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John Joseph Moakley dies at age 74
By Mark Feeney, Globe Staff, 05/28/01
The South Boston Democrat, who was universally known as "Joe," was among the last of a breed: the down-to-earth pol from Massachusetts who walked the corridors of congressional power with the easy familiarity -- and bluff authority -- of a cop on the beat. Somewhat incongruously, he also became a leading authority on US-Latin American relations during the 1980s and 1990s.
Since announcing in February that he had an incurable form of leukemia, Mr. Moakley used his final months working on his favorite causes. But the time was also marked with a series of affectionate tributes from politicians of both parties, and the naming of the Fan Pier federal courthouse in his honor.
Tributes poured in.
There was a moment of silence at Fenway Park last night before the Red Sox-Yankees game. And thousands of miles to the west in Mesa, Arizona, President Bush asked for a moment of silence for Mr. Moakley as he began remarks at an aircraft museum. "Joe loved America and he will be sorely missed," the President said.
Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino, who ordered about 500 flags lowered to half-staff today at municipal buildings, said: "The people of Boston have lost a true friend and a legend ... one of the giants" of Bay State public servants. Acting Governor Jane M. Swift said Mr. Moakley's home city and state "are better places to live and raise a family because Congressman Moakley dedicated his life to public service."
Cardinal Bernard Law called Mr. Moakley "a tirelessly dedicated public servant and a good friend.
"The manner is which he lived, with faith and integrity, stands as a most fitting memorial to him," the cardinal said.
Funeral arrangements were incomplete.
Mr. Moakley once said that "the problem with Congress is a lot of people get there and think they're there to balance the budget or stop wars -- and that's important. But a lot of them get this attitude about the people who elect us, like they're saying to them, `Don't bother me. I'm a big deal now.' But these people out here, they're my boss. I work for them."
Mr. Moakley's 9th Congressional District had previously been represented by one speaker of the House, John W. McCormack, whose brother had been a friend of Mr. Moakley's father, and he was the protege and golfing partner of another, Thomas P. O'Neill Jr., who got him his seat on the Rules Committee. Mr. Moakley's power on Capitol Hill, like that of such other low-profile, high-impact predecessors in the Massachusetts delegation as Edward P. Boland, James A. Burke, and Philip J. Philbin, was inversely proportional to his public prominence.
It was a mark of how much the House had changed, as well as of Mr. Moakley's proficiency, that the 16 years it took him to go from last-ranking member of the Rules Committee to chairman was two years shorter than it took O'Neill to rise one seat in seniority on the same panel.
There was talk in the early 1980s of Mr. Moakley possibly succeeding O'Neill as House speaker one day, but he was content to stay on Rules. "Chairman of the Rules Committee is the second- or third-most powerful job in the House," Mr. Moakley once told a reporter. "The only job I'd take over being chairman of Rules is speaker." Other than direct appropriations, all legislation must eventually go through the Rules Committee, of which Mr. Moakley had spent 4 years as chairman and at the time of his death was ranking minority member.
When his Rules Committee colleague US Representative David Bonior, Democrat of Michigan, ran for the position of majority whip in 1991, Mr. Moakley worked so effectively for his election that Bonior said his influence "made the difference" in Bonior's victory.
Mr. Moakley put such clout to highly efficacious use for his constituents. "I grew up in South Boston politics, where the politician was the guy who put turkey on the table at Christmas if the husband wasn't working," Mr. Moakley once said. That food-for-the-family philosophy was a guiding principle for the man known affectionately as "Jobs" Moakley by labor union members.
Among the programs for which he was instrumental in procuring funds were the Central Artery/Tunnel project; the Boston Harbor cleanup; the Fort Point Channel bridge; establishment of Boston's African-American National Historic Site; grants to Massachusetts colleges, universities, and hospitals; home-heating allowances; and the federal courthouse on Fan Pier. On March 13, at his first Rose Garden signing ceremony, President Bush signed legislation naming the building for Mr. Moakley.
Mr. Moakley concentrated on constituent services at the expense of oratorical flourishes or media appearances. He was in the House for 12 years before he hired his first press spokesman. "Most people view life through their kitchen windows," Mr. Moakley said, and that pragmatic approach defined his politics. "I'm reciprocal. I'm not a one-way street. If someone helps me, I help them. That's the name of the game." Such agreeableness contributed to Mr. Moakley's being labeled the House's "best personality" by the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call in 1990.
President Bush singled out Mr. Moakley during his Feb. 27 budget address to Congress as "a fine representative and a good man." "Good bless you, Joe," Bush said, urging Congress to double the budget of the National Institutes of Health as an "appropriate tribute to Joe."
Perhaps the most dramatic -- and uncharacteristic -- moment in Mr. Moakley's career occurred in 1995 when he came within half an hour of announcing that he would not be a candidate for reelection. Three months earlier, he had undergone successful transplant surgery to replace a liver rapidly deteriorating because of the hepatitis B virus. In addition, he wanted to spend more time with his wife, who was terminally ill with cancer.
Hearing that the congressman would not be running for reelection, both the White House and House Democratic leadership pleaded with him to reconsider. But as a somewhat sheepish Mr. Moakley told a startled audience of reporters and admirers, what had changed his mind was his wife's last-minute urging that he run again.
There was no such reconsidering this past February. At a news conference, Mr. Moakley said, with visible emotion, that he would not seek a 16th term. There is no cure for Mr. Moakley's form of leukemia, known as high-grade myelodysplastic syndrome, and he was considered too old for aggressive treatment with a bone marrow transplant or radiation therapy.
Mr. Moakley was hospitalized on May 21 for a blood transfusion treatment that typically lasts a day or two. He also was hospitalized at Bethesda for three days last month to treat a high fever.
Born on April 27, 1927, Mr. Moakley grew up in South Boston's Old Harbor Housing Project. His father was a truck driver and tavern owner. At 15, Mr. Moakley falsified his birth certificate so he could enlist in the Navy. After the war, he attended the University of Miami but failed to graduate because, as he once told a reporter, "I got sick of it." He earned a law degree at Suffolk University, became a state insurance auditor, and decided to enter politics. In 1957, he married Evelyn Duffy. The couple was childless.
Mr. Moakley lost his first election, a 1950 contest for the state House of Representatives, by 199 votes. Winning two years later, he went on to serve four terms in the House. Mr. Moakley lost a challenge to then-Senate President John E. Powers in 1960, only to succeed him when he stepped down in 1964.
Six years later Mr. Moakley again found his political rise stymied, this time when he attempted to succeed Speaker McCormack. In a divided primary, he lost to his neighbor Louise Day Hicks, who lived 16 doors away on Columbia Road. Mr. Moakley ran for Boston City Council in 1971 and topped the ticket. His sights remained trained on Capitol Hill, however.
Hicks's resistance to school desegregation gave her a fervent, if limited, base of support, making her all but invulnerable in a primary election. So Mr. Moakley made the most daring move of his career, one both O'Neill and McCormack counseled him against: He chose to run in 1972 as an Independent, thus avoiding the primary but also running the risk of alienating Democrats in an overwhelmingly Democratic district. "If I had lost, that was it," Mr. Moakley said of the race. "That was the Hail Mary ball." He won by 3,448 votes.
Mr. Moakley kept his distance from the opposition to court-ordered desegregation, earning the nickname "Motions" Moakley from a 1976 challenger because he only went through the "motions" of opposition. In that election he lost only one neighborhood in his district: his lifelong home, South Boston.
Mr. Moakley's steady rise in Washington and assiduous attention to constituent service soon won back voters in the district. One measure of that rise, and an opportunity for constitutent service, was his heading the Democratic Patronage Committee during much of the '80s. The post gave him control of some 800 Capitol Hill jobs, and the number of congressional elevator operators with Boston accents was a standing joke in Congress. Asked once the number of 9th District constituents for whom he'd gotten jobs, Mr. Moakley replied, "Not as many as I'd like."
Such practical, close-to-home concerns made it all the more surprising when Mr. Moakley became concerned about Salvadoran refugees and their homeland. Yet like the great majority of his political concerns, the roots of that concern lay in his district. In 1983, while meeting with constituents in a Jamaica Plain post office, a group of Salvadoran immigrants told him that they had been denied refugee status despite having fled atrocities in their homeland. Finding out that what they'd told him was true, Mr. Moakley took up their cause, finally winning approval in 1990 for temporary legal status for Salvadorans.
With that background in mind, House Speaker Thomas S. Foley appointed Mr. Moakley to lead an investigation of the murders of six Jesuit priests in El Salvador in 1989. Mr. Moakley had known two of the priests and became increasingly exercised over the affair. He gathered evidence that the Salvadoran military had ordered the killings and in 1990 got Congress to halve aid to the regime. The funds were later restored, but Mr. Moakley remained committed to the Salvadoran issue and seeing that justice was done.
"I got awful bullshit to think a crack battalion of the El Salvador Army would go in and take these internationally known priests, whose only protection was rosary beads and a Bible," he later said.
Because of his high profile on Latin American issue, Mr. Moakley had several meetings with the Cuban dictator, Fidel Castro. Their first encounter was at the United Nations, Mr. Moakley liked to recall. "He grabbed me by the lapel and kissed me on both cheeks, and the only thing I could think of was that I hoped nobody from the South Boston Tribune saw that!"
In 1995, Mr. Moakley received an honorary doctor of laws degree from the University of Central America in El Salvador. At the time, Rodolfo Cardenal, the university's vice president, said of Mr. Moakley, "He is very well known and considered very, very important by the Salvadoran people in terms of human rights, peace, and justice. We know from declassified documents that the armed forces and civilian government fear him."
It was a rare instance of venturing on the international stage for a successful practitioner of O'Neill's adage, "All politics is local." Yet even on an issue of principle that was, literally, far from home, Mr. Moakley kept his district in mind. During a 1990 visit to a Salvadoran refugee camp, he handed out razors made by Gillette, whose headquarters are in South Boston.
Mr. Moakley's devotion to his district and its wishes extended to his own shaving needs as well. In the early '90s he grew a beard -- only to remove it when a personally conducted poll of shoppers at Flanagan's Market in South Boston came out against it. He did grow it back later, though.
Mr. Moakley possessed a ready wit, which ill health failed to diminish. When he announced he was awaiting a liver transplant, he noted that he might seek advice from Mickey Mantle, the hard-hitting, hard-drinking baseball great who'd undergone similar surgery the week before. "I just hope I don't end up with his old liver," Mr. Moakley said.
A few months before that, when Mr. Moakley disclosed he would be needing hip-replacement surgery, he mentioned that his wife had told him he should disclose his condition "because it will be the first time in a very long time that the word `hip' and the name `Joe Moakley' have been used in the same sentence."
After Mr. Moakley learned of his incurable leukemia in February, he told a reporter, "I went in for a checkup and the guy said, `Don't buy any green bananas.' " At a Rules Committee meeting later that week, he was presented with a bunch of green bananas by the panel's chairman.
"If I could trade it in for the gavel, I'd be very happy," Mr. Moakley said, as members erupted in laughter.
Mr. Moakley's wife died in 1996. He leaves his brothers, Robert, of Quincy, and Thomas, of Braintree.
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