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Saturday, May 14, 2011

Biography of a Speaker

Joseph W. Martin, Jr. was the only Republican speaker of the House between Nicholas Longworth in 1931 and Newt Gingrich in 1995. My friend Frank Gregorsky has interviewed James J. Kenneally, author of A Compassionate Conservative: A Political Biography of Joseph W. Martin Jr., Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives (Lexington Books, 2003 -- ISBN: 9780739106761).

In this excerpt from the full interview (available at ExactingEditor), Kenneally makes a point that we stress in our textbook: there is more to politics than crass self-interest:

KENNEALLY: ... I think Joe made, during his lifetime, major contributions to American politics, and to American society, and was deserving of a biography, even if you couldn’t get all these little human details. There are other people I’m sure that have lived lives that they’ve kept as private, or just didn’t live exciting lives, yet made major contributions.


And I think -- this really sounds corny, but I wish other people knew more about Joe. He was a man of integrity. Everyone I spoke to had tremendous admiration for his integrity; he was a man of his word. You’d think he was being considered for canonization. And we’ve had so much cynicism in terms of the way people approach politics and politicians, I think it’d be great if they knew more about Martin.

He also makes important observations about research:

GREGORSKY: If you were to boil it down for a professor or other would-be author in their thirties or forties, what is the -- so to speak -- "lodestone" that someone should center on if they want to produce a biography of a political leader who is no longer alive?

KENNEALLY: Oh, that's a tough one [pause].

You just have to hunt all over the place, hoping to find papers: His papers, other people's papers -- people that knew him -- that's about all you can do! Obviously you can get a lot out of newspapers. But what you have to -- you know, one of the things that made it worse, too, is telephones, as more and more people began using them. From [Franklin] Roosevelt on, they were taping much of the phone conversations in the White House -- Roosevelt was the first I know of to tape 'em.

But what of Congress? All of those things occurred over the phone, and you're not sure that anybody ever took a note on them.

GREGORSKY: Yeah -- good point.

KENNEALLY: That makes it difficult. And obviously tracking down e-mails, nowadays -- even with the instructions to an Administration’s officials and staff how to save them -- makes it more difficult. For the historian, we've got more information, and less information, at the same time, than we ever had.

But -- I think it's a wonderful career, a great thing. It's satisfying individually, and I think it's worth doing. Particularly if your subject is somebody like Joe.

When I began, Joe was a Congressman from Massachusetts -- and I ended up with a great deal of affection and respect for him. Although [being a loyal Democrat] I probably never would have voted him, except -- I believe it was -- in the 1940 campaign when he was attacked for being too liberal. But that's beside the point [laughter].