Mr. White, an unimposing man with a fondness for cigars and penchant for wry quips, was not a frontline adviser to the two Democratic presidents he served. But his modesty and reputation for loyalty made him a trusted troubleshooter. He told colleagues how to treat a president: “Put yourself in his shoes,” he would advise, and “you’ve gotta be his guy.”
His White House portfolio involvede a spectrum of legal issues — civil rights but also veterans affairs, natural resources, small business, pardons and military construction bills.
Presidential historian Robert Dallek said that although Mr. White was “not overtly or dramatically evident as a public figure, he worked behind the scenes in an effective way to deliver on executive reforms or actions.”
Mr. White’s association with Kennedy began in 1954. The speechwriter and political adviser Theodore C. “Ted” Sorensen, a former law school classmate of Mr. White’s, persuaded then-Sen. John F. Kennedy (D-Mass.) to hire him as a legislative assistant.
After further Capitol Hill experience, Mr. White joined the new Kennedy White House in January 1961 as an assistant to then-special counsel Sorensen. Among other duties, Mr. White helped start the Subcabinet Group on Civil Rights to hasten federal action on civil rights legislation and other concerns. Its chairman, future U.S. Sen. Harris L. Wofford (D-Pa.), said in an interview Thursday that Mr. White was “steady and creative and reliable.”
Mr. White succeeded Wofford as leader of the group in 1962. As the primary White House aide for civil rights, Mr. White became a general coordinator for White House, Justice Department and civil rights leaders. In his private life during that era, he was active in Neighbors Inc., a community group in Northwest Washington that championed integrated neighborhoods.
In his 2008 memoir, “Government for the People,” Mr. White said his most important role in advancing the cause of civil rights was helping to push through Congress the anti-discriminatory Voting Rights Act of 1965.
On March 7, 1965, as the White House was finalizing the legislation, state troopers in Selma, Ala., attacked peaceful civil rights demonstrators in the so-called “Bloody Sunday” incident. The scene in Alabama was captured on national television and sparked widespread revulsion.
Mr. White said he suggested to President Lyndon B. Johnson that instead of forwarding a draft bill to legislators, the president should take his message directly to a joint session of Congress. Speechwriter Richard Goodwin drafted the address, which called for a wide embrace of the civil rights struggle.
“It is not just Negroes, but really it is all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice,” the president said at the joint session on March 15, before echoing the anthem of the civil rights movement, “we shall overcome.”