Tag Archives: Harry McPherson

Hope and Change: LBJ and the Strategy for Winning Reelection in 1968

For this Saturday’s trip to the archives we take the WayBack machine to March, 1968 for an inside view of President Lyndon Johnson’s possible reelection strategy, courtesy of an incredibly candid 10-page memo written by his White House Special Counsel Harry McPherson. I’ve written about McPherson before – he was a longtime Johnson aide who served as the President’s speechwriter/domestic policy adviser, following in the footsteps of Samuel Rosenman under FDR and Ted Sorensen under JFK. McPherson’s memoirs A Political Education are required reading for any student of the Johnson presidency.

This particular memorandum was written on March 18 – a crucial time in one of the nation’s most momentous presidential races. Heading into the presidential election, it was widely assumed that Johnson would run, and likely win, a second full term. Despite growing opposition to the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, no member of his party was willing to challenge a sitting president – except for Minnesota Senator Eugene “Clean Gene” McCarthy, who decided to run on an anti-war platform. On March 12, with strong support from college students, McCarthy won a surprising 42% of the vote in New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary, finishing second to Johnson’s 49%. Four days later Robert Kennedy, who had previously said he would back the President for reelection, jumped into the race for the Democratic nomination. That set the stage for this 10-page McPherson memo which laid out his strategy for Johnson’s reelection. McPherson wrote, as he stated at the start of the memo, in the belief that “the course we seem to be taking now will lead either to Kennedy’s nomination or Nixon’s election, or both.”


McPherson 1968.1

To prevent that outcome, McPherson argued that LBJ needed to resist the natural tendency, as the incumbent, to defend the status quo and to “drive down the middle of the road and run everybody else off into the ditches.” This was a losing strategy, McPherson thought, because it meant Johnson was easily linked, unfairly or not, to circumstances – rising crime, increased drug use, urban riots and, of course, the Vietnam War – that were of growing concern to voters.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the McPherson memo are his capsule summaries of the other candidates. On the conservative* side “Wallace offers a violently different way of doing things” while Nixon “offers a modified version of the Wallace change.” Rockefeller is the “Republican Kennedy.” As for the Democrats McCarthy “would provide a genteel, witty, and distinguished front for a pull-out” from Vietnam.  Regarding Kennedy McPherson wrote “he will try to occupy the same relation to you that his brother Jack occupied to the Eisenhower-Nixon administration: imagination and vitality vs. staleness and weariness, movement vs. entrenchment, hope of change vs. more of the status quo.” (Where have we heard that before?)  McPherson acknowledged that “many young liberals are bitter about [Kennedy’s] opportunistic entry into the race after McCarthy’s strong showing, but Kennedy is cynical enough to believe that they will forget, given time, razz-ma-tazz, and the development of momentum behind his candidacy. He is right about that.”

What could LBJ do to secure his nomination? “I recognize that to some degree you are the prisoner of the status quo. But there is no need to embrace your imprisonment.” Here McPherson lays out a series of policy readjustments designed to portray LBJ as “restlessly eager to change things as anyone else – and a great deal more knowledgeable about the problems involved in effecting a change.”

In Vietnam, that mean reducing the scope of U.S. involvement but also showing the enemy “that we cannot be thrown out of Vietnam”. On urban violence, he should ask his attorney general to invite 50 big city mayors and police chiefs to Washington for a conference on their concerns.

McPherson then pivots to discuss specific campaign strategy. His comments here on the Catholic vote, and on women and Kennedy’s and McCarthy’s “sex appeal” are particularly interesting:

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The memo concludes with this exhortation: “Movement, candor, dissatisfaction – together with your strength, experience, and achievement – these can win it for you.”

Twelve days later Johnson made this bombshell announcement.  McPherson, like all of LBJ’s aides, never saw it coming.


*Correction: an earlier version of this post listed Wallace with McPherson’s description of Republicans – he was a Democrat of course.


Rest in Peace, Harry McPherson

Harry McPherson, who worked for Lyndon Johnson in both the Senate and as LBJ’s White House Special Counsel and speechwriter, died last Thursday at the age of 82.  McPherson got his start in Washington in 1956 working for the Democratic Policy Committee, which served as the agenda-setting arm for Senate Democrats under the leadership of then Senate Majority Leader Johnson. After seven years in the Senate, McPherson left in 1961, serving in several other government positions before joining Johnson’s White House staff in 1965, working his way up to become one of LBJ’s most trusted advisers. As Special Counsel, McPherson served Johnson as speechwriter/policy adviser/political counselor, reprising a role created by Samuel Rosenman under FDR and later performed by Ted Sorensen under JFK.

After leaving government, McPherson chronicled his experiences in one of the most beautifully written political memoirs, A Political Education, published in 1972.(Before going to law school, McPherson had ambitions of being a teacher and poet.) In addition to the graceful prose, the book offers some of the best insights available anywhere into Johnson’s presidency and into the man himself. But for a more unvarnished look at Johnson, I recommend McPherson’s oral histories at the LBJ Library. Here’s McPherson’s description, taken from one of those oral histories, of the famous “Johnson treatment”:

“A great deal has been written about the Johnson treatment and it is an overpowering treatment. It always reminded me of Kid Gavilan, the Cuban boxer, who had a bolo punch that came over the top of his head, or of that fellow–it wasn’t [Wilmer “Vinegar Bend”] Mizell but another pitcher for the Reds years ago; he had such long arms that when he threw a side-armer, it looked like it was coming down the third base line. You know, he could argue any kind of way on any kind of level: the highest policy, the narrowest self-interest, political interest. He keeps probing until he begins to score. And then there’s something about the tremendous drive of his confrontation; something about his physical height, which he uses very effectively. His very massiveness and bigness. That has an almost irresistible force to it. But there is also something, when someone really cries out “I can’t do that,” there’s something that snaps him back up. And I’ve seen him become almost tender with people who just said they couldn’t do it, and he’s let them alone, and that has been it. And he hasn’t gone out to try to ruin them later whatever. He has a considerable respect for such men.”

Here’s a famous illustration of the Johnson treatment:

Some of McPherson’s best memories, however, are of Johnson’s role as Senate Majority Leader, particularly his effort to craft a coalition strong enough to pass a civil rights bill without permanently fracturing the Democratic Party.  Here’s what McPherson said in response to a question about Johnson’s role in getting the 1957 civil rights bill through the Senate:

Questioner: Can you separate in Mr. Johnson’s mind principle and expediency? That is, in 1957 was he sincerely interested in getting a civil rights act passed because of the effect it would have on Negroes and others, or was he just trying to chalk up another piece of legislation? Or can you answer that?

McPherson: Well, it’s difficult for me to answer it, because I didn’t know him anyway near as well as I do now. And the subject of Lyndon Johnson and the field of civil rights is worth a good deal of talk. My guess is that at that time he felt that there were certain historical necessities for the Democratic Party that required the passage of legislation.

That is, this was Eisenhower’s bill; it had passed the House; here it was in the Senate; no legislation had passed in eighty-five years. Secondly, the very fact that no legislation of this kind had passed in eighty-five years was an inducement to try to pass it, to bring off a great coup of this kind. He needed thirdly, I suppose, to establish himself as a more than sectional leader. The year before, in 1956, he had refused to sign a Southern manifesto which every other Southern Senator did sign–the one that condemned the [Supreme Court’s] Brown decision of 1954.

Johnson, I believe, is your typical Southern liberal who would have done a lot more in the field of civil rights early in his career had it been possible; but the very naked reality was that if you did take a position–an advanced position in Southern terms–it was almost certain that you would be defeated, not by someone else with an advanced position, but by a bigot. That happened all over the South for years and years and years. But Johnson was one of those men early on who disbelieved in the Southern racial system and who thought that the salvation for the South lay through economic progress for everybody.”

Of course it was McPherson who penned most of Johnson’s most famous speech – the nationally televised address in March, 1968 in which Johnson was supposed to announce a pause in the bombing of North Vietnam.  Johnson did so – and then took himself out of the running for reelection as president, a decision that stunned everyone, including McPherson.

May you rest in peace, Harry McPherson.