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How Moakley made the world his issue
By John Donnelly, Globe Staff, 04/14/01
The stories are notable because there are so few like him on Capitol Hill. Moakley, observers say, has been an inter nationalist in an era when most congressmen take up global issues only in response to constitutent demands or as a trade priority.
For more than a decade, Moakley focused on human rights in El Salvador, and in recent years he branched into US-Cuban relations, hoping to normalize ties.
For his work, Moakley was given the Global Citizen Millennium Award this year by the Global Citizens Council, which honors a person who "transcends national boundaries." Past recipients include former South African president Nelson Mandela.
"He made foreign affairs real to people," said Mara E. Rudman, former deputy to President Clinton's national security adviser, Samuel R. Berger, and a onetime aide to former congressman Gerry Studds of Cohasset. "We need more congressmen who can figure out ways to convince their communities about the interconnectedness of the world -- the Joe Moakleys -- but there are so few of them left."
Representative David E. Bonior, a Michigan Democrat and Moakley's longtime friend, agreed.
"Joe obviously didn't have a huge amount to gain from this," Bonior said. "What happened with him was his outrage at man's inhumanity to man in El Salvador."
It began in 1983 at a meeting in Jamaica Plain, when some Salvadorans told Moakley about atrocities committed in their country. They asked for help in winning temporary legal status to stay in the United States.
"They talked about the torture and killings," Moakley recalled recently. "I hadn't heard about it before. I couldn't believe it."
He dispatched his close aide, James P. McGovern, now a congressman from Worcester, and McGovern returned from El Salvador to say the stories were true.
That started Moakley on a series of battles to give Salvadorans more chance to stay in the United States. He lost the first round in 1987, but won two years later, after threatening to kill an immigration bill that included substantial benefits for Irish newcomers.
Then came the Nov. 16, 1989, killings of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper, and her daughter in San Salvador. House Speaker Thomas Foley appointed Moakley to head a special commission investigating the murders.
"Tom Foley told me he didn't want some fancy foreign affairs expert with too much baggage, so he asked me," Moakley said.
For Moakley, "it was a morality play," said Bill Woodward, who worked on the commission and was more recently chief speechwriter for former secretary of state Madeleine K. Albright. "Thugs kill priests. A whole bunch of people let them get away with it. The facts, though, are inconvenient. The commission essentially solved the case."
Moakley made several trips to El Salvador. McGovern made about 25. On one trip, Moakley learned that the US Embassy had an affidavit that implicated the Salvadoran military and asked to see it. Dick Cheney, then the defense secretary, refused, so Moakley visited the chief Salvadoran investigator in the case, McGovern said.
"He said to the investigator: `There was something in that affidavit that I have a question about. Darn, I left my copy in my hotel room. Do you have an extra copy here?' " McGovern said. "The investigator gave him a copy, Moakley says he didn't remember the question, and leaves. Then he goes back to the embassy and tells the ambassador, `Tell your friends at the Department of Defense they can go [expletive] themselves, because I got a copy.' "
"To get at the truth sometimes," Moakley said recently, "you have to lie a little."
Another time, said McGovern, Moakley heard that the suspects would be attending church at Treasury Police headquarters.
"He said that we should ambush them," McGovern said. "We went armed with the picture of the trigger men. We spotted him, and then on the way back from Communion, Joe said to him, `I'd like to see you and your family together after the Mass.' "
They took two of the accused killers into a room, where they confirmed that senior Salvadoran military officers had ordered the murders, McGovern said.
He "never set out to change the world," Moakley said in a speech in San Salvador. "I'll be happy if I can make things a little better for the people I represent back home."
But he said the lives of the slain Jesuit priests taught everyone: "It is never a crime to speak up for the poor, the helpless, or the ill; it is never a crime to tell the truth; it is never a crime to demand justice; it is never a crime to teach people their rights; it is never a crime to struggle for a just peace. It is never a crime. It is always a duty."
e's failing, and stories are now being told. Stories about the passion of J. Joseph Moakley, the unlikely internationalist from South Boston.
Many of them take place a world away from South Boston, where a federal courthouse will be named for the congressman next week. They happened in El Salvador, during its civil war a decade ago, when he acted as part cop and part prosecutor.
e's failing, and stories are now being told. Stories about the passion of J. Joseph Moakley, the unlikely internationalist from South Boston. Many of them take place a world away from South Boston, where a federal courthouse will be named for the congressman next week. They happened in El Salvador, during its civil war a decade ago, when he acted as part cop and part prosecutor.It's a time for reflection about the contributions of the 73-year-old congressman, who has a usually incurable form of leukemia.
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