John William McCormack, 53rd Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives

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John William McCormack

Birthplace: Boston, Suffolk, Massachusetts, United States
Death: November 22, 1980 (88)
Dedham, Norfolk, Massachusetts, United States
Immediate Family:

Son of Joseph H. McCormack and Ellen O'Brien
Brother of Edward Joseph "Knocko" McCormack, Sr.

Managed by: Private User
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About John William McCormack, 53rd Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives

John William McCormack (December 21, 1891 – November 22, 1980) was an American politician from Boston, Massachusetts. McCormack served as a member of United States House of Representatives from 1928 until he retired from political life in 1971. As a Democrat, McCormack served as House Majority Leader three times, the first time from 1940 to 1947, the second time from 1949 to 1953, and again from 1955 to 1961. He served as Speaker of the House of Representatives from 1962 to 1971.

Early life

By McCormack's own account, he was born to Joseph H. McCormack, a hod carrier, and his wife Ellen (O'Brien) McCormack, both the children of Irish immigrants who had arrived in 1848 during the Irish potato famine. He was one of 12 children, only three surviving to adulthood. McCormack said he was 13 when his father died, but his father actually had left the family to work as a stonemason in Maine, died in 1929, and been buried in a pauper's grave. McCormack quit school after the eighth grade to help support his family, working for $3 a week as an errand boy for a brokerage firm. He began working for a law firm for a 50-cent increease, while attending law school at night. He passed the Massachusetts bar exam in at age 21, despite not having gone to high school.

Political career

In 1916 the Massachusetts legislature and electorate approved the calling of a Constitutional Convention. In May 1917, McCormack was elected to serve as a member of the Massachusetts Constitutional Convention of 1917, representing the 11th Suffolk District of the Massachusetts House of Representatives.

He served in the United States Army in World War I in 1917 and 1918. Making a name as a Boston trial lawyer, he moved up the ranks in the state legislature, representing the 11th Suffolk District in the House from 1920 to 1922 and in the Senate from 1923 to 1926. He was elected to the United States Congress in 1928 to fill the vacancy caused by the death of James A. Gallivan.

Speaker John Nance Garner put him on the powerful Ways and Means Committee in his second term. A New Deal supporter, McCormack maintained an consistently liberal voting record throughout his Congressional career. In 1934 he served as chair of the Special Committee on Un-American Activities, known as the McCormack-Dickstein Committee, a precursor to the House Un-American Activities Committee. The main goal of the committee was investigating Nazi propaganda. He was a staunch anti-Communist crusader as well. He played a key role in extending the military draft just before the Attack on Pearl Harbor at a time when isolationist sentiment was still strong.

McCormack backed Sam Rayburn's bid to become Speaker in 1936. When Rayburn became Speaker in 1940, he chose McCormack as majority leader. For the next 21 years, he was the second-ranking Democrat in the House, serving as majority leader when the Democrats had the majority and as minority whip when the Republicans had the majority. He was quite belligerent in this role, usually on the floor during a session, slumped in a front row seat holding a dead cigar, ready to leap into debate with a partisan bite. During the 1950s, his method of urging bipartisan support was to yell across at Republicans that President Dwight D. Eisenhower would never have got anything done without Democratic help.

Speaker of the House of Representatives

His tenure was marked by dissent among younger, liberal Democratic members who sought better committee assignments and complained that power was centered in a small, old group of Democratic leaders. McCormack, also known as "Old Jawn", did not exert much pressure on such party rebels. Later, he presided over the issue of refusing to seat Representative Adam Clayton Powell (D-NY). The incident resulted in the Speaker being named in a noted United States Supreme Court case, Powell v. McCormack, which Powell won.

McCormack's nine years as Speaker saw landmark legislation in the fields of civil rights, for which he was an early advocate, education, health care for the elderly and welfare. He presided over the Great Society Congress. However, the latter part of his tenure saw increasing focus on the Vietnam War, which he supported. His manner changed during these years and he became less authoritarian. He was impeccably fair and impartial. His rare floor speeches were restrained in tone. His demeanor was that of a kindly elder relative with an unruly brood. According to one member, his strength was his personal consideration of members, which inspired in return affection and a desire to help. His weakness was that he could not control the powerful committee chairmen who wielded great power in the House. A tall, thin, silver-haired, teetotaling Irishman who liked to wheel and deal with an arm around the shoulder, he maintained warm ties with some Southerners whom Rayburn could never budge, but never quite mastered Rayburn's talent for making the House behave.

McCormack could properly claim that he was a "national" congressman. He fought for farm bills, even though he said he did not have "more than five flower pots in my whole district." On a close vote on a cotton bill, the Speaker could be found sweeping members from the lobbies onto the floor, the job of an assistant whip.

The House met all year in 1963 without finishing its work and wound up sitting through one futile all-night session, finally passing the last bill at a 7 a.m. session. The House Appropriations Committee conducted an unseemly squabble with the Senate all through 1962 over where to meet, and Appropriations Committee Chairman Clarence Cannon closed the session with a speech blasting the House leadership as the worst he had seen in 40 years.

Between the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963, and the swearing-in of Hubert Humphrey as Vice President on January 20, 1965, McCormack was the first person in the line of succession for the Presidency, and he received Secret Service protection. When Kennedy died in 1963, McCormack recalled his experiences serving as next-in-line in an article he wrote for the Boston Globe.

In January 1969, Arizona Rep. Morris Udall attempted to unseat McCormack. In 1970, the sniping by young liberals at McCormack increased and several congressmen urged him to step down because of his age. Rep. Jerome R. Waldie of California asked a party caucus to declare a lack of confidence in his leadership, but it did not do so. McCormack kept his decision to leave the House a secret from his closest friends there until he announced it publicly in May 1970.

William Colmer, the mentor of later Representative and U.S. Senator Trent Lott, described McCormack as being far less effective as Speaker than Rayburn because McCormack "wanted to be liked" by his colleagues.

He died of pneumonia in a nursing home on November 22, 1980. He is buried in Saint Joseph Cemetery, West Roxbury, Massachusetts.

In 1983, the University of Massachusetts Boston established the John W. McCormack Institute of Public Affairs, named in his honor. In 2003 it was expanded into the John W. McCormack Graduate School of Policy Studies. In 2010, the school expanded its mission and was renamed to the McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies. The McCormack Graduate School’s current emphasis on social justice, government accountability and transparency, strengthening democratic institutions, and training the next generation of local and global public leaders is John W. McCormack’s living legacy.

Personal life and attributes

In 1920, McCormack married Harriet Joyce, a former singer. They had no children. While Congress was in session, they lived at the Washington Hotel. Their devotion to each other was legendary; it was said that they never spent a night apart until she died. If the Speaker was kept late on business, his wife always went up to have dinner with him. She died in December 1971, aged 87. For more than a year, he had spent every night in an adjoining hospital room. He then went home to Boston the following month, after his retirement.

McCormack had few hobbies except politics. In earlier days, he was known as a good high stakes poker player. He had never flown in an airplane until 1961, when he attended Rayburn's funeral. He traveled between Washington and Boston by car or on the night sleeper train.

The Speaker and his wife were devout Roman Catholics. Both were honored by the Vatican. He was the first Catholic to be elected Speaker, and some critics complained that this religion sometimes showed in his leadership qualities. An example cited was the 1961 school aid debacle when McCormack insisted that church schools should share in a federal aid program. The bill died on this issue. But in 1963 McCormack helped push through the largest education program in history, much of which went to public institutions only.

At home in his district, he could usually be found visiting sick rooms or political clubs. His personal kindnesses were legendary, and if he harbored vindictiveness it was hard to see. Pundits predicted foot-dragging by the Speaker after President Kennedy's 30-year-old brother Ted won a Senate seat in a race against Edward J. McCormack, Jr., the elder McCormack's favorite nephew. However, McCormack never showed that he bore a grudge.

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John William McCormack, 53rd Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives's Timeline

December 21, 1891
Boston, Suffolk, Massachusetts, United States
November 22, 1980
Age 88
Dedham, Norfolk, Massachusetts, United States