Don Edwards, R.I.P.

Annapolis and Anne Arundel County lost a remarkable, delightful former neighbor on October 1, when Don Edwards, a 20-year resident of Mayo, passed away at the spectacular age of 100.
Don, and his late wife, Edie Wilkie, were passionate enthusiasts of the Chesapeake Bay. Their beautiful waterfront home was on Holly Point, between the South and West Rivers, on high ground looking southeast down the Bay. They birded and boated and swam and entertained there in high style. (Full disclosure: my wife, Susy, and I were longtime friends and frequent guests of Don and Edie and, on one stunning fall day, were married beneath the tall trees on Holly Point. So, there is no pretense of objectivity here.)
William Donlon Edwards, as he was christened in 1915, spent 32 years in Congress, representing San Jose, CA, and a swath of San Francisco Bay. As chairman of the Judiciary Committee’s subcommittee on civil and constitutional rights, he became a celebrated champion of free speech, human rights and equality for women, minorities and the disabled.
Don was proud to be labeled “relentlessly liberal,” and counted among the highpoints of his Congressional career the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and in 1975, the abolition of the infamous smear-machine, The House Un-American Activities Committee.
No pacifist — he had served in the Navy in World War II — Don nonetheless was an early and vocal opponent of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam and opposed our other hapless adventures in Grenada, Iraq and elsewhere. I once asked him what we should do in Iraq after Saddam Hussein had been overthrown, when conservatives were warning that we must not “cut and run.”
“Cut and run,” he said, flatly.
Had we listened to Don, and to Edie, who was as ardently anti-war as her husband, we could have saved a decade of losses and heartache.
Don was a proud, capital D, Democrat, who had grown up in a prosperous, Republican family in San Jose and been president of the California Young Republicans. Disillusioned with the GOP’s rightward drift, he won a four-way Democratic primary in 1962 by 726 votes and never had a close election again.
Graduating from Stanford University, Don was a crack golfer who went on to win the Bing Crosby Clambake — the forerunner of today’s ATT Pro-Am tournament– at Pebble Beach as an amateur. When he told his crusty and opinionated father that he wanted to turn pro and play golf for a living, the elder Edwards blustered: “Don’t be ridiculous! There’ll never be any money in golf. Go to law school.”
After Stanford Law, Don became, by his own description, “the worst FBI agent in the history of the Bureau.” One of his early assignments, was to photograph the automobile license plates arriving at a mob funeral outside Detroit.
“I hid behind a bush beside the side of the road,” Don told me, laughing. “When a car approached, I’d jump out, take the picture, and jump back. When the film was developed, all I had were pictures of the bush!”
In Congress, the former agent became a leading critic of the Bureau, which he thought compromised people’s civil rights, and especially its dictatorial Director, J. Edgar Hoover. The enmity was mutual.
Once, when Don floated the idea of retiring from Congress years before he did, it made the papers and Hoover clipped the article at his desk and scrawled across it: “Good riddance!” and signed it “H.” Don eventually got the clipping, had it framed, and displayed it proudly at Holly Point.
He also framed and hung in the bathroom at Holly Point his member’s pass to the impeachment hearings of Richard M. Nixon. Don was among the committee members who voted in favor of all the articles of impeachment.
Don’s life-long commitment to racial equality led him to march in Mississippi in 1964 and demonstrate against apartheid in South Africa decades later.
With his usual good timing, Don announced his retirement from Congress at the age of 79 before the election of 1994, when the GOP captured the majority in the House.
He and Edie divided their time after that, summers at Holly Point, winters in Carmel-by-the-Sea, CA. When Susy and I visited them in Carmel, as we did once or twice a year, Don would always ask me: “How’s the Bay?”
“I love The Chesapeake,” he’d say with a big smile.

Harry C. McPherson Jr. R.I.P.

Harry McPherson, who served as counsel, speechwriter and confidant to Lyndon Johnson during the tumultuous days of the civil rights revolution and the agony of Vietnam, is dead at 82. After a battle with bone cancer, a wise and warm voice has been stilled, and Washington is a poorer place for it.

This would be terrible news at any time, but it is especially painful now. He was just about to screen a final version of a new documentary, “Time and Chance: The Political Education of Harry McPherson,” produced by Les Francis of The Washington Media Group. I did the narration for it and some of the interviews. In it, Harry does what he did best: he shares the stories and lessons he learned in his half-century in the top circles of Washington politics.

Sitting in his law office or in his book-lined study in Kensington, he talked to the camera in that soft, easy, bemused manner about driving north from Austin as a fresh and green law school graduate in the closing days of the Eisenhower Administration to take a job for LBJ, who was then the Senate Majority Leader. He came across the Memorial Bridge about 10 p.m. and saw the White House for the first time and realized that the President was in there.

“This was the fellow that I had mocked along with other students sitting around Shultz Beer Garden down in Austin, just thought he was just a big, grinning fellow without much depth at all, pretty much the Eisenhower of Herb Block’s cartoons,”
Harry recalled. “Well, when you’re driving an old Buick full of everything you own, Eisenhower didn’t seem like an amenable duck. He seemed like somebody who had been a five star general and he was running things, running this whole government.”

That was the first of many lessons that Harry learned about the realities of power and politics in Washington. He talked of how LBJ taught him the art of compromise as the way to get things done in the Senate — a lost art, it seems, these days — but the only way to work through the southern conservatives who chaired the major committees in those days. He recalled how LBJ worked with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the master politician and the master orator, two opposites from vastly different backgrounds, working together to get something important done.

Harry learned that in Washington, the worst moments can lead to the best accomplishments, how the rioting that followed Dr. King’s assassination prepared the ground for the passage of the Fair Housing Act of 1968, which banned discrimination in the sale and rental of housing; how Lyndon Johnson, a man from the deep south, would get the opportunity to appoint Thurgood Marshall to the U.S. Supreme Court.

But for all the good that Harry and his mentor could accomplish on the domestic front, their crucible would be far away, in the jungles of Vietnam. In the interviews for the film, Harry recalls LBJ’s anguish over a war that he knew was deeply unpopular and unwinnable, not even necessary, and yet inescapable.

He recalls LBJ saying: ‘They’d kill us if we back down, they’d kill us.’ “And they would be the Republicans.” Harry said, without a trace of bitterness.

In 1967, Harry came back from a two-week visit to Vietnam convinced that the war would be the ruin of Johnson’s presidency. He shared his thoughts with Johnson, but did not break with him over the war, lest he lose his seat at the table. But by March 18, 1968, with then Senator Robert F. Kennedy mounting a challenge from the left and Richard M. Nixon campaigning from the right, Harry sat down and wrote LBJ a 10-page memo that minced no words. I have a copy of it on my desk.

“I think the course we seem to be taking now,” Harry wrote in the first sentence, “will lead either to Kennedy’s nomination or Nixon’s election, or both.” He urged Johnson not to sacrifice his presidency “to the bullish conduct of an unpopular war.”

That was vintage McPherson: loyal, but candid and direct.

In the end, of course, Johnson made his own decision and famously announced on March 31, just two weeks after receiving Harry’s memo, on national television that “I shall not seek and I will not accept” the Democratic party’s nomination for another term. Harry describes in the film how he labored over the body of that momentous speech, but that Johnson wrote the final lines announcing his decision and sent them directly to the operator to put them in the teleprompter script. Then he called Harry and asked him what he thought of what he had written and was about to read. “I’m very sorry, Mr. President,” was all Harry could get out, “very sorry.”

Johnson, Harry said, was “a man who wanted more than anything on earth to put every child through college and take care of every grandma and grandpa who is sick and old and poor,” but couldn’t escape “this awful war.”

The sadness today is that this film is to be shown at the LBJ presidential library in coming weeks and before an audience of his enormous circle of friends in Washington. The plan was that Harry would be there to receive the applause and answer questions.

Now he won’t.