A White House Experience From My Childhood

After You’ve Played the White House, Where Else Is There to Go?

In the fall of 1965, I had an experience that could have happened only in Washington.  At the ripe age of 11, I appeared in a musical revue that was put on by LBJ’s White House staff to honor Congress for the landmark civil rights and Great Society legislation it had just passed in the 89th Congress.

My role was a nonspeaking one, but it was nevertheless enough to give me the shakes.

I got the role the old-fashioned way — through nepotism.

My father, Lee C. White, was LBJ’s lawyer at the time.  He had originally become a White House staffer when John Kennedy became president, serving as an assistant to JFK’s White House Counsel Theodore Sorensen.  (He and Sorensen had been friends and law school classmates at the University of Nebraska, and in 1954 Sorensen had hired him onto then-Sen. Kennedy’s Senate staff.)  

When Johnson became president, he not only promoted him to White House counsel but also made him his point man on civil rights.

Now 86 and with his sparkling sense of humor and irrepressible optimism still intact, he’s of counsel at Spiegel & McDiarmid, an energy law firm in Washington.

In 2008 he published his memoirs, Government for the People: Reflections of a White House Counsel to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson.  One reviewer called it “an anecdotal romp through political Washington of the 1950s and 60s.”  (The book is discussed in greater detail in the post that follows this one.)

In any event, one day in ’65 the White House social secretary, Bess Abell, asked him whether any of his three sons happened to be about 13 and, if so, whether he might be interested in playing the role of  a poor Jewish boy from New York City’s Lower East Side.  He said that one of them was in that age range, and he would inquire about his interest in participating.

Soon afterwards I took a bus downtown by myself, walked up to the White House’s East Gate, and, after a phone call by a uniformed Secret Service agent, was admitted to the building and escorted to my first business meeting — with Abell and the show’s stage manager, Lloyd Battista.  It was his call as to whether I was right for the role, and fortunately, after spending some time talking with me, he decided to give me my first big break in show biz.  (Many years later, I saw him onscreen in a supporting role in a Woody Allen movie.)         

The Perks of Having a Powerful Father

While the chance to appear in the show was a one-of-a-kind opportunity, some of the perks that came with being the offspring of a White House insider had already been experienced by my siblings and me.  (At the time I had two brothers and a sister, and since then have acquired another sister.)

One of  the most exciting  activities was visiting my father in his West Wing office and then accompanying him to the White House mess for lunch.  I remember oil paintings of ships hanging on the walls of the Navy-run and nautically-themed dining room, which was located on a lower level of the building.  I also recall the ridiculously low prices.  A large hamburger with fries and all the trimmings was something like sixty-five cents.  I mean, I could have paid for that out of my weekly allowance.

Another thrill came when my brothers and I were able to ride with our father in one of the limousines  in the presidential motorcade that went from the White House to D.C. Stadium (now RFK) one year for the Washington Senators’ opening day game.  Even though my brothers and I were big Senators fans, the highlight of our day wasn’t sitting in the box seats with the presidential entourage, but rather the insuperable feeling of having our limo go through numerous red lights as the motorcade zipped through the city and all the traffic came to a standstill until we had passed.  Now, that’s power.  And even as kids, we got a shot of adrenaline from it.  

One of the best perks of all was going to Camp David for our vacations.  One on occasion, our family was invited into the presidential lodge to watch a night-time screening of the Rat Pack movie “Robin and the Seven Hoods.”  Since President Johnson wasn’t at the resort at the time, his lodge was being occupied by Secretary of State Dean Rusk.  My siblings and I sat on the living-room carpet while our parents and Rusk sat in comfy chairs as the movie was shown with a 16 mm. projector.

On another visit to the rustic resort in Maryland’s Catoctin Mountains, I remember playing in a touch football game in which each team had both adults and kids.  During a kickoff return, it was my responsibility to block LBJ’s National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy.  Here was this big, athletic guy running down the field full-tilt.  And there was me, a little kid, who was supposed to impede him.  I made a very quick calculation and decided that it was highly unlikely that he would choose to run me over.  So I stood my ground in front of him, leaving him with only two options — to decimate me or to slow down and avoid me.  Fortunately he chose the latter, and he emitted a curse while putting on the brakes.  (The encounter turned out to be good preparation for the other times in my life when I had to calculate the odds of being squashed like a bug before deciding to stand up to power.)

The Show Must Go On

Called “A Salute to Congress” and performed only once, the production was staged at the State Department’s auditorium on the night of Oct. 7 before a small audience that included President Lyndon B. Johnson, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, some members of Congress and of the Cabinet, and their spouses.  (I think some members of the Supreme Court were there, too.)

When it was over, the president came up on stage and spoke to the assembled cast.  He said he had loved the show so much that he wished every American could see it.  Then he left the State Department and checked into Bethesda’s Naval Hospital in order to undergo his famous gall bladder operation, the scar from which he proudly displayed to photographers who shared the image with millions of Americans (most of whom probably wished they’d never seen it).

The production featured such famous entertainers as gospel queen Mahalia Jackson, actors Fredric March and Hugh O’Brian, opera star Robert Merrill, singer/actress Sheila MacRae, the Bitter End Singers, and the then-uncontroversial singer Anita Bryant.  The U.S. Marine Corps Band, seated in the orchestra pit, not only played the original score that had been written for the show, but also provided accompaniment to the wide range of songs that were performed.

In a phone call, Abell recalls that the show almost did not go on.  Republicans on the Hill prevented the Democrats from adjourning in time for everyone to get over to the State Department.  Ironically, the legislation under discussion was the beautification program that was one of first lady Lady Bird Johnson’s favorite causes, says Abell, whose son is named Lyndon.  The decision was made to cancel the performance, since it would not make sense to present a show honoring Congress when most of its members were tied up on the Hill, she says.

Perhaps as something of a consolation for all the hard work that had gone into preparing for the production, the cast and crew were put on buses and taken through the rainy night to the White House to meet the president and have our pictures taken with him.

The photo session was held in the Yellow Oval Room in the family quarters on the second floor of the White House.   When it was over, one of the musical groups in the show sang a song for the president — a surprisingly stirring anthem called “The Great 89th,” which had recently been penned to pay homage to that legislative session’s notable accomplishments.  Its chorus is easy for me to remember all these years later:  “Oh, the great 89th will always be remembered.  Yes, the great 89th has left its mark.  No Congress before ever opened the door to the future like the great 89th!”

President Johnson liked the rousing song so much, Abell says, that when the group finished it, he asked them to sing it again.  At the end of the second rendition, she says, the president asked, “Why can’t I see the play?”  And with that simple question, the production was suddenly back on.

“It was chaotic,” Abell says.  “I jumped into the president’s car with Fredric March and Hugh O’Brian.  We were all just rushing to get over there.”

A Salute to Congress

Back at the State Department, the production opened with an inspirational prologue that was read slowly and in wonderfully sonorous tones by actor March.  At the conclusion of the show, he reappeared to provide an even more emotional epilogue.

The original score was composed by Ferde Grofe, the American composer, then 73, whose best-known work is “Grand Canyon Suite.”  “Everyone thought he was dead, but we found him in California,” Abell says.

The script was drawn from a lushly lyrical passage in Thomas Wolfe’s renowned novel You Can’t Go Home Again that discusses different archtypal activities going on at one point in time all across America.  Playing the key role of the onstage narrator was actor O’Brian.  He was one of the cast’s few performers that I was familiar with, thanks to his portrayal of Wild West lawman Wyatt Earp in the 1950s television show of that name.  O’Brian would intone portions of Wolfe’s luscious prose as a way of setting up musical numbers that had a connection to the city or region being referenced.

For instance, a passage about a Louisiana boy practicing to become a big-league pitcher was followed by a performance by a New Orleans ragtime band called Your Father’s Mustache.  A passage on the Midwest set the stage for Sheila MacRae’s frisky version of “Everything’s Up to Date in Kansas City.”  O’Brian’s references to California set up a performance of the song “San Francisco,” while his comments about the Second City led up to a rousing rendition of “Chicago.”  And a passage about the Great Plains provided the setup to Robert Merrill’s thunderous version of “Oklahoma.”  (As a cast member, I was privy to the secret that the large cowboy hat he held as a prop had a sheet of lyrics taped onto it to help him get through it and/or the other song that he performed, “Tumbling Tumbleweeds.”)

Passages about New York City provided the context for two songs.  The first was by Anita Bryant, who, dressed in a slinky, sparkling gown, delivered a sultry version of “Manhattan,” with its great line of “I’ll take Manhattan, the Bronx, and Staten Island, too.”

Then, near the end of the production, as O’Brian recited Wolfe’s words about a bespectacled young Jewish boy who sits at night reading on a Lower East Side fire escape driven by the aspiration of attaining “the world distinction of an Einstein name,” the audience saw me downstage left doing exactly that.  When he stopped talking, a single spotlight came down on Mahalia Jackson upstage right.  She proceeded to sing a slow, crystal-clear, palpably religious version of the spiritual “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” that mesmerized  the audience with its sweet purity and musical mastery — and brought the house down.

Schmoozing With Merrill and March 

One of the great benefits of being in the show was the opportunity to hang out with some of the world-class performers in the cast.

For instance, I had an amusing exchange with opera legend Merrill that took place at a reception at the State Department while the show was in rehearsals.  An exhibition of small paintings was on view in the reception room, and I was standing in front of one of the paintings sipping on a 7-Up when Merrill sidled up to me with a real drink in his hand.  He looked at the painting and saw that it was an abstract depiction of a naked woman.  There was no head, only the voluptuous contours of her torso and breasts.  He looked down at me and smiled, then looked back at the painting.  “Hmmm,” he said, “anyone I know?”

I also fondly remember an exhange with actor March in which he steeled my nerves.  At the time, all I knew about March (1897-1975) was that he was an old, legendary movie star who had a superb voice and an aura of extraordinary dignity.  Only later in life did I see his superb film performances.  Thanks to Turner Classic Movies, the exemplary cable tv network that has given me so many peak experiences, now I get to see him all the time.

He might be playing opposite Greta Garbo in “Anna Karenina” of 1935.  Or opposite Humphrey Bogart in “The Desperate Hours” of 1955.  Or playing one of the central roles in the 1946 classic “The Best Years of Our Lives.”  Or giving a thoroughly convincing performance as the U.S. president in 1964’s “Seven Days in May.”

After returning to the State Department from the White House on the night of the performance, he and I spent a few minutes together backstage a short time before the curtain was due to rise.  He was calm and steady, but I was a different story.  I was so nervous that my knees were shaking.

I said to him, “You know, I always thought that the old expression about being so scared that your knees shake was just an expression.  But now I see that it’s really true.”

He smiled at me reassuringly.  “Don’t worry,” he said softly.  “I’ve seen much worse cases than that.”

His words had their intended effect.  I was able to fulfill my meager responsibilities of walking out onto the fake fire escape and sitting with my back against one of its supports while pretending to be deeply engrossed in the book that I held.  In all honesty, I wasn’t much more than a living, breathing piece of scenery for Mahalia Jackson’s astonishing performance.  But receiving the comforting comments from the big-hearted March gave my confidence enough of a boost that I was able to pull it off.  Not many children get the opportunity to share thoughts about stage fright with someone who starred with Bogie and Garbo.

 The Unforgettable Mahalia Jackson —  With “One Foot in Heaven”

While I’ll always be grateful for March’s words of encouragement, the most extraordinary backstage moments that I had were probably those that were shared with songstress Jackson.  I was familiar with her from having watched her weekday TV program, on which she’d sing her signature version of “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands,” which always got me singing along.  But seeing her in person backstage was much different from watching her on the tube.  For one thing, she was surprisingly frail.  She was only 54 years old and would live another six-plus years until January 1972, but she had been hospitalized with heart problems in 1964.  (She later regained her vigor and returned to performing up to 200 concerts a year, according to Ebony.)  

Her presence was extremely powerful.  It was as if piety were oozing out of every pore.  On her face was a contented glow that I could tell, even at my young age, was the manifestation of an inner peace.  Something about her made me think that she had sensed her fate and had reconciled with it.  I remember thinking that she seemed like she already had one foot in heaven.

Her entourage consisted of one quiet, gentle man who was always with her, tending to her needs.  The other cast members seemed to sense her special aura and left her alone.  As the only child in the cast, I was able to interact with her without really invading the zone of privacy that seemed to surround her like an invisible cloud.

I asked her to sign my program, and she cheerfully obliged.  In addition to her name, she wrote two sweet, simple words that spoke, and continue to speak, volumes:  Keep smilin’.

(An earlier version of this article appeared in the arts section of the Sept. 1, 2003 edition of Legal Times, a now-defunct weekly publication that was based in Washington, D.C.)

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