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Vermont Quarterly

New Light on Broker of New Deal

John WIlliam McCormack book cover


New Light on Broker of New Deal

POLITICAL SCIENCE | Some fifty years in the making, John William McCormack: A Political Biography by Professor Garrison Nelson reveals stunning new facts about the life of a man considered the legislative architect of the New Deal and the Great Society. Nelson gives long overdue credit to a leading figure in the transformation of the twentieth-century Democratic Party—U.S. Speaker of the House, 1962-1970—for passing a social welfare agenda that included Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, immigration reform, and civil rights legislation.

But McCormack’s forty-three-year career as a Massachusetts representative might never have been had he not crafted a false family heritage. In the Boston of his times, the path to political power required one of two backgrounds: Yankee Boston or Irish Boston. The former demanded a Pilgrim or Puritan ancestor and a degree from Harvard. The latter called for an Irish-born father, a widowed mother, and younger siblings that you helped raise in poverty.

McCormack possessed neither of the Yankee requirements, and had no Irish ancestry. He did, however, grow up in extreme poverty in South Boston, and used that as a basis to fabricate his personal history when he ran for the Massachusetts House in 1920. Until Nelson’s new biography, the myth of John McCormack as Irish kid from Southie had endured for nearly a century.

Nelson traces his near-obsession with McCormack to an unexpected meeting with the Speaker in 1968 after stopping by his office to see if he'd answer some questions for his doctoral dissertation. “It was a wonderful hour for this twenty-six-year-old new college instructor to enjoy a cigar with the seventy-six-year-old House Speaker in the U.S. Capitol,” Nelson says.

Previous attempts to write biographies on McCormack—the only post-1940 Speaker of the House without a biography until now—usually ended with the discovery of sanitized congressional papers, archived at Boston University, void of any pertinent personal information. Nelson was told early on by a political boss in Southie not to expect anyone to talk about their local hero and violate a code that says, “never write what you can speak; never speak what you can nod.”

Nelson caught a break when McCormack’s dying nephew gave him six boxes filled with family photographs, personal letters, news clippings, and gavels.

McCormack’s falsified heritage is just one aspect of the impactful political life that Nelson spins out across 910 pages. Far greater emphasis is devoted to exploring his subject’s skill at forging key political alliances to help his party pass legislation aiding the nation’s most vulnerable.  
Nelson, the Elliott A. Brown Professor of Law, Politics, and Political Behavior at UVM, will retire at the end of this academic year.

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