lot of
Johnson. I just called him, called the White House and asked them to connect me. And he said,
“Where are ya?” I said, “We’re in the Nimitz Hotel in Fredericksburg.” And he said, “Come
over for lunch right now.”
So we got over there and he put us in his big Lincoln Continental, the one that he
threw the beer cans out of, and we went tearing around the ranch looking at cattle and an
occasional deer. Then he slammed on the brakes. We were about two miles from the ranch
house, and he said, “What’s Coco eat for lunch? You don’t eat chili, do you?” And she said she
didn’t think she ate chili. So he called on the radio to the kitchen and spent five minutes talking
to the cook about what they could prepare for this five-year-old girl. It was quite interesting that
he would do that.
Mr. Vanderstar: That he would pay attention to that kind of issue.
Mr. McPherson: Yes. A little later, when we were about to sit down, a plane
came in to the landing strip and Johnson said, “It’s John.” And it was, John Connally, the
governor. Connally came and joined the five of us for lunch. I could tell there was a lot of
tension in the air. Johnson turned to me and Coco and said, “Ya’ll want to walk down to see
Cousin Aureole?”-a kinswoman of his about a half a mile down the road. We said, “okay,” and
we walked out.
Mr. Vanderstar: The three of you?
Mr. McPherson: The three of us. On the way back, the plane took off. I said,
“Strange visit.” And Johnson said, ‘Yeah, he’s been unhappy with me ever since the election,”
Connally’s election. He said, “I’ll show you why.” We got back and he pulled out this
enormous map of the state of Texas, all 252 counties. Some of the counties were brown, most
were white, some were reddish. Where the brown was there were a lot of African Americans;
where it was reddish there were a lot of Hispanics; and the whites were White. He said, “I
spread this out for John when he was running. I said, ‘John, you’re running a very conservative
campaign and you’re not conveying to any of these people that you’re with them, that you
understand them. Now you’d better watch it because you’re going to get beat in the primary if
you don’t convey to these people that you are with them and thinking about them’. And he went
on, kind of pushing me back as if I was intruding and wasn’t telling him things he needed to
know.” Then Johnson pulled out another map, and it showed what the vote was between
Connally and a guy named Don Yarborough, not the Ralph who became senator, but a very
liberal guy. He had beaten Connally in many of these counties.
The total vote was quite close, much closer than it should have been, and Johnson
said, “I told him, ‘What’d I tell you, John?’ and it’s been very hard for him to live with that ever
since.” It was interesting encounter between these two huge figures. Johnson was a huger one,
but John Connally was quite a powerful and brainy man who did quite a lot of good for the state
of Texas, as it turned out.
Mr. Vanderstar: It’s a good illustration of how it’s hard to resist saying, “I told
you so,” and it’s also hard to take it when somebody says that.
Mr. McPherson: Absolutely.
Mr. Vanderstar: I mean, even at that level, you had both of those fallacies, if you
will, hard at work.
Mr. McPherson: That’s right.
Mr. Vanderstar: Well, I assume Coco didn’t understand that until later on.
Mr. McPherson: I don’t think she read that one very well.
Mr. Vanderstar: Let’s see, what else can you say to throw light on your daily
life, your personal life while you were at the White House?
Let me, before you get into that, let me kind of say for the record about the other
interview process. As I understand it, and please correct me if I get it wrong, you were
interviewed over a period of time back in the ‘70s- beginning December 5, 1968, so you were
just in transition out of the White House at that point.
Mr. McPherson: I was interviewed by somebody under the aegis of the legal
entity created to do that and ultimately to be transferred to the LBJ Library when it was formed
in the very early ‘70s.
Mr. Vanderstar: There were something like ten, I think, taped interviews that are
available on the web site of and I suppose physically in Austin?
Mr. McPherson: Ten or fifteen hours, I think.
Mr. Vanderstar: Okay. At the Johnson Library, and those are available for
examination. I assume that that dealt primarily with your time at the White House, but I don’t
know why I say that.
Mr. McPherson: Well, I think it did originally. I mean I think the first ones did
and subsequently, in the mid-’70s I think, a man here at the National Archives named Mike
Gillette came and asked me to do a few more. He was going back to the Senate days. So we sort
of did it in reverse order.
Mr. Vanderstar: Okay. You had deeded your rights in these tapes and so on to
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the LBJ Library by document that you signed in October of 1970. Do you think that was the end
of the interview process or were you still in the midst of it then, because if it started in late ‘68,
that was almost two years.
Mr. McPherson: Yes, good question. I guess it was probably done until this
reopening by Mike Gillette, which I think was several years later.
Mr. Vanderstar: Okay. And then you wrote a letter to the LBJ Library in 1979
waiving or withdrawing any restrictions you had put on about when it could be exhibited.
Mr. McPherson: Yes, that’s right.
Mr. Vanderstar: Initially you put that restriction on.
Mr. McPherson: Well, I did. It was suggested that perhaps I would want to do
that. I think it was suggested at the outset of the taping, probably in order to cause me to be
more open, more forthcoming. After a time, it seemed unneeded, and so much history had come
out and I knew there was nothing in it of which I felt particularly nervous.
I must say it’s been used a lot in books of history. It’s quite surprising. A book
like Mutual Contempt, which is about the mutual contempt between LBJ and Bobby Kennedy,
relies on it a lot-that and a bunch of memos that I wrote to Johnson. You know, you forget
what you wrote long ago. Mutual Contempt has a number of memos that I wrote to Johnson
urging him to look at people in ways other than whether they were for him or Bobby. I said he
was going to isolate himself from a lot of first-rate people if he made them toe the line in some
way. I’d forgotten those memos until Mutual Contempt came along.
Anyway, I did remove the restriction in 1979.
Mr. Vanderstar: Okay. So, we’ve got your book, A Political Education, and
these history tapes down in the LBJ Library.
Mr. McPherson: Yes, and my files from the entire four years. Mrs. Johnson was
a vacuum cleaner, and a lot of my stuff wound up down there.
Mr. Vanderstar: Okay, all right. I digressed because I was asking you about
your personal life and your day-to-day getting up and going to work
Mr. McPherson: Yes. Well, one of the great things about being a senior staffer
in the White House, at least in those days, is that you got picked up and taken home by a driver,
usually in a black Mercury, and you got taken to social events, if they had some quasi-political
or official character.
I remember-this is really skipping over-in the very last of my days in the
White House in ‘68 or ‘69, I was doing as I had been told to do, helping prepare my successor to
do this job that I’d been doing. As in every succeeding White House, it really isn’t an exact
successor, for the most part. People do different things. 1’11 talk later about different special
counsels, and what they’ve done, and how your abilities and what the president needs from you
govern what that job is. Some of it is kind of bolted in but much of it is free form.
I had worked hard, putting together two big notebooks of memos, and I did my
best to assemble materials that a special counsel of the kind that I had been had worked with or
produced. I waited for my successor’s visit. It turned out to be John Erlichman. I spent two
hours going through these books with him. After about an hour and a half, I don’t care if you are
a nuclear physicist, you pretty much run out of things to say about what you do. I mean, I don’t
know about litigators and anti-trust lawyers, but I know that for me, I just didn’t have much
more to say once I had shown him some memos and described a few typical working days. And
he never asked a question.
Mr. Vanderstar: So it was a monologue.
Mr. McPherson: It was a monologue. I kept asking, anything you’d like to know
about this? Finally I said, “Maybe we ought to go to lunch.” So we went down at noon to the
White House mess. He said, “I do have two questions. Who gets to eat here?” I told him. And
then he said, “And the other, when can you use White House cars for social, personal things?”
Years later, talking to Stanford alumni here down at the Press Club, I was on a
panel with Erlichman. He was out of prison, where he had gone as a result of Watergate. I said
to him before I started, “John, I’m going to tell them about the first time we ever met.”
Mr. Vanderstar: The story you just told me?
Mr. McPherson: Yes. I didn’t tell it in a mean way, but the point I was trying to
make is that a lot of what you do in any kind of government job, whether it’s got a lot of
responsibility and a high rank and all that stuff, requires an interest in and some sympathy for the
human beings who work around you and at different levels of the bureaucracy. You really have
to have some sense of how they operate, of what they’re likely to know and not to know, and
what they can help you with and what you can help them with. You have to have some curiosity
about that. I said, “I’m going to tell a story about you that I think illustrates this.” To his credit,
Erlichman said, “I’m glad Harry told that because it illustrates the incredible arrogance and
ignorance that I brought to my job in the White House.”
And this is after a couple of years in the federal pen. He had learned a lot of
humility in the course of that.
Mr. Vanderstar: Good. Let’s suspend there.