U.S. Congressman John William McCormack (1891-1980) served in the House of Representatives for 42 years, including eight as Speaker of the House. During those four decades McCormack helped enact much of the major legislation of the 20th century, including the Social Security Act, the G. I. Bill, the Marshall Plan, and the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
John W. McCormack, the very model of the cigar chewing big-city Irish politician, rose slowly but steadily to the highest circles of power in Washington. McCormack was born in South Boston, Massachusetts, on December 21, 1891, to Joseph H. McCormack, a bricklayer, and Ellen (O'Brien) McCormack. Both Joseph McCormack and Ellen O'Brien were children of Irish immigrants who arrived in the United States during the Irish potato famine in 1848. John McCormack was born into a family of 12 children, but only three survived to be adults. When young McCormack was in the eighth grade at John Andrew Grammar School his father died, and the 13-year-old left school to support the family. After a series of low paying jobs McCormack became an office boy in a Boston law firm. He studied the firm's law books, attended law school at night, and at the age of 21 passed the Massachusetts Bar exam even though he had not completed high school.
McCormack became a successful trial lawyer, but soon was attracted to politics. He joined the Democratic Party and won his first elective office at 25 as a delegate to the Massachusetts Constitutional Convention in 1917. Three years later he married Harriet Joyce, a former singer.
In 1920 McCormack was elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives and two years later to the State Senate. In 1926 McCormack experienced the only election defeat of his career when he unsuccessfully challenged 12th District Congressman James A. Gallivan in the Democratic primary. Following that defeat he resumed his law practice, but when Gallivan died in office in 1928 McCormack won a special election for the vacant seat and was later reelected 21 times.
McCormack's repeated victories were attributed to his style of personal politics. He knew every ward of the district—its fish piers, tenements, and modest working class homes. Before the social welfare legislation of the 1930s was enacted the young congressman trudged through the 12th District each Thanksgiving and Christmas passing out canned goods and turkeys. Although the district changed from predominantly Irish to an ethnically and racially mixed area of Italians, Eastern Europeans, and African Americans, McCormack remained popular. The congressman's Washington office was once described as "chummy chaos," as constituents often dropped in for unscheduled meetings.
Although often considered one of the last practitioners of old-style machine politics, much of McCormack's popularity stemmed from his 40-year advocacy of social legislation designed to assist the working class voters of his district. As one of the earliest supporters of the New Deal he helped win passage of key measures such as the National Housing Act (1934), Social Security (1936), and the National Minimum Wage Act (1938). In 1944 he supported the G. I. Bill, and while Speaker of the House of Representatives between 1962 and 1970 he presided over the massive outpouring of domestic legislation in one of the most productive eras of Congress including the Civil Rights Act (1964), Medicare (1965), and Model Cities (1966). In 1970 McCormack helped enact the law lowering the voting age to 18, and in one of his last speeches before the House in August of that year he urged passage of the Equal Rights Amendment.
McCormack's fervent anti-Communism dominated his foreign policy views. However, he argued that economic aid was often more effective than military aid in combating communist aggression. Consequently, he supported the Marshall Plan to reconstruct Europe after World War II. He urged economic aid for Korea, Formosa, and the Middle East in the 1950s, and in 1961 he helped pass the Peace Corps Act. Recognizing the importance of the space race with the Soviet Union, McCormack in 1958 sponsored the bill creating the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). McCormack's staunch anti-Communism also led him to support American involvement in the Vietnam War, prompting criticism by other liberal Democrats.
John W. McCormack's long climb to Speaker of the House of Representatives began in 1936 when he backed Texas Congressman Sam Rayburn's successful bid to become House majority leader. Four years later when Rayburn became Speaker he chose McCormack as the new majority leader. McCormack served as Rayburn's political confidant and deputy for 21 years, and in January 1962 at the age of 70 he was elected Speaker after Rayburn's death.
McCormack's handling of the Speakership position evoked much criticism. Some in Congress felt he lacked the strong leadership qualities of his predecessor and that he too readily compromised on major legislative issues. Young, liberal House Democrats were concerned with his unwavering support of the Vietnam War and his close friendship with Southern conservatives. In January 1969 McCormack faced the first of two challenges to his authority as House Speaker. Arizona Representative Morris Udall, claiming there was "an overriding need for new directions and new leadership" in the House, became the first congressman to attempt to unseat as Speaker a member of his own party. McCormack defeated the challenge, but his prestige and authority were weakened. In 1970 California Democratic Congressman Jerome Waldie placed a resolution of no confidence in McCormack before the House Democratic Caucus. The Speaker's supporters defeated the resolution, but they nevertheless made concessions to disgruntled House Democrats.
While facing these political challenges McCormack's long career was for the first time tainted by scandal. In October 1969 columnist Jack Anderson and LIFE magazine independently revealed that Martin Sweig, McCormack's administrative assistant and protege of 24 years, and Martin Voloshen, a professional lobbyist and close friend of the Speaker, had taken payments in exchange for interceding in various criminal cases and arranging government contracts. Voloshen pleaded guilty to influence peddling in the subsequent trial, and Sweig was convicted. Although McCormack was not implicated in any wrong doing, the scandal, the challenges to his authority as Speaker, and his wife's prolonged illness prompted the 78-year-old congressman to announce his retirement in May 1970. Following his wife's death in Washington in 1971 McCormack returned to Boston, where he lived on the income from his congressional pension. He died in a nursing home on November 22, 1980.
Further Reading on John William McCormack
No book length biographies currently exist on McCormack. However, brief discussions of his life and political accomplishments can be found in Robert Sobel, editor, U.S. Congress, House, Biographical Directory of the American Congress, 1774-1971 (1971); Eleanora W. Schoenebaum, editor, Political Profiles: The Nixon/Ford Years (1979); and the New York Times Biographical Service (1980).
Additional Biography Sources
Memorial addresses and other tributes in the Congress of the United States on the life and contributions of John W. McCormack, Washington: U.S. G.P.O., 1981.