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March 19, 2017

In the ten years I’ve served as Director of the Joseph Martin Institute at Stonehill College, I’ve had plenty of conversations with students and guests where I find myself introducing them to Joe Martin the man and the Speaker of the House.

Though I also occasionally meet folks who remember Speaker Joe, he remains a largely lost figure in our politics here despite reaching the pinnacle of power in a career that spanned more than 50 years of service in Boston and DC.

History has moved on. Martin was a Republican from North Attleboro on the Rhode Island border. He was a rock solid New England conservative, a Taft man in 1912 who admired and respected his colleague Calvin Coolidge, and later arranged for dismissed General Douglas MacArthur to address Congress.

His life spanned a politically changing Massachusetts: when he entered public life, the Republicans and Lodges were ascendant. When he left, Democrats and Kennedys reigned. Martin was the last Republican Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives until Newt Gingrich in 1995. 

When his brand of politics fell out of favor among his colleagues and the Eisenhower White House following the 1958 elections, his colleagues nudged Martin aside as their leader, installing Charles Halleck by a four-vote margin in the caucus. At that time, shutting aside a sitting congressional leader was an unheard of slight. It would, in time, come to define House Republicanism.

He died 49 years ago this month, almost to the day, 43 years earlier, when he entered Congress.

The toxicity that has characterized our political culture for some time was alien to a man of Martin’s character. Two stories nicely define the type of politics he practiced.

Martin wrote about his 1926 reelection campaign in his autobiography, My First Fifty Years in Politics:

"In the 1920s, when automobiles and roads were crude by modern standards, campaigning by car held more hazards than it does now. In the 1926 campaign my Democratic opponent was a woman named Minerva Kepple. Like myself, she used to drive from town to town making speeches. One day when I was spinning along near Somerset I came upon a car that had broken down. As I pulled alongside, I saw Minerva sitting at the wheel bewildered and dejected. She was due at a rally in Somerset, where she was to deliver a speech that would no doubt beat my brains in. I suppose if I had had brains worth beating in, I would have left her there and gone on to have Somerset to myself. But I said, “Come on Minerva, I’ll get you there,” and I whisked her into town in time for her speech. I defeated her without any trouble on election day. I have heard that in later years she always voted for me for Congress. I believe that has been true also of others I have defeated. If so, it is one good fruit of the rule that I have always followed never to wage a vicious campaign. I have always tried not to hurt an opponent personally."

Later, after his ignominious defeat at the hands of his fellow Republicans in Congress, a group he had devoted a good part of his life to promoting, Martin had an opportunity to reflect on his relationship with Democratic Speaker Sam Rayburn. Martin and Rayburn switched offices four times in their career. My Stonehill colleague, James Kenneally, wrote in A Compassionate Conservative:

"To many, including Martin, it was apparent his friendship with Rayburn contributed to his loss. Less than a year after his ouster Martin, leaning heavily on his cane, his words 'slow and full' with 'deep affection showing through their formality,' paid tribute to Sam Rayburn on his birthday. Before a silent House chamber he mentioned how their friendship lasted over thirty-five years without a jarring note, lauded Rayburn’s Americanism, his struggle to maintain the honor and dignity of the House and concluded by stating, 'Thank God we have Sam Rayburn as Speaker.'"

It's a telling fact of our political life that we probably have to go back to Tip O'Neill and Bob Michel to find congressional leaders with as much decorum. Like Martin, they practiced tough politics with an undercurrent of mutual respect.

Two years before he died, Martin, now a backbencher in the House he loved, lost his primary to Margaret Heckler. Old and infirm, his district boundaries had shifted over time to include towns where he was not much of a presence.

During a memorial address in the House, future Speaker O'Neill fondly recalled entering Congress under Martin's leadership: "Much of my understanding of and respect for this House developed because he presented such a fine example to freshman Congressmen. He was at all times helpful, understanding, and fair, and he had the esteem of both sides of the aisle."

Tip O'Neill, congress, Joe Martin

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