John William McCormack: A Political Biography

By Marchant-Shapiro, Theresa | The New England Journal of Political Science, Spring 2017 | Go to article overview

John William McCormack: A Political Biography


Marchant-Shapiro, Theresa, The New England Journal of Political Science


Nelson, Garrison. 2017. John William McCormack: A Political Biography. New York: Bloomsbury.

I have always loved hearing and telling stories in both my personal and professional lives. It seems to me that a good story is the most effective way to make the objective, sometimes dry, results of political science research come to life. As a result, I truly appreciate a good story teller. One political scientist that I would rank among the discipline's best story tellers is Garrison Nelson. I look forward to attending his panels at conferences because of the stories he shares about real world politics-stories about politicians who are real people interacting in very human ways. As a culmination to his career, Nelson tells the story of former Speaker of the House John McCormack, a story of a very human man, but also the story of how politics works at the ground level. The pages of John William McCormack: A Political Biography interweave accounts of McCormack and his contemporaries in a narrative that is ostensibly about his life, but on deeper reflection also about political leadership in general. For me, the book's account of interactions between individual politicians weaves together three major themes regarding political leadership: alignment between the leader's persona and the local culture; the role of mentors; and the importance of interpersonal connections in the political process.

Many times as political scientists we focus on political institutions, forgetting that while they define the battleground on which politics is fought, politics is a human endeavor. Just as generals make a difference in the outcome of battles, individual politicians make a difference in the outcome of political conflict. Tip O'Neill popularized the phrase, "All politics is local." In this political biography of John McCormack, Garrison Nelson shows that the principle goes well beyond O'Neill's argument that politicians should not lose sight of the needs of their constituents. Political success is contingent on a leader's ability to connect individually and collectively with their constituents, their mentors, their competitors, and their colleagues.

One overarching theme of the biography is the need for politicians to align their personal persona to the cultural climate of their constituents. McCormack was born and raised in South Boston at a time of Irish dominance. Because McCormack grew up in Southie, his only access to politics was through the Irish gatekeepers. In order to gain access, McCormack told an origin story throughout his life in which he claimed to be Irish. Like the Horatio Alger stories he loved so much, McCormack talked of his widowed Irish mother and his own efforts to pull himself up by his bootstraps. While McCormack certainly overcame difficult circumstances and did so with only an eighth grade education, the rest of the story is tenuous. In his relentless search for supporting documentation, Nelson was able to uncover information revealing several inconsistencies in McCormack's origin story. First, while his mother's parents did hail from Ireland, she was actually not born there. Second, she was not a widow-her husband had abandoned her and the children. Finally, and most damning of all, McCormack's father was not Irish; he was of Scottish descent. Worse yet, his father had come to Boston by way of Canada. Historically, Irish Boston saw immigrants from the maritime provinces of Canada (who were predominantly of Scottish descent) as a threat because they competed for the same resources- particularly jobs. The senior McCormack's maritime background not only made it difficult for him to find work in Boston, it also limited the younger McCormack's own access to power. As a result, over his lifetime McCormack repeatedly concealed his father's origins both in his personal accounts, but also on official records (birth, death, census, etc.) and tombstones. McCormack transformed his history to reflect his identity within the Irish culture of South Boston. …

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