In the past couple of weeks, people who care about American politics and about Congress have lost two important figures. The first was Harry McPherson, who was a longtime aide to Lyndon Johnson, in the Senate and in the White House, and then became a fixture as one of the éminences grise in Washington, D.C. The second was James Q. Wilson, a political scientist whose interests and writing spanned a wide range of topics about governance, politics and society, and who was truly a scholars’ scholar.
Long before I met Harry, I was a huge fan because as a graduate student, I read his memoir “A Political Education.”
I was captivated then and, upon rereading it recently, even more impressed now. It was and is truly the gold standard for such memoirs, with humor, warmth and incredible insight into politics and the remarkable personalities that inhabited D.C., and especially the Senate, during his time inside the belly of the beast.
I was privileged to get to know Harry and become his friend after I arrived here, and I found that his insights and savvy were themselves matched by his wonderful personal qualities.
A couple of years ago, I wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post about the efforts by many political actors to characterize President Barack Obama as a socialist, communist, fascist and/or all-around dangerous radical — while I laid out the evidence that he was a classic pragmatist with a progressive bent.
I started the piece by recounting an anecdote from Harry about the New Deal Sen. Olin Johnston (D-S.C.) and his half-hearted efforts, required in the 1950s of Southern Democrats, to sustain filibusters against civil rights measures. In the story, Johnston came off the floor after his requisite speech filibustering the 1957 Civil Rights Act and gestured back to his home-state colleague who had taken over from him, saying, “Ol’ Strom, he really believes that sh-t.” (I ended the piece referring to Newt Gingrich, who had called Obama “the most radical president in history,” asking whether Gingrich, a trained historian, really believes that sh-t.)
Harry called me up, laughing, saying he wasn’t entirely sure that the Southern gentleman Johnston had used that four-letter word, and we spent an hour as he told stories about Johnston and about that remarkable era in the Senate. The civil rights disputes remind us that the period was not exactly golden in important ways, but as Ira Shapiro recounts in his fine new book “The Last Great Senate,” it had true giants from both parties who acted as partisans but also tried to work together to solve problems. Harry was a giant as a key staffer, a model memoirist and a great human being.
James Q. Wilson was very different in many ways from Harry. He was a conservative and Republican, someone who grew up not in Texas but in Long Beach, Calif., and was a master scuba diver (not something I would have associated with Harry). But Jim shared one characteristic with Harry — a personal courtliness and a commitment to civility in discourse even as he held strong views.
I first met Jim through political science (and through Pat Moynihan), but I was blessed as well to have him as a colleague because he chaired the Council of Academic Advisers here at the American Enterprise Institute.
Jim was a role model to me and to many others for many reasons. He was first and foremost a scholar, but he also was delighted to engage in the rough-and-tumble of debates about policy issues, and his insights, and analysis of data, helped to shape views and policy in many areas, especially crime control.
Jim’s effect on ideas and policy did not come from a bombastic or charismatic personality but rather from the power of his ideas and his ability to marshal them, to understand and analyze the data, and then to suggest policies that would flow from them. He was successful enough as a public intellectual that his obituary was featured on the front page of the New York Times — how many social scientists could achieve that?
Through his books on bureaucracy and American government, and many essays on politics, Jim showed a command of the nuances of politics and institutions, amplified by his grasp of history and the Constitution.
His conservatism grew stronger over the years, but Jim was never an ideologue who would bend facts to fit theories; he developed and expanded theories that meshed with facts and analyzed reality, not a wishful view of it. I used to say that when I grow up, I want to be like Jim. I have grown up and have not come within striking distance. But I can take comfort from the fact that few others, if any, have or will.
I write now about both of these men in part because in this time of deep dysfunction inside Congress and in our broader political discourse, their passing is even more lamented, but also because their lives still provide models we can aspire to achieve and can measure our political actors and public figures against.
Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.