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The Speaker nobody knows

John William McCormack: A Political Biography - Garrison Nelson

John William McCormack's life was one defined by, and lived for, politics. Born in Boston, he grew up in poverty in the Irish Catholic neighborhoods in South Boston. Though he passed the bar without attending college or even high school, law was just the path to a career in politics. His ascent was a rapid one, as he went from his first election in to the state legislature in 1920 to Congress less than a decade and became majority leader after little more than a dozen years in the House of Representatives. There he enjoyed a complimentary partnership with Sam Rayburn that made them one of the most effective leadership teams in American history. Upon Rayburn's death in 1961, McCormack ascended to the speakership himself, from which he led the House of Representatives until his retirement in 1970.

 

Despite a career that encompassed some of the most legislatively important decades in American history, McCormack has never been the subject of a book-length biography until now. According to Garrison Nelson, this was in no small measure due to his efforts to cover up his father's background as a Scots Canadian, a detail that would have been fatal to his career in the ethnically-defined politics of Massachusetts in the early 20th century. This forms the cornerstone of Nelson's book, which situates McCormack's career in the context of the changing politics of his time. Delving deeply into the milieu of Boston Irish society, he sorts through the personalities and factions to show how McCormack navigated through the identity- and class-driven to claim his seat in the House. The skills he learned put him in good stead in the House, where Nelson attributes his success in winning leadership posts to his ability to build relationships with key Southerners such as the Texan Rayburn and Georgia's Edward Cox. As Nelson shows, straddling this divide became increasingly complicated over time, as the emergence of the civil rights movement and the rise of the liberal Democratic Study Group were a microcosm of the broader challenges facing the Democratic Party in the 1960s. Though McCormack's position was never seriously challenged, the connections he had forged with Southern congressmen opened him up to attacks from the left that complicated his time as speaker and damaged his reputation.

 

The product of decades of research, Nelson's book offers readers an impressive wealth of detail about Massachusetts politics and Congressional factionalism that makes it an indispensable source for anyone seeking to understand McCormack's political career, Boston Irish politics, and the mid-century Congress. Yet all of this is mashed together that makes the book itself less than the sum of its parts. While clearly a labor of love, Nelson allows his voluminous text to be burdened with repetition, with details repeated from chapter to chapter and sometimes even from page to page within them. Much of it could have been trimmed away to produce a leaner and more digestible text that would have given McCormack the book he deserves, but as it stands it is a book that is too weighted to serve as more than a resource for political junkies who are likely to be turned off by being reminded of minor facts with which they are already familiar.