Harry McPherson and Presidential Decision-Making

Feb 20 '12

Harry C. McPherson, Jr., counsel to the president (back when that job title meant policymaking, not criminal defense), died last week. An obituary is here. McPherson worked for then-Senator Lyndon Baines Johnson and became a political appointee in the Defense and State Departments in the Kennedy Administration before rejoining Johnson in the White House in 1965.

When Johnson left office, McPherson joined a Washington law firm (at which, thirty years later, he helped negotiate the 46-state master settlement with the tobacco industry.)  He also served on a number of government blue-ribbon panels, including Jimmy Carter’s commission investigating the Three Mile Island nuclear accident. But he did not seek to return to full-time politicking. “There will always be a species of the human animal,” he wrote, “that can find satisfaction only in the heat and glare of elective office” but McPherson was not among its number. As his White House years passed, he had learned a lot — one memo he wrote to Johnson in June 1968 begins — “I recognize that you must sign this bill. But it is the worst bill you will have signed since you took office” — but was sometimes wearied by what he learned. As he later wrote,  “by the end of 1968…I was tired of seeing every dispute turned into an apocalyptic struggle between good and evil. I needed a respite from my political education.”

These comments come from  his 1972 memoir A Political Education (reprinted by the University of Texas press in 1994), which I want to highlight for Monkey Cage readers. The book is an important legacy – and having just read a yard-high stack of Bush administration autobiographies I can gratefully recommend it as a work that transcends its genre. McPherson could write, and he had a sense of humor, too. Talking about endless speechifying at Democratic party fundraising dinners, he notes (in what might be a preview of autumn, 2012?):

“Democratic politicians traditionally broke the bonds, struck the shackles, lifted up, gave new hope, made possible. ‘They’ – the Republicans and other skeptics – thought we would fail, give up, but ‘they’ had another think coming. We had not come this far to quit in sight of our goal. Answer the following rhetorical question: shall we quit trying to feed the poor, train the uneducated, heal the sick, just because it is hard and costly? One hoped for a chorus of ‘No’s,’ but usually there was only silence. By 1967, one was satisfied if no one yelled ‘Yes!’….”

McPherson’s most important reflections, perhaps, deal with Vietnam, race relations, and with the difficulties of presidential decision-making. As regards the last – in a passage which might be profitably read alongside James Fallows’ recent piece on the Obama White House in The Atlantic — he wrote:

“All the memoranda I have quoted were biased. All proceeded from the personal convictions of Johnson’s advisors, which we believed he shared…. The real danger was that we would weigh it wrong. The very process of reducing a dozen position papers and committee meetings to a three-page memorandum for the President required that we exclude some arguments and data, and emphasize others. We tried to give him both sides, but our judgments colored what we wrote. Presidents are not helpless in such matters…; [they] also choose staffs on whose values they believe they can rely. But the danger of bias or omission is always there, and it is unavoidable so long as Presidents make twenty decisions a day on the basis of information they can only receive through the filter of other men’s convictions.”

Happy Presidents’ Day to all – and to Mr McPherson, requiescat in pace.