In early 1983, Congressman John Joseph Moakley met with a group of his Jamaica Plain constituents, geographically close, but politically far removed from his South Boston base.
They asked him to support legislation giving temporary legal status to refugees from the civil war then raging in El Salvador. To their great surprise, he agreed.
“Something had started to click for Moakley,” writes Mark Robert Schneider in “Joe Moakley’s Journey,’’ a fine account of Moakley’s personal and political progression from “meat and potatoes” neighborhood politician to human rights crusader.
Gradually, Schneider writes, the issue of El Salvador “would come to dominate Moakley’s concerns.” It would take him into the mountains and villages of El Salvador five times — and three times to Cuba, where he formed an unlikely bond with Fidel Castro.
There were also local concerns, as Schneider, a professor at Suffolk University, notes: promoting South Boston’s Fan Pier as the site for the federal courthouse that now bears his name; obtaining federal funding for the Harbor Islands and other regional projects.
Moakley, born in 1927, grew up in the South Boston projects. During an unsuccessful campaign for state representative in 1950, he met Evelyn Duffy, a “vivacious, playful” widow from North Cambridge. They married in 1957, never had children, and lived until their deaths in a small Cape on South Boston’s Columbia Road. Evelyn died in March 1996, five years before Moakley’s own death in May 2001 at 74.
This is basically a political story, and the strength of
Schneider’s account comes in
its skillful balancing of Moakley’s local loyalties with his international interests.
He had managed to stay out of the school busing controversy that had roiled his South Boston neighbors. In an interview shortly before his death, Moakley said that it was “the worst political time that I had ever gone through in my life. Some days, I just didn’t want to get up in the morning and put my shoes on.”
In 1970, he challenged anti-busing leader Louise Day Hicks for the congressional seat long held by South Boston icon and longtime speaker of the House John McCormack. Moakley lost in the Democratic primary, but an aide suggested that he run in 1972 as an independent, and challenge Hicks directly in the November final. Although remarking that “would be like leaving the church,” Moakley took that advice and defeated Hicks. It would be his “last close campaign.”
In Congress, Moakley rose up the ranks as a protégé of Speaker Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill. His interest in Central America grew, after he initially ceded that issue to Gerry Studds of Cohasset, elected to Congress the same year he was.
By the time of his meeting with Jamaica Plain activists in 1983, he had already begun to take an interest in El Salvador, seconded by his aide Jim McGovern, now the congressman from the Worcester-based district. They focused on the issue of refugees following the massacre of villagers in 1981.
An emotionally moving event was the 1987 visit to the mountain village of Santa Marta in guerrilla territory, Sullivan recounted. Moakley could see that the village was “dirt poor,” and he “connected with them immediately.” It was not South Boston “where people had their problems, to be sure, but Moakley immediately grasped that these farmers faced basic challenges of survival every day.”
Joe Moakley, writes
Schneider, “was no longer just
a ‘nuts and bolts’ politician with only a domestic agenda.” He “challenged his congressional colleagues, and the wider American public, to recognize that it was American policy, and money, that placed the murder weapons in the killers’ hands.”
In announcing his retirement in 2001, Moakley said that “of all the things I have done, perhaps what remains closest to my heart is my work in El Salvador.”
And then he threw in a self-deprecating line he had used for years. “I may not have been a foreign policy expert — in fact, my idea of a foreign affair used to be driving from South Boston to East Boston for an Italian sub.”Michael Kenney is a freelance writer living in Cambridge. He can be reached at email@example.com.