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W. Marvin Watson, 93, ran Lyndon Johnson’s White House

George Tames/New York Times/File 1967

Mr. Watson, seen in his White House office, agreed to take the White House job only if he’d have unfettered access to Presdident Johnson, an adjacent office, and the privilege of disagreeing with him frankly in meetings.

By Douglas Martin New York Times 

NEW YORK — W. Marvin Watson, a World War II combat veteran who ran Lyndon B. Johnson’s White House with the protective instincts of a loyalist, the privileged power of a confidant, and the efficiency of a drill sergeant, died on Sunday at his home in The Woodlands, Texas, near Houston. He was 93.

His death was confirmed by Tom Johnson, who served on the White House staff with Watson.

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Lyndon Johnson did not want to give any staff member the title of chief of staff, but he eventually made Mr. Watson his in all but name.

When he arrived at the White House in early 1965, Mr. Watson — a fellow Texan and proud “Johnson man” by his own description — had been a political ally of the president’s since Lyndon Johnson’s successful run for the US Senate in 1948. In 1964, Mr. Watson had smoothed the way for Johnson’s nomination at the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, nine months after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

But for years he had turned down entreaties to work for Johnson, even after Johnson became president. Asked early on by Johnson to join his staff, Mr. Watson declined, saying he was happy living in a small Texas town as a steel company executive.

Mr. Watson finally agreed to take the job — with the nominal title of special assistant to the president — but only on certain conditions: that he would have unfettered access to Johnson, an adjacent office, and the privilege of disagreeing with him frankly in meetings.

As Johnson’s most trusted confidant, Mr. Watson would ultimately replace Bill Moyers in that role when Moyers, the president’s press secretary, left in 1967 to be publisher of the Long Island newspaper Newsday.

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Mr. Watson proved to be a tough, exacting gatekeeper. He fired or forced the resignation of staff members who he believed were more loyal to Senator Robert F. Kennedy, Johnson’s archrival, than the president. The speechwriter Richard N. Goodwin, a longtime Kennedy family ally, was one of them.

Mr. Watson’s attention to detail was so renowned that he was called the “master of the paper clip.” Even a new guardhouse had to pass his inspection, down to the smallest details. At one point he cut down the use of White House limousines from 83 trips a day to 70.

His duties as a chief of staff ended in 1968, when Johnson named him postmaster general, then a Cabinet-level position. He replaced Lawrence F. O’Brien, who went on to manage Kennedy’s presidential campaign and later became chairman of the Democratic National Committee and commissioner of the National Basketball Association. Mr. Watson was succeeded by James R. Jones, who was later elected to Congress from Oklahoma.

Mr. Watson helped pave the way for the Post Office, as it was then known, to become an independent agency. (It became the Postal Service in 1971.) He also strengthened regulations governing the mailing of guns.

Though he was no longer directly at Johnson’s side, he remained a confidant to the president. In an article in The New York Times in 1988, Jones wrote that on the night of March 29, 1968, a Friday, Johnson, whose popularity was sinking as the Vietnam War dragged on and who was facing challenges for the nomination within his own party, summoned Mr. Watson to the Oval Office study, along with Jones and George Christian, the president’s press secretary.

“I’m thinking about announcing Sunday that I’m not running” for re-election, Jones quoted Johnson as telling them. “What do you think?” Drinks were poured, and a two-hour discussion ensued.

Mr. Watson, who was active in the Baptist Church and other religious groups, leaves his wife, Marion; his daughter, Kim Rathmann; his sons, William III and Winston; four grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren. In 2004 he published a memoir, “Chief of Staff: Lyndon Johnson and His Presidency,” written with Sherwin Markman, another former Johnson aide.

One of his proudest accomplishments was persuading Johnson to ask Congress to make a Marine Corps general a full and equal member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He also succeeded in getting Congress to add a second four-star general to the Marines’ leadership. Other services already had many more officers of that rank.

Lady Bird Johnson asked Mr. Watson to deliver her husband’s eulogy at his funeral in 1973. It began, “He was ours, and we loved him beyond any telling of it.” It concluded, “The years will be lonely without him.”