Updated 4:54 p.m.
Harry McPherson, a former DLA Piper senior counsel and adviser to President Lyndon Johnson, died Thursday in Bethesda, Md. He was 82.
McPherson, who left the firm in 2010, had bone cancer. A former member of DLA Piper's regulatory and government affairs practice and a 2008 American Lawyer Lifetime Achievement Award winner, he had clients that included media companies, foreign governments and tobacco manufacturers.
“We’ve lost one of the most decent human beings that has inhabited this area,” said DLA Piper partner Berl Bernhard, who had been friends with McPherson for more than 50 years.
McPherson in 1969 joined what became Verner, Liipfert, Bernhard, McPherson and Hand as a partner. He helped Verner, Liipfert grow from an 11-lawyer outfit to a 200-attorney firm and become a lobbying powerhouse before it merged with DLA Piper in 2002.
Along the way, McPherson worked on several high profile matters, including the 1998 settlement between tobacco manufacturers and 46 states over lawsuits concerning smoking-related illnesses. Representing several major tobacco companies, he helped negotiate a deal that limited nicotine levels in cigarettes, brought antismoking organizations about $250 billion and gave his clients some immunity from class action suits.
McPherson also advocated on behalf of countries that included Ethiopia. After Ethiopia’s contested 2005 election, he called on Congress not to sanction the country for cracking down on demonstrators. In addition, McPherson helped start a program to place Northwestern University School of Law professors at Ethiopia's underfunded Addis Ababa University School of Law.
“Harry is right up there with the best and the finest of them all,” said DLA Piper partner Lawrence Levinson, who first worked with McPherson at the White House.
McPherson came to Washington to work for then-Sen. Lyndon Johnson in 1956, after he graduated from the University of Texas School of Law. He started as assistant general counsel for the Senate Democratic Policy Committee, which had Johnson as its chairman at the time. He ascended in 1961 to general counsel of the panel, a post he held for two years. While working in the Senate, he helped write legislation that became the Civil Rights Act of 1957, which looked to eliminate voting barriers for African Americans.
After stints as deputy undersecretary of the Army for international affairs and assistant secretary of state for educational and cultural affairs, he came to the White House in 1965, to serve as an aide to Johnson.
McPherson, who was at the White House until 1969, was a top adviser to Johnson and became the president’s chief speechwriter in 1966. He helped write speeches that included Johnson’s 1968 televised address in which the president said he would stop bombing in North Vietnam and not seek reelection. In 1972, McPherson published a memoir about his time with Johnson titled A Political Education.
McPherson in 1999 told the legal publication Bar Report that he had “no regrets” with his life.
“I’ve had good fortune throughout most of my life,” he said. “I’m married to a woman I love, and I have great kids. I’m lucky to have done the things that I’ve done and to be still at it today.”
He is survived by his second wife, Patricia DeGroot, and their son, Samuel McPherson. Survivors also include Coco McPherson and Peter McPherson, his children from his marriage to Clayton Read. That marriage ended in divorce.
A memorial service is scheduled for March 2 at St. John’s Church in Washington.