How John McCormack Reshaped The Democratic Party

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U.S. House Speaker John W. McCormack is seen in his Capitol office in 1969. (AP Photo)
U.S. House Speaker John W. McCormack is seen in his Capitol office in 1969. (AP Photo)

"A very private man in very public office" is how biographer Garrison Nelson describes John W. McCormack, a politician from South Boston who won 22 consecutive elections to Congress, became House majority leader, and then speaker of the House, overseeing an extraordinary transition of the Democratic Party.

And yet, if not for the buildings that bear his name in Boston, McCormack is largely forgotten. Especially when compared to his protégé, Tip O'Neill.

Now, Garrison Nelson has written a biography of the man he calls "Boston Brahmin's favorite Irishman, the South's favorite northerner, and known in Boston as 'Rabbi John,' the Jews' favorite Catholic."


Garrison Nelson, Elliott A. Brown Green and Gold professor of law, politics and political behavior at the University of Vermont and author of "John William McCormack: A Political Biography."

Interview Highlights

On why McCormack has been forgotten

"That was the plan. He did not want to be Speaker of the House. He wanted to be Majority Leader under Say Rayburn, a man he adored and probably the most important speaker of the 20th century. He did not want a biography and there's a very simple reason for this — and that was, he invented a life history which was ... to get elected in Massachusetts."

On how McCormack's brother, "Knocko," provided cover for his political career

"[Knocko] was a bootlegger, he was a leg breaker — any time you needed a nasty deed done, you called on Knocko McCormack. One time he clocked the head of the Mayor of the Boston, Maurice Tobin.

But Knocko was crucial because Knocko filled every single anti-Irish stereotype ... The contrast between John and Knocko are just staggering. And Knocko as I say, big, burly, loud-mouth guy, whereas John was quiet, never without a suit, never without a clean white shirt, looked like a Presbyterian minister, quite frankly. So Knocko basically provided the Irish cover for John."

On the political dynamics in DC when McCormack went to Congress

"He came into a Democratic party which was wholly controlled by the South. The Democratic party in 1924 had been overwhelmingly defeated — got less than 30 percent of the vote in the presidential election. So the Democratic Party was clearly on the ropes.

... When Will Bankhead, the Speaker of the House died [in 1940], Sam Rayburn was elevated to Speakership and John McCormack was elected Majority Leader. And Sam Rayburn and John McCormack were the two top Democrats in the House for the next 21 years. Never had a vote against them in the caucus."

On McCormack's personality as Speaker

"John was a man who basically let others take credit — Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy, especially Johnson. He was always in the room, when decisions were made, but he made very little effort to sort of put himself out front.

[He] plays a very important role for example, in the atomic bomb funding in 1944. Actually plays a role in Kennedy's nomination — he's kind of undermined Kennedy's vice presidential bid in 1956, but in 1960 he was named by Kennedy himself to be in charge of Kennedy's convention operation.

Joe Kennedy ... wanted Lyndon Johnson to be on the [presidential] ticket. And the only way he got Lyndon Johnson on the ticket, was to get Sam Rayburn to approve it. And the only person from Massachusetts that Sam Rayburn listened to was John McCormack. And of course, without Johnson on the ticket, John Kennedy's not elected president."

On the events McCormack oversaw as Speaker

"When Jack [Kennedy] was murdered, 1963, John was of course, the Speaker of the House, next in line behind the vice president. So now [if] Johnson becomes president, McCormack is next in line. McCormack is absolutely horrified because it's the last thing in the world he wants.

He was the Speaker during the Great Society Congress, which passed Medicare, Medicaid, immigration reform, and of course, Civil Rights Act. He was in the chair when all these massive Lyndon Johnson reforms took place. And Lyndon Johnson had a success rate of 93 percent in the House when John was speaker."

On what can be learned from McCormack

"He was unfailingly polite. His worst insult for a person would be to say, 'I hold the member in minimum high regard.' That was the extent of his criticism.

There was a time when they got along in the House. When Joe Martin — who was a Republican Speaker of the House from North Attleboro — was dumped as a leader in 1959, Joe Martin went over to Sam Rayburn's office to tell Sam. Sam was in the middle of a birthday party, and Joe Martin and Sam Rayburn cried on each other's shoulders. I mean, here you have the leading Democrat, the leading Republican, crying on each other's shoulders. That's a degree of comity which you just don't see today."

This segment aired on June 27, 2017.

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Alison Bruzek Associate Producer, Radio Boston
Alison Bruzek was a producer for Radio Boston.


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Anthony Brooks Senior Political Reporter
Anthony Brooks is WBUR's senior political reporter.



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