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The first time that Lee White met John Kennedy, the young senator from Massachusetts wasn’t wearing any pants. He had spilled ink on himself, Kennedy said, and his secretary, Evelyn Lincoln, was trying to get the spots out. The second time White encountered the future president, Kennedy was lying naked in a bathtub, soaking his famously bad back. With opening details like that, readers quickly get the picture: White’s newly published memoir, Government for the People: Reflections of a White House Counsel to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, is an anecdotal romp through political Washington of the 1950s and 60s, packed with engrossing asides about the oddities of people’s names, their golf games, and their driving habits. White has led a full life: As special counsel to Presidents Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson from 1961 to 1966, he played an important role in the passage of civil rights and environmental protection legislation, including the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Wilderness Act of 1964 (which protects parks, seashores, and rivers from development). From 1966 to 1969, he chaired the Federal Power Commission. In 1972, he served as campaign manager for George McGovern’s vice presidential running mate R. Sargent Shriver. In short, White, 84, was at the center of power during some of the 20th century’s most tumultuous times. NO BETTER JOB Earlier this month, White — now a lawyer in private practice with the D.C. energy boutique Spiegel & McDiarmid — regaled a packed house at the Politics & Prose bookstore in Northwest Washington with fleeting but fascinating glimpses into his life and times. President Kennedy was “an extra quick fellow,” White said, whose press conferences were “almost a work of art.” He told of a television speech that Kennedy made in 1963 after police in Birmingham, Ala., attacked civil rights protesters with fire hoses and cattle prods. While Ted Sorenson, Kennedy’s special counsel and speechwriter, was still dictating the speech to a secretary, Kennedy went on the air and started to read the initial pages. His words soon outpaced the speed at which the typed pages were coming. So Kennedy improvised, seamlessly. Later White said to Sorenson: “Nobody could tell where your stuff stopped and his started.” Sorenson’s response: “Yeah, two of us can.” White remembered steering curious reporters away from the Oval Office on the day of Kennedy’s assassination and meeting his coffin at Andrews Air Force Base. He also talked about his contribution to one of the most moving and dignified funerals in U.S. history. Instead of having TV trucks parked along Pennsylvania Avenue, White insisted that fixed cameras be installed so that the funeral procession could be seen without obstruction, both by television audiences and by mourners lining the street. After Kennedy came Johnson: “Very shrewd, with a tremendous memory,” said White, as well as “a little bit mean, a little bit vindictive, a little bit ornery.” As he notes in the book, it was White who suggested to Johnson that he address a joint session of Congress to lobby for the Voting Rights Act instead of sending over a mimeographed message. Johnson, said White, “made a wonderful speech” and “the place went bananas.” Less than five months later, White notes in his book, the act was signed into law. White even had one story about Johnson’s successor, Richard Nixon. As White prepared to end his tenure at the Federal Power Commission in 1969, Nixon asked to meet with him. What White assumed would be a short conversation lasted 40 minutes. “I started thinking, �Doesn’t this guy have anything more to do?’” White later learned that Nixon had asked why there weren’t any Republican guys like White. He doesn’t answer that question in his book, but to an adoring crowd at Politics & Prose, he had a ready response: “I’m sure there are, but I just haven’t met any yet.” It’s the kind of humor, gentle yet quick, that shows throughout Government for the People. White seems modest about his role in great events and grateful for the chances he had. He sums it up in his usual offhand way: “I happened to be in the right place at the right time.” And now he has stories to tell.
Debra Bruno, senior editor at Legal Times , can be contacted at [email protected].

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