Lee C. White — Writer, Lawyer and Role Model

The year 2010 marks the 60th anniversary of Lee C. White becoming a member of the bar.  For a somewhat shorter period of time than that, he has been my father.

As a Jew in his 86th year, he has lived a life that has given concrete expression to two major Jewish values:  modesty and the obligation to perform tikkun olam, to heal the world.

It is not as widely known as it should be that he was President Lyndon Johnson’s closest adviser on civil rights.  One reason for why this historical fact isn’t common knowledge is that he doesn’t have the kind of ego that’s obsessed with getting attention.

Both when he was in the White House as LBJ’s special counsel in the mid-1960s and after he had left it, he was disinclined to toot his own horn about the key role that he played in helping America take a major legislative step toward healing the biggest wound she has ever had.  It’s a textbook example of modesty and tikkun olam occurring simultaneously. 

If you ever get the chance, be sure to ask him about the experiences he had in dealing with Martin Luther King Jr. and the other titans of the civil rights movement.  The behind-the-scenes stories he can tell are absolutely riveting.

In 1966 he left the White House in order to become chairman of the Federal Power Commission (the precursor agency to today’s Federal Energy Regulatory Commission).  That experience gave him irrefutable gravitas when he became the Consumer Federation of America’s top advocate on energy policy in 1973.  In that position, he did his best to persuade Congress and industry to implement wise energy policies that would protect and heal our environment.

So, a third of a century ago, he was already engaged in performing green-oriented tikkun olam.

Today he continues to work in the energy field, serving as of counsel to 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

Writing in Legal Times in 2008, Debra Bruno called the book “an anecdotal romp through political Washington of the 1950s and 60s.”  Now the features editor of Roll Call, Bruno stated that my father “was at the center of power during some of the 20th century’s most tumultuous times.”

She also reported on a March 2008 book talk he gave in which he “regaled a packed house at the Politics & Prose bookstore in Northwest Washington with fleeting but fascinating glimpses into his life and times.”

Bruno wrote:  “As he notes in his 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.’ ”

She observed that his memoir reveals a “gentle yet quick” sense of humor.  She also stated the following:  “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.’  ”

Government for the People isn’t only concerned with my father’s career.  It also discusses his personal life.

For instance, he touches upon how his father came from a shtetl in what is today Ukraine and how his mother came from a small town in the same area. 

That their son, who was born and raised in Omaha, Nebraska, would grow up to be whispering into the ears of two presidents is a terrific Jewish-American success story — and a tale that’s tailor-made to inspire others to live lives that also mix modesty and tikkun olam.

 (Some parts of this article first appeared in the Feb. 21, 2008 edition of Washington Jewish Week.)

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