Kennedy and Johnson staffer Lee White (1923-2013) died this weekend at the age of 90. White personified a notion central to the creation of a White House staff – that its denizens should have a “passion for anonymity.” Indeed, Robert Dallek does not give him even a passing mention in his new book on “Camelot’s Court.” But if such a passion now seems quaint, that is a shame — it served White well, and more crucially the presidents for whom he worked. White, as deputy to JFK counsel Ted Sorensen and later special counsel to LBJ, was at the center of many of the key events of those administrations faced. Some of the issues he dealt with were small but provided important political lessons. In the memo from the Kennedy Library reproduced below, for instance, he reminded the president that the administration had opposed special budget requests for local water projects but that a friendly member of Congress was pleading for help, citing both “the extremely depressed economic situation in the region and his own good voting record.” White suggested an exception be made.
The archives teem with the paper trail of analysis and advice generated by White and his fellow aides. They worked hard (Sorensen wrote to White when recruiting the latter to the Kennedy staff back in the ’50s, “we have no overtime, regular hours… or any of the other attractions one normally expects with a new job”). And they covered an immense amount of ground — the Executive Office of the President was significantly smaller, and staffers were of necessity generalists. This was another of the original aims of the EOP’s creators in the 1930s (and another aspect that has fallen away.)
But White had a passion not only for anonymity, but for justice. His portfolio centered on civil rights policy, where doing the right thing was not always consonant with good politics. He was the point person, for instance, on JFK’s contested executive order over fair housing. One letter in his files at the Kennedy Library contains an exchange with Rep. Sam Ervin (D-N.C.), later beloved by liberals because of his Watergate investigation. Ervin wrote to Kennedy in September 1962 noting his belief that the president did not have the constitutional authority to issue an order “banning so-called discrimination in housing.”
White, in his reply, managed a perfect passive-aggressive tone: “we, of course, respect your ability and reputation as a Constitutional scholar and assure you that the point raised in your letter will be carefully considered.” The order was issued in November. (In a memo to Kennedy that month, White noted that “because the logical invitees oppose the issuance of the order, obviously there should not be any Congressional participation” in a proposed signing ceremony. But he assured the president that challenges to the order’s legality had been “ineffectua[l]…. We have in hand materials answering the legal and Constitutional questions.”) Later, he worked extensively on the legislation that would become the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965.
An interview published by the Johnson Library in 2010 might serve as an appropriate epitaph. White was asked, “Why does the Voting Rights Act stand up over time?”
His response was simple: “Well, because it was right.”