One March afternoon in 1956, Thomas Winship, then a Washington correspondent for the Globe, stopped by the Washington, D.C., office of John W. McCormack, the US House majority leader from South Boston. McCormack would ascend to House speaker in a few years, and Winship would take over as editor of the Globe, but on that late winter day, the two spent a relaxed afternoon discussing the responsibilities of a high office while McCormack smoked a Corona cigar.
Then the office door swung open and in stepped Martin Sweig. A McCormack aide whose quiet manner belied his influential role, Dr. Sweig asked his boss to personally thank an Air Force colonel for “the swell job he did for us this morning” intervening on behalf of a Massachusetts constituent. “My, that Martin is a bear for getting things done,” McCormack told Winship, after Dr. Sweig left. “It hurts his pride to take ‘no’ for an answer from people in government.”
A dozen years later, federal prosecutors suggested that Dr. Sweig should have become more comfortable saying no to those who sought his assistance. In an influence-peddling scandal, he was charged with conspiring to misuse the House speaker’s office on behalf of a lobbyist and multiple counts of perjury involving grand jury testimony. During a trial, witnesses testified that Dr. Sweig sometimes imitated McCormack’s voice on the phone and represented himself as the House speaker, but prosecutors never claimed he profited personally from helping a lobbyist with various matters. In July 1970, a jury convicted Dr. Sweig of just one count of perjury, acquitting him of everything else, including conspiracy.
“If I have done anything wrong, I certainly didn’t mean to. I didn’t mean to harm anyone,” Dr. Sweig said in September 1970 when he was sentenced to 30 months in prison and fined $2,000. Nine months later he was paroled.
Dr. Sweig, who in retirement moved back to the Winthrop neighborhood where he grew up, died March 14 at The Village at Willow Crossings in Mansfield, where he lived the past few years. He was 92 and had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.
His powerful position in McCormack’s office, and by extension congressional affairs, was a far cry from his childhood in Winthrop, where he was the older of two sons born to Eastern European Jewish immigrants.
“Although he may be unknown to the public, Martin Sweig is, by default, one of the most powerful men on Capitol Hill,” Jack Anderson wrote in October 1969 for his syndicated “Washington Merry-Go-Round” column, a couple of days after McCormack suspended Dr. Sweig without pay when the investigation into influence peddling began.
“He did have quite a life,” said Dr. Sweig’s nephew Jonathan of Franklin. “Martin was quite a character. Some people liked him very much, and some people just could not understand him.”
Dr. Sweig’s father, Philip, was from Poland, and his mother, the former Ida Frischer, was from Latvia. As an adult, Dr. Sweig traveled frequently to Europe and “had a huge affinity to Germany,” his nephew said. “He had friends in Germany. He just loved the culture and the people, which is kind of odd when you think that he’s the son of a kosher butcher.”
Blind in one eye since he was 17, Dr. Sweig did not like to drive and he avoided flying, too. He traveled by train in the United States and took a ship when he visited Europe.
Though he began working as a file clerk for McCormack, a South Boston Democrat, while still a student at Georgetown University, Dr. Sweig was as interested in distant history as he was with current politics. Attending Georgetown at night so he wouldn’t miss any work, he finished a doctorate and wrote a dissertation about the late-1800s origin of the Boer Wars in South Africa.
“He was very devoted to me. He worked all hours of the day, until 2 or 3 in the morning and Saturdays,” McCormack testified during Dr. Sweig’s trial, adding that many congressmen sought his aide’s assistance in getting things accomplished.
“Martin never regretted anything he did during his years in Washington,” Jonathan said in a eulogy at Dr. Sweig’s service. “He told me more than once that if he had to do it all over he would not change anything.”
He added that his uncle was loyal “to a fault. He refused to divulge confidences and private conversations and he paid dearly for this refusal.”
Jonathan added that the affection of those with whom his uncle worked was apparent when he accompanied Dr. Sweig to Washington for a 1981 visit.
“We went to visit with Tip O’Neill and other congressmen and later that evening had quite a memorable dinner where Martin was toasted … like a hero returning home from war,” he recalled in the eulogy.
“He has taught me so many things, not least of which is hard work, loyalty, love of God, and to always take care of friends and loved ones,” Jonathan said in a eulogy.
Before the conviction, Dr. Sweig served on the Board of Trustees for the University of Massachusetts.
Washington remained the center of Dr. Sweig’s professional life, however, even after the conviction and prison. In late 1970, while appealing the verdict, he joined the staff of US Representative Robert Leggett, a California Democrat who was one of several congressmen who testified as character witnesses during his trial.
After being released from prison, his nephew said, Dr. Sweig was an insurance industry lobbyist for many years.
“He loved the political business,” Jonathan said. “He never said anything bad about McCormack. He loved McCormack. McCormack was his whole world.”
Years later, he added, Mike Wallace of the CBS TV show “60 Minutes” called Dr. Sweig seeking an interview.
“And he refused,” Jonathan said. “He was very private. He never wanted to write a book. He became more of a father to me than an uncle, and more of a grandfather to my two daughters than a great-uncle.”
Dr. Sweig’s gentle manner with children was apparent the day of President John F. Kennedy’s funeral, when he sensed that the president’s son needed a moment away from the crowds when the procession reached the Capitol Rotunda. Dr. Sweig suggested that John-John’s nurse bring him to McCormack’s nearby congressional office.
Spotting a row of miniature flags in the office, John-John asked for one, which Dr. Sweig provided, the Globe reported, and he gave him a second flag when John-John said he wanted one for his sister, Caroline.
“And I would like a flag for my daddy, too,” John-John said, looking at a photo of his father on the wall, and Dr. Sweig handed the boy a final flag.Bryan Marquard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.