DURING THE MORE turbulent years of the 1960s, the mysterious ways of Congress -- and more specifically, of the House of Representatives -- underwent many significant and overdue changes. Not all of them would sit well with Speaker John W. McCormack, then reigning mast of the old school of politics, but never could they diminish his love of, and respect for, the powers and glories of the legislative process. As much as any member, mr. McCormack, who died Saturday at the age of 88, appreciated the importance of public service and the compromises it entails.
"My heart is in this House," he said upon retirement in 1970. "I have an intense love for this body." That intense devotion always extended as well to the people of his diverse home district; as one of 12 children of a poor South Boston family, mr. McCormack never forgot his origins. From his memories of poverty came a natural support for the early programs of President Roosevelt's New Deal and, later, for civil rights bills, antipoverty measures, housing and health proposals, aid to education, wage-and-hour laws, Medicare and other social programs that came into being during his 42 years in the House.
Model though he was of the old-fashioned, big-city politician, mr. McCormack did not fit any stereotype of the politician; a teetolaler, he avoided the Washington social circuit, lived austerely and, after leaving office, spent practically all of his time at the side of his wife, Harriet, until she died in 1971.
Even though he preferred to function outside of the limelight, Mr. McCormack was no meek pushover as majority leader or speaker. He exercised great influence, bolstered by a thorough understanding of how the powers of his office -- patronage, committee assignments, control of debate and parliamentary tactics -- could be used to shape and control legislation. Though younger members of Congress would work for changes aimed at curbing these very tools of power, they valued the patience, fairness and friendship that John McCormack extended to them. For these qualities, and for his deep devotion to the system of checks and balances, John W. McCormack will be remembered with special respect both by those with whom he served in Congress as well as by his beloved constituents in Massachusetts.