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Saturday, February 18, 2012

Harry C. McPherson, 1929-2012

My parents' children got to meet a lot of interesting people. I just learned that one of the greatest of them, Harry C. McPherson, died just two days ago.

This obit doesn't fully convey the man. It couldn't. He was a Texan who came to DC straight out of law school in 1956 to go to work for LBJ in the Senate. He was a new dealer and a liberal (I never knew the detail in the obit about his grandfather. I did meet his father once, a wonderful old Lost.) Somehow, my father, 16 years older, must have met him around 1959 when we came back to DC and they became great friends. Harry got me a summer job in the Senate when I returned from Africa in 1963. Then he got into the subcabinet under JFK, which must be an interesting story, but as soon as Kennedy died LBJ moved him into the White House. He was part of that extraordinarily heroic and tragic period in our history from 1964 through 1968, and he described it with a typical mixture of insight, warmth and calm in his remarkable book, A Political Education. I think we will be hearing more from Harry, shortly, too, when Robert Caro's fourth volume on LBJ, covering the years 1959-64, comes out in just a few months.

Harry was one of my most important teachers about the world of politics. He shared a lot of information with me and with my whole family. In the late summer of 1963 he had been to see LBJ, who was in despair over his lack of responsibility and influence. But he was much more than a pol. I didn't know he planned to be a poet but I did know he was active in a local drama group in DC, and his family came over to our house for play readings a couple of times, which was great fun. He encouraged me to read one of the greatest of political novels--he thought it the greatest, and he could be right--All the King's Men. He also enjoyed hearing me play the piano. I remember in 1967 he was staying with m parents in London, where my father was stationed, and I was home on vacation. He had just been to Vietnam and was returning in a fairly pessimistic mood. "I lay awake this morning asking myself, how can you reconcile the music of Mozart with the Vietnam War?" he said. That was Harry.

More importantly, Harry was one of the only people who ever worked for LBJ without sacrificing his personality, perhaps because he obviously had a great relationship with his own father. "We had an arms length relationship," he told me once, and other historians have found he was not afraid to criticize his boss. Like most bullies, LBJ would back off when confronted by anyone who wouldn't take it, and Harry was among those. He was one of the two key figures--Clark Clifford was the other--in deciding LBJ not to escalate the war after Tet in 1968. He was the drafter of the speech announcing the partial bombing halt, on March 31, 1968 I believe, which concluded with LBJ's own surprise ending, saying that he would not run again.

As the obit shows, Harry became the Clark Clifford of his generation: the man who came to DC to do good and stayed to do well. Yet he also played the role of the Artist archetype. His attempts to settle the case between the government and the tobacco companies remind me of his fellow Artist Henry Clay's equally great and ultimately unsuccessful attempt to ward off the civil war.He remained a great gentleman to the last, and his second wife is a wonderful person as well.

You all know how much I miss the political world of my childhood. I have tears in my eyes right now because he was not only a dear friend, but one of the men who made it what it was.


Bozon said...


Many thanks.

It was, for too short a time, a great society.

All the best

Greg Weinman said...

As an elder Xer who like you, had no trouble believing that Greg Smith was simply disgusted by the ethos of the institution he worked for, I think you brushed a bit too broadly in asserting that most members of Gen X have no feeling for their institution as such at all, but only for what it can do for them. Seriously? Most? But, by contrast, we desperately needed Boomers, who can think big, to set some goals for our institutions--not least the federal government--and enlist younger generations behind them? Are you for real? Do you work in the same Federal Govenment I do? From my perspective, it is mostly Boomers who have wrecked havac on the efficiency of government and dedication to mission. We Gen Xers may be cynical (we are) but that doesn't mean most of us don't want to do things right, and it most certainly doesn't mean most of us can't see the big picture. Most of us do and most of us can.

I love your blog and your insight, but I really don't think it serves you well to lump entire generations into such damning or elevating categories in an effort to support any point.

David Kaiser said...


I said that we NEEDED Boomers who would do that. I did not say that we HAVE them, or had them. And I am even more upset about that than I am about the tendencies of Xers.