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John William McCormack

(b. 1891)


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(b. Boston, 21 Dec. 1891; d. Dedham, Massachusetts, Boston, 22 Nov. 1980)

US; Member of the US House of Representatives 1928–71 McCormack's father was an Irish hod carrier from South Boston; but his early death forced John McCormack to work as a newsboy to earn money to support the family. After working in a law office, he studied law privately and began practice as a lawyer in 1913. After army service in the First World War, he entered Democratic politics and served for six years in the Massachusetts Assembly and Senate (1920–6). In 1928 he was elected to fill the congressional vacancy created by the death of James Gallivan and was also elected in his own right to the subsequent Congress. Thereafter he served continuously in the House of Representatives until 1971.

On his first election to the House McCormack established a close friendship with John Nance Garner (who secured his assignment to the Ways and Means Committee) and Sam Rayburn and became part of the inner circle of Democrats, many of whom played poker together. In 1936 he helped Rayburn become majority leader and, when Rayburn became Speaker in 1940, McCormack was in a good position to succeed as majority leader. McCormack held that position (apart from brief spells when Republicans controlled the House) until 1961 when he became Speaker on Rayburn's death. Although he never acquired Rayburn's authority and was constrained by the powerful committee chairmen, he was an impartial and avuncular Speaker.

McCormack was a good constituency member, thoroughly at home with the intricacies of Boston politics; and he was a hard-working Congressman. He became an expert on taxation and finance and developed an interest in space, chairing the House Committee on Science and Astronautics and helping to establish NASA in 1958.

He was an ardent supporter of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal and of Harry Truman's Fair Deal as well as a believer in civil rights. He was not a complete supporter of his fellow Bostonian John Kennedy, however, partly because Kennedy had failed to help secure a pardon for McCormack's Boston crony James Michael Curley in 1947. In 1961 Kennedy's federal aid to education bill was killed as a result of McCormack's efforts to allow church schools to participate.

A loyal Roman Catholic, McCormack (who was dubbed ‘the Archbishop’) was an adamant anti-Communist and chaired a forerunner of the House Un-American Activities Committee in the 1930s. He was also a pragmatic politician within the Democratic Party, keen to keep its southern and northern wings together through compromise and personal warmth. He played a key role in securing the passage of much of Lyndon Johnson's Great Society programme especially the landmark legislation in the field of civil rights, health care for the elderly, education, and antipoverty measures.

By 1970 McCormack had experienced some criticism from younger Democrats anxious for more vigorous leadership. However, he stepped down of his own accord, choosing not to seek re-election in 1970. He retired to his native Boston.

Subjects: Politics.


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