L-R: Lee White, President Lyndon Johnson [LBJ Library photo #C9215-18 by Yoichi Okamoto]

The LBJ Library remembers Lee C. White

Oct 31, 2013

Mr. Lee C. White, special counsel to President Johnson from 1965-1966, died today. Read the Washington Post tribute here.
This interview with Mr. White appeared in Among Friends on August 4, 2010.

Last month marked the forty-fifth anniversary of the historic Voting Rights Act, one of President Johnson's proudest accomplishments. Passed a year after the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act did away with the discriminatory practices in place throughout much of the South that prevented many African American citizens from registering to vote.

On August 4, two days before the Voting Rights Act's anniversary date, Mark K. Updegrove spoke about its significance with Lee C. White, who served as Associate Special Counsel for President Johnson and coordinated the administration's civil rights policy. White, who also held a similar post under President Kennedy, was described by President Johnson as "a man of good spirit with a tolerance for the nagging details of every problem, as well as very sound judgment about where the facts could be found and where the solutions would take us.... Lee White has served his country and two Presidents with fidelity both to conscience and to pride."

Following are excerpts of the conversation between White and Updegrove:

Mark K. Updegrove: Lee, would you start off by characterizing Lyndon Johnson?

Lee C. White: Johnson was a very intelligent fellow, very shrewd. And he had a fantastic memory. He had a way of being a little bit vindictive but also very powerful in getting things going in the right direction like the Civil Rights and the Voting Rights Acts.  But he was a complicated fellow and certainly extremely quick and alert; he knew what was going on.  He had great training in the Senate on the Appropriations Committee.  He had a very great schooling in government by the time he became President.  He knew how to operate and he could sense what was going on and he was with it.  When he put his mind to some legislation he could pretty well accomplish what he wanted to.  He was a legislative genius.  The way I envision his approach, he would take a target and put that piece of legislation onto the target and then whatever anybody asked him about anything it all would focus on that target.  He had a technique for closing out other things and staying focused on his objective and that helped him be a legislative accomplisher.

MKU: Why does the Voting Rights Act stand up over time?

LCW: Well, because it was right.  It was something that had to be done and he did it.  Others paved the way and he was able to build on what others had done and what he himself had done in his Senate Days and so he knew how to move things.

MKU: Why do you feel President Johnson was so impassioned about civil rights?  Why was he so committed to it?

LCW:  Well, I think the easiest answer is that he felt it was right.  If he figured it wasn’t right it’d been a hell of a lot harder to push as he did.  He also had a sense of what was going on in the country and he could read it pretty well and he thought the time was right.  So you move when you can move, and he was good at that.

MKU: Anything further you would say about the Voting Rights Act and its significance today?

LCW: Voting Rights was probably more significant than the ’64 act because it really did do what it should do, which is level the playing field and gave everyone a fair shot.  And it worked.