WASHINGTON — Lee White, a low-profile presidential adviser who in the 1960s helped the Kennedy and Johnson administrations coordinate their strategies on civil rights during moments of crisis and triumph, died Oct. 31 at Suburban Hospital in Bethesda, Md. He was 90 and a Washington resident.
The cause was pneumonia, his son Murray White said.
Lee White, an unimposing man with a fondness for cigars and penchant for wry quips, was not a frontline adviser to the two Democratic presidents he served.
But his modesty and reputation for loyalty made him a trusted troubleshooter. He told colleagues how to treat a president: ‘‘Put yourself in his shoes,’’ he would advise, and ‘‘you’ve gotta be his guy.’’
His White House portfolio involved a spectrum of legal issues — civil rights but also veterans affairs, natural resources, small business, pardons, and military construction bills.
Presidential historian Robert Dallek said that although White was ‘‘not overtly or dramatically evident as a public figure, he worked behind the scenes in an effective way to deliver on executive reforms or actions.’’
Mr. White’s association with President John F. Kennedy began in 1954. The speechwriter and political adviser Theodore ‘‘Ted’’ Sorensen, a former law school classmate of Mr. White’s, persuaded the then-Democratic senator from Massachusetts to hire him as a legislative assistant.
Mr. White joined the new Kennedy White House in January 1961 as an assistant to then-special counsel Sorensen. Among other duties, Mr. White helped start the Subcabinet Group on Civil Rights to hasten federal action on civil rights legislation and other concerns. Its chairman, future Senator Harris Wofford, a Pennsylvania Democrat, said in an interview Thursday that Mr. White was ‘‘steady and creative and reliable.’’
Mr. White succeeded Wofford as leader of the group in 1962. As the primary White House aide for civil rights, Mr. White became a general coordinator for White House, Justice Department and civil rights leaders. In his private life during that era, he was active in Neighbors Inc., a community group in Northwest Washington that championed integrated neighborhoods.
In his 2008 memoir, ‘‘Government for the People,’’ Mr. White said his most important role in advancing the cause of civil rights was helping to push through Congress the antidiscriminatory Voting Rights Act of 1965.
On March 7, 1965, as the White House was finalizing the legislation, state troopers in Selma, Ala., attacked peaceful civil rights demonstrators in the ‘‘Bloody Sunday’’ incident.
The scene in Alabama was captured on national television and sparked widespread revulsion.
Mr. White said he suggested to President Lyndon B. Johnson that instead of forwarding a draft bill to legislators, the president should take his message directly to a joint session of Congress. Speechwriter Richard Goodwin drafted the address, which called for a wide embrace of the civil rights struggle.
‘‘It is not just Negroes, but really it is all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice,’’ the president said at the joint session on March 15, before echoing the anthem of the civil rights movement: ‘‘We shall overcome.’’
The speech, carried on the major TV networks, was considered a high point of Johnson’s presidency. That August, with the approval of the two chambers, he signed the act into law.
‘‘I knew I had really scored with LBJ,’’ Mr. White later wrote in his memoir, ‘‘because that Christmas, when gifts were passed out to the staff, I got a big venison steak, not the usual ground stuff I previously got.’’
Lee Calvin White was born Sept. 1, 1923, in Omaha, where his parents ran a grocery store. After Army service in World War II, he graduated from the University of Nebraska with an electrical engineering degree in 1948 and a law degree in 1950. He spent his early legal career at the Tennessee Valley Authority in Knoxville.
After Mr. White left the Johnson White House in 1966, he served almost three years as chairman of the Federal Power Commission, now the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
In 1972, he was campaign manager for Kennedy in-law R. Sargent Shriver Jr., the vice presidential candidate on the losing ticket headed by Senator George McGovern, Democrat of South Dakota.
Mr. White spent the rest of his career in private practice, specializing in regulatory law affecting utilities. At the time of his death, he was counsel to Spiegel & McDiarmid in Washington.
Mr. White’s first marriage, to Dorothy Cohn, ended in divorce. His second wife, the former Bernice Holsenback, died in 1983. His third wife, Cecile ‘‘Cece’’ Rottman Zorinsky, the widow of Senator Edward Zorinsky, Democrat of Nebraska, died in 1996.
He leaves five children; four stepchildren; a sister; and 10 grandchildren.
In an e-mail Friday, Bill Moyers, who was White House press secretary for Johnson, described Mr. White as a quiet but deliberate presence who ‘‘was not a man to curry favor or rush to judgment.’’
‘‘His small space on the second floor was the only one I remember LBJ would trek up the stairs to visit,’’ Moyers added. ‘‘President Johnson once told me, ‘I’d make that fella a judge if I didn’t need him so much.’ ’’