Saturday, October 23, 2010

Almost President McCormack

A new book is out, The Kennedy Detail by Gerald Blaine, a former Secret Service agent assigned to protect Lyndon Johnson in the wake of the Kennedy assassination.

According to Blaine, he damn near shot Johnson by accident. It was the middle of the next night, Blaine was on edge like the rest of the country, he saw an unknown figure come up to him, trained his gun on it, and at the very last second, he realized it was Johnson.

Had he pulled the trigger, John W. McCormack of Massachusetts, the Speaker of the House at the time, would have become President. The point is moot now, but I think we can all agree, speculation is fun.

So who was John W. McCormack?

We've got plenty of info on that; he was a House lifer, serving for 43 years from 1928-71, and serving as Speaker from 1962 until the end. His grandparents arrived in America in the wake of the Irish potato famine. He passed the bar at age 21, served in World War 1 from 1917-1918, and upon service's end, started working his way up through the political ranks.

In his pre-Speaker days, McCormack could have fit in today with no problem whatsoever. Sam Rayburn, the previous Speaker, tapped him in 1940 as the Democratic second-in-command, and he settled into a few decades worth of lobbing partisan verbal attacks, which would hurt him later on when he became Speaker. He mellowed out at that point, but he'd never really learned how to work with people, which cost him votes a stronger negotiator might have gotten, even within his own party- when he came in as Speaker, he was having to deal with a new generation of younger politicans, and he was part of the older generation they were trying to take control from.

Not that the agenda suffered much for it. He was Speaker for Johnson's Great Society- the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1968, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the abolition of national-origin quotas for immigration, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, Head Start, the creation of the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities, the Office of Economic Opportunity, Volunteers in Service to America, food stamps, PBS, NPR, the Department of Transportation, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Truth-in-Lending Act of 1968, the Solid Waste Disposal Act of 1964, the National Trails System, the National Wilderness Preservation System, the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the creation of the Endangered Species List, the Freedom of Information Act, the Higher Education Act, the Highway Beautification Act, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, the establishment of Amtrak, the abolition of a post office monopoly, OSHA, the Clean Air Act... all of that passed through McCormack's House.

He was not, though, the key figure in actually getting much of it passed. That fell to the younger generation, who would eventually succeed in pushing him out. One of the actual key players, Carl Albert of Oklahoma, would succeed McCormack as Speaker.

McCormack did oversee a gigantic amount of progress in America, but it came despite him, not because of him. He had a 258-177 House majority when he took over, along with a 66-34 edge in the Senate. A potted plant could have passed whatever it wanted.

Would McCormack have done better than Johnson? Probably not. For more reasons than the obvious, be glad Blaine held his fire.

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