Harry C. McPherson arrived in Washington in 1956 from Texas to go to work for Lyndon B. Johnson, then the Senate majority leader. Tall and slim with light brown hair, McPherson soon became known around town as a charming, ambitious and effective member of Johnson's team. When Johnson became president, McPherson became counsel to the president. He described his experiences in a much-praised memoir, "A Political Education," that is still in print.
This summer McPherson celebrated his 70th birthday. What's left of his hair is white, and he has a new hip and a hearing aid, but he remains vigorous and engaged in Washington life. Having come to town when the first Elvis Presley songs made the hit parade, he now finds himself an elder statesman. He has served every president since Jimmy Carter in some official capacity, all the while participating in the management of the law firm of Verner, Liipfert, Bernhard, McPherson and Hand, which he helped found after the Johnson administration.
McPherson was interviewed by Washington Post staff writer Robert G. Kaiser, who first met him in 1959, and by Michael Janeway, director of the Arts Journalism Project at the Columbia Journalism School in New York. As a college student in the late '50s, Janeway worked for McPherson in the Senate during his summer vacations. These are excerpts from a three-hour conversation:
QLots of things have changed enormously since the 1950s in this town. Many Washington subcultures have burgeoned-- lobbyists, lawyers, trade associations, reporters, good chefs. Give us your sense of the changing tribes of Washington. How would you introduce the town differently today than in 1959?
AWhen I came to Washington in 1956, there were well over 800,000 people in the District of Columbia and I think about a million and a half in the metropolitan area. Today there are 550,000 persons in the District of Columbia and almost 4 million in the metropolitan area. That's the staggering change. And it changes a lot of things.
Those anthropological groups that you speak of certainly have flourished, as you say. The media, particularly, I think of as being vastly bigger than it used to be--including the political media. Everybody comes in and focuses on the election, on the coming election, now the drumbeat is going on on George W. [Bush] and [Bill] Bradley and [Vice President] Gore, and then one day the election will be and we'll be back to the boring writing about governing, which is nowhere near as interesting.
How do you explain some of these changes? Why so many more reporters and lawyers and lobbyists?
I suppose because of the tremendous rise and increase in the reach of government, brought on starting in the '30s but multiplied in the '60s and '70s. All kinds of government programs that interest various groups that want to be talked to. Environmental groups want to know about the EPA and everything that happens. The Federal Communications Commission, after having been a rather sleepy place for a long time, is now booming with activity because of all the Internet issues and all the communications issues. So it's got its own audience. That magnetism of government activity is probably the main cause of it.
Lawyers come as well to service all those clients who have those issues. I don't know how many there were when I first came, but there are many thousands more now.
Imagine Joe Jones coming to Washington this week from Mississippi to go to work for Trent Lott [the Senate majority leader]. Jones read your book, wants to do something like you did. How would the pursuit of Joe's ambitions in this Washington differ from your pursuit of your ambitions in the '50s and '60s?
Well I think in a number of ways, very significant ones. The big difference between today's politics, today's governing and those of 40 years ago is that there is no agenda in anybody's mind right now that I know of, no big agenda to achieve.
When I came to work for Lyndon Johnson, there was an agenda in the wings, or on the shelf, ready to be taken down and put into being if the opportunity arose. And the Democrats worked at it in modest ways. There wasn't much they could do with Eisenhower in the White House and able to veto whatever they tried. But it was always there, and the foundations, the universities, the labor unions, the Democrat activists all over the country had been working on these things for a long time. Much of it was in [Harry S.] Truman's 1948 platform and in the speeches he made about civil rights and about medical care for the aged and so on.
The sense of being here and taking part and accomplishing that agenda was a very strong one in the minds of many young men and women who came to Washington about the time I did.
I don't have that sense today that people are here for that purpose. They may be simply wanting some government experience before they go out and make a living, [sometimes] still working with the government as lobbyists and operators in Washington, or they simply may enjoy the rather familial relationships of politics--which many people do. Those are now suffused with money to a degree that--while it was there in the '50s--was nowhere near as commanding a concern as it is today.
Let me read you an excerpt from an interview you gave in 1968 just as the Johnson administration was ending, recalling your state of mind in about 1966 as a key figure in the Johnson White House:
"I was in danger, just like everyone around him [Johnson], of capitulating to what you might call the [Jack] Valenti syndrome, which was to judge myself as a person by his judgment. [Valenti, now president of the Motion Picture Association of America, was a personal assistant to Johnson famous for his total devotion to the boss.] When I was in favor, I was on top of the world; when I was out of favor, I was in the dumps. And that struck me as ridiculous. I made a number of efforts to pull back from a relationship, an intense relationship with him. It has saved my sanity and judgment and made me a good deal more self-confident and steady in my relationship with him. I feel easier about arguing with him, and probably do a lot more arguing with him than anybody."
What would be your advice to young people coming to Washington today to work for powerful people? How should they deal with the riddle that you play with in that quote--that you can't develop a relationship of trust with a boss without a degree of intimacy, and yet that intimacy can turn around and create a thrall?
Well, I recently wrote a book review of George Stephanopoulos's book ["All Too Human: A Political Education"], a brilliant book in many respects, but a pathetic book in my view in that as Stephanopoulos makes clear over and over--on almost every page--there is some evidence of his hopeless dependence on the view of Bill Clinton towards him. And the more you read it, the more you feel that this very bright fellow, and he really is very bright in his understanding of politics, his ability to write and all that, that he has permitted his soul to be handed over to the care of a politician whose main interest in life is his own standing, his own success, and not Stephanopoulos's. My review was intended for young staffers [on Capitol Hill], to say, every now and then look at yourself and look at your relationship with your boss and hold back some part of you, and don't allow your worth to be determined by their view at the time, at the moment.
The 43 years you've been in Washington have been marked by steady and now dramatic decline in the standing of politics and politicians in the country. People don't trust politicians, don't like politics, aren't interested in what goes on here. Part of American culture now is to ridicule politics and politicians. How did this happen?
The conventional answers are certainly Vietnam and Watergate, and then I guess you could add Monicagate to that sorry pair.
I'm sure they played a huge role in it, but there's something different about today's politics. A month or so ago, I made a talk up in the Senate. The topic was "Civility and Deliberation in the Senate." And I went around and talked with a dozen senators for a couple of hours each; the split was almost 50-50 Democratic and Republican.
The picture of a senator that I got from those talks is not a pretty one. It's not one that would make someone want to be a senator, I should think. There's a kind of captivity, a thralldom that senators are in today, in part to the media and in part to campaign finance demands, that has eroded their standing--[first] with themselves and then with the population at large. I didn't talk to anybody of those 12 or 14 members who seemed really enthusiastic about the job of legislating. I heard about the obsession with the tube. Curiously, several of them mentioned the mere televising of the Senate's floor debates as something that had dissipated the camaraderie and dissipated the deliberation that used to occur.
But I need to stop here and say every time I get down at heart about today's Senate, I remember that there were an awful lot of second-raters when I came here. There were a bunch of first-raters, and one tends to remember the best of the past, but the best I could do in ending my talk was to encourage today's senators to take some lessons from the past and look at the way people used to carry out their roles as senators.
The obsession of the people who are sent here [today] is with the next election. Yesterday I was talking with a man who has been working in and around the Senate for 13 years, knows more about it than I do. He said the saddest thing in his mind was that there is no longer a period of a couple of years when you can be a statesman, when you can get elected and go do things that you need to do and that the country needs. [Instead] from the moment that you're elected, you're thinking about the next election.
When you vote on the Senate floor, you typically don't know much about the issue. You are reluctant to get involved in working on any program or subject in the way that Hubert Humphrey had a dozen subjects that absorbed him and obsessed him. You don't want to, you don't do that, and you don't get your fellows [staff] to do that because they don't have time for it.
Altogether it's not an attractive role for a gifted person. Some of the current members are very bright, but they're not able to use it as perhaps once they did. The job of legislating used to be primary with the best senators. They really tried to legislate, to work on things, to master subjects, and they didn't worry so much about how they looked on the tube, because they weren't on the tube. And the reporters in those days were more inclined to treat them and what they did in a, what shall I say, a positivistic sense, and whatever they said, whatever they did was reported on. Not their motives, not who was paying them to do this, not their personality flaws.
If you had to be ruthlessly honest in a comparison of then to now, are there more second-raters now and fewer first-raters?
There were more first-raters, more effective legislators in those days, I believe, than there are today. I'm not sure whether that's because of the personality of the people who came or because of the conditions that I've just been trying to describe. When I think of the Democratic Policy Committee, which was sort of the leadership committee in the late '50s when I was working as a counsel, Lyndon Johnson, Mike Mansfield, Richard Russell, Warren Magnuson, Lister Hill, Bob Kerr, John Pastore, Hubert Humphrey, Phil Hart, Ed Muskie--these were serious, big people who were dedicated.
Take Muskie, for example. He's just one of the best senators of the 20th century, I would think. Muskie was someone who was not only a serious man on every issue, but a focused man on some issues that he considered particularly important--the environment being one--in which he became masterful. Richard Russell on national security matters was as astute as anyone in Washington. Lister Hill on the National Institutes of Health. He built them. He found the money, and he found the doctors to testify for the money. He persuaded senators that they were right, and all these billions that have been appropriated for medical research come from that. These guys had goals, and they were looked to by other members. You don't see that absorption in issues as much. But then again, the agenda that we were talking about earlier is not as much on people's minds as it was back in the '50s.
What's your own view now, looking back and thinking about government as a solver of impacted societal problems, and especially the agenda of raising the poor up?
Well, my view is that this is a subject people like us will be arguing 50 years and 100 years from now.
First of all, I think what the government did, beginning with [Franklin D.] Roosevelt and then dramatically with the Great Society, the kinds of things that were done did help and continue to help. My grandparents could look forward, when they got sick, to either dying soon or being a tremendous burden on their children or going to the county farm. Today we've got a Social Security network and a Medicare network that changes all that. If you live long enough, even in Appalachia or in the ghettos of Chicago and Detroit and Washington, you'll be all right with Social Security and Medicare. You just have to survive, and you have to not get killed on the street corner, and you have to be able to make it to older age.
Some of the poverty programs have benefited some people. Head Start, the Job Corps were useful to some people--not universally, not widely, and they're quite expensive if they were extended universally.
I'm sure that more could have been done. More, if the funding had been greater. At the same time, I have a built-in skepticism about a lot of government programs.
You've been concerned with civil rights and race all your career. Forty years after helping Johnson pass the first civil rights legislation since Reconstruction, how do you rate the prospects for progress in this country toward what Bradley is calling racial unity?
The conditions in many respects for the top half of black America are so much better than they were in 1956. I mean the opportunities, the potential for a child growing up in a middle-class black family are much better than they were. And we've got the same problem that we had in the late '60s with the bottom half. In fact, it's worsened. In central cities now, the numbers of children raised in single-parent families are so high as to make you wring your hands in fear. This has been written about so much and so wisely by Bill Raspberry and others, Colby King. That conference that was just held down at Morehouse in Atlanta about the state of the Negro family is just one more sign that there is truly a focus on it now. And it's okay to focus; it's not as it was in [Sen. Daniel Patrick] Moynihan's day, a sign of racism to look at that as a tremendous problem.
And it remains a tremendous problem. And I do not know, any more than I did then, frankly, what the government should do.
Talk more about money, which you introduced earlier. How do you personally appreciate the impact of this change in the political system, first of all? Is it polluted? Is it made dirty now? Besides taking up the time of the politicians themselves to raise the stuff, what is the net effect of this transformation?
Someone whose name I can't remember wrote an extremely interesting book with an odd title, "Demosclerosis" ["Demosclerosis: The Silent Killer of American Government," by Jonathan Rauch, Times Books, 1994]. The theme of it is that interest-group pressures have so proliferated that the system has clogged. They put ads in papers and get their monthly reports to their members and all that kind of thing, and they have grass-roots polling people who generate thousands of calls to members [of Congress]. The result is a gridlock. The system simply grinds to a halt.
The fund-raising is an aspect of that clogging. I don't think the average member of Congress suddenly decides because somebody gives him a thousand bucks from a company or a trade association or that sort of thing, or $5,000--I don't think a guy suddenly decides, okay, I'll go that way. Doubtless there are some who do, but where it really plays a part is in filling up the arteries of the political system.
How do you cope with this personally? How much money do you give to campaigns?
Well, I give to our [law firm's] PAC, and then I give beyond the PAC, but if you don't mind, I'd rather not say how much. It's substantial. [Federal Election Commission records show that McPherson personally gave $14,774 to Democratic and Republican candidates for federal office since 1995. His law firm's PAC, to which he currently contributes $416 a month, has given nearly $300,000 to candidates in each of the last three two-year election cycles.] I don't give that much personally. I don't give personal contributions to people who would necessarily benefit my clients. I give to people that I think are particularly good members of Congress and ought to be returned.
Some would say that money talks loudest of all in the business you're now in. What about your practice and this firm's practice? Can you represent people based on some ethical or political judgment about how much they deserve your representation, or is it really just a question of selling yourselves to the highest bidders?
Well, you hope that the people you represent will be those that you feel ought to prevail or at least ought to be protected. Let me take something that has been an issue with our firm and with me personally. I've taken a fair number of hits for being one of the people who signed on to represent the tobacco industry when they started their negotiations with the state attorneys general and the health groups back in 1997. The initial contact with our firm was made with George Mitchell. Senator Mitchell is a man of tremendous integrity and intelligence.
He was invited to involve his firm, my firm, in representing the tobacco industry as it began a negotiation in which it was prepared to pay an enormous, an unbelievable amount of money to various state coffers, which could be used for anti-smoking campaigns and all manner of such things. It was prepared to make all kinds of changes in its behavior--the way it advertised, particularly toward young people. In exchange for that, it was hoping to get protection from bankruptcy, which it feared would come if some of the state suits that had just been fashioned [had succeeded].
Our job in this law firm was never to go to the Hill or to the executive branch and say smoking doesn't cause illness. It was never to say the tobacco industry is being mistreated. It was simply to say the industry is prepared to make revolutionary changes in its behavior if it gets some protection from these giant suits, and this is a good deal for the public.
Some journalists wrote scathingly of me, Mitchell, [former Texas Gov.] Ann Richards [also McPherson's partner], because we had agreed to do that. We agreed to do it because we thought it made a lot of sense in terms of the public interest and, secondly, because it was very handsomely compensated work.
Is there any symbolism in the arc of your own career in this regard? What did Lyndon Johnson pay you when you first came to town?
I think he paid me $4,800 a year, which I thought was dirt cheap.
From there to here, a million dollars a year or whatever it is now, does that say anything about the values of our time and what's happened to this city over these 43 years?
You know you obviously want to have enough resources to take care of your family and yourself when you get older. These very substantial incomes that lawyers, many lawyers now enjoy is a fairly recent development. And I don't think anybody in Washington can hold a candle to some of the contingency-fee lawyers and the plaintiffs' lawyers around the country. In fact, I know they can't. [But] the numbers are big.
There's a big element in Washington--the conservative activists, who have completely changed the Republican Party since you came to town--who would say that your politics are just an archaic example of a failed political doctrine. Some might also say that your real life in this law firm, doing well as a representative of others who are doing well, really belies your professions of sympathy for the poor and the black and the underdogs, [and] that this whole world that you've been nostalgic about today was just a bad mistake. . . . How would you respond to that?
Well, I'd say that I was involved in, and devoted to, efforts made 30 years ago to attend to some very obvious needs of the American people, many of the American people, people who could not meet those needs on their own: medical care, education, environmental and civil rights ending centuries of official discrimination. That a number of things that we tried to do, that we started, did not succeed more than modestly and the reason could be that they were underfunded. The reason could be that they were simply misguided or did not focus effectively on these problems.
People who think that the government should get involved in such things continue to think so probably because there are examples of success in which, when the government did get involved, people were bettered. I know that young people getting out of college have huge student loan debt, but they're getting out of college, and one day they'll pay off the debt. But those student loan programs and all that stimulation of higher education come back to those days in the '60s. Consumer protections that we take for granted now, that we really couldn't live without, started back then. Environmental changes that have helped us keep from killing ourselves with toxins in the air and water started back then.
As for my sin of chairing a prosperous law firm, I have to plead guilty and say that despite that, I have not done anything that I can think of to represent or push forward the goals of antisocial groups. Even the tobacco thing, in my view, was well intended, however it comes out.
But for many years, it has been a condition of Washington that some lawyers--Clark Clifford, Dean Acheson, Edward Bennett Williams--have represented clients who paid them handsomely for their work as lawyers. Some of those clients would not be number one on the hit parade of Common Cause or various liberal organizations. And yet they were able as individuals to contribute very substantially to the national well-being. I hope in a more modest way that I and my colleagues have been able to do that.
I'll give you an example. I have a partner named Mitchell who is the guy who has the connection with the tobacco industry, and he then left it in my hands to go off and try to keep the Irish from killing each other [as mediator between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland]. Or Bob Dole, who has a very large public-interest role in a lot of ways--prostate cancer foundation, World War II Memorial Foundation--a lot of ways in which Dole contributes to the betterment of the country.
So it's possible to be in a prosperous firm and not to lose all your values. I hope that's true, anyway.
CAPTION: Former LBJ aide Harry McPherson reflects on Washington then and now.
CAPTION: Presidential counsel Harry C. McPherson confers with President Johnson in the Oval Office in this undated photo.
CAPTION: McPherson, Robert McNamara, Dean Rusk and Johnson aboard Air Force One in 1967.
CAPTION: Today McPherson's Washington firm counts the tobacco industry among its clients.