FOR ALL THE reams of newspaper copy and minutes of television airtime spent on the topic of Representative J. Joseph Moakley’s death, the media don’t seem to know what to make of one aspect of the man’s life: his work in Central America. Sure, both the Boston Globe and the Boston Herald made sure to mention Moakley’s peacemaking in their tributes to the popular congressman from South Boston, who died of leukemia on Memorial Day. But they focused on Moakley’s work as a classic constituent congressman, somebody who could bring home bacon like the Big Dig and the federal courthouse that now bears his name. Yet his legacy of promoting social justice in El Salvador says as much about Moakley as his support for local constituents.
Few places, to be sure, could have been farther from South Boston’s Logan Way, where Moakley grew up. But the murder of six Jesuit priests and two others at the University of Central America helped spark his evolution from a bread-and-butter pol into a national leader who made a serious contribution in the international arena. Whether you agree with all Moakley’s positions or not, El Salvador is a better place now than it was a decade ago, and many credit him for that.
As late as the late 1980s, nobody could have foreseen Moakley’s transformation. At that time, he was like many local machine politicians who made their way up in Congress. A Navy veteran, he first won election to the Massachusetts House of Representatives in 1952, then performed stints in the state senate and on the Boston City Council. The greatest risk of Moakley’s career up to that time came in 1972, when as an independent he challenged the Democratic incumbent in Congress, Louise Day Hicks — and won. For years, his legislative priorities were to win federal funding and jobs for his district. Maybe this is as far as Moakley’s career would have gone had it not been for the events of November 16, 1989, when a military death squad — with the backing of high-ranking military authorities — massacred the six Jesuits, their housekeeper, and her daughter. The following month, House Speaker Tom Foley of Washington called on Moakley to investigate. (Moakley had begun to trumpet the cause of Salvadoran refugees a few years earlier; they were, after all, constituents.)
SALVADORAN DEATH squads did not make for what pollsters like to call a winning issue in the district. Many of Moakley’s constituents were classic Reagan Democrats — people who voted Democratic on the local level but liked Reagan’s anti-Soviet tough talk, and viewed liberals as the people to blame for school busing. Today, more than a decade after the end of the Cold War, it’s hard to remember the extent of the domestic division over Central America. It wasn’t Vietnam, but the conflict was a hot issue in Congress and on college campuses, and the American foreign-policy establishment viewed it as a continuation of the Cold War. Reagan’s second term was dominated by the congressional inquiry into his administration’s plan to funnel the proceeds of secret Iranian arms sales to the right-wing Nicaraguan insurgent group, the contras. In 1987, Central American advocacy groups saw their Harvard Square offices broken into — an act they attributed to domestic espionage. Any congressman who entered the fray risked being plunged into controversy — especially an Irish politician from a lunch-bucket district. Yet Moakley did it anyway. His work led to the first arrests of members of the military in El Salvador and to several convictions in the early 1990s.
“He came to this as a local politician,” says Josh Rubenstein, the Northeast regional director of Amnesty International. “He got elected to Congress and these issues were not on his wavelength. At a time when political leaders at the highest level of the US government were apologists for murder, Moakley said he wasn’t going to have anything to do with that. Joe Moakley became the leading figure in exposing human-rights violations in Central America.”
Rubenstein, then a North End resident, remembers meeting Moakley in the 1970s during district visiting hours at the post office on Hanover Street. Rubenstein told Moakley of his affiliation with Amnesty, an organization that was not as well known then as it is now, and the congressman cut him off. “He said, ‘If you’ve got relatives up in Canada, write me a letter. I’ll try to do what I can for them,’” Rubenstein recalls. Apparently, Moakley had heard the word “amnesty” and assumed Rubenstein was talking about those who had fled to Canada to escape the military draft.
IT WASN’T easy to fit an international human-rights issue into a career guided by the famous words of Moakley’s mentor, Tip O’Neill: “All politics is local.” When Moakley’s former chief of staff, Representative Jim McGovern, offered a tribute to the congressman at a fundraising dinner at the Hynes Convention Center this past April, he hinted at how Moakley had made the connection. Like many politicians of his generation, McGovern noted, the congressman liked to leave a gift with people he’d met. Other legislators gave away books they had written. Moakley decided to give away the newest product of one of his district’s largest employers: Gillette’s Sensor razor. “From now on,” McGovern recalled Moakley saying, “whenever we meet with a general or a human-rights worker or a member of the guerrilla forces, I’ll leave a Sensor razor.... People’ll love it, and it’s a way to promote a company in my district.”
To Moakley’s way of thinking, the concerns of working people in South Boston and in El Salvador were knit together. While engaged in fact-finding behind guerrilla-controlled lines in the mountain village of Santa Marta, he met with the local townspeople. After the meeting, children from the village performed a song for him, and he was so moved that he sang a song for them — “Southie Is My Hometown.” In this way and others, Moakley showed that he understood the international situation on a human level. Guerrilla leaders later recalled that Moakley’s visit to the remote region helped push them to the negotiating table, according to McGovern. He quoted one leader as saying: “That’s when we realized the United States was getting serious about peace.”
As surprising as it might have seemed for Moakley to take on international affairs — in a 1991 speech, he characterized himself as “not one of those fellows who runs around the world telling other people how to run those countries” — a healthy strain of internationalism ran through Moakley’s generation of urban Irish politicians. “Growing up in South Boston, injustice doesn’t stop with your family,” says former Boston mayor Ray Flynn, also of South Boston. “The El Salvador situation was an example of how he was able to connect on issues of social and economic justice across the world.” Flynn bristles at those who regard Moakley’s work on international social justice as incongruous: “We’re surprised that people are surprised, but that’s us.”
People like Tip O’Neill were also concerned with Central America, says Chris Matthews, the host of MSNBC’s Hardball and a senior aide to O’Neill in the 1980s. “I know it sounds unlike what you’d expect from a politician who said all politics is local,” says Matthews. “[But] these are not people who sit back like Henry Kissinger and develop grand global strategies. They are men of liberal persuasion who identify with working people.” Adds Flynn: “Joe being a devout Catholic, he saw this as something that was what he believed in.”
THE ROMAN Catholic Church had in fact helped awaken Moakley’s interest in El Salvador. The Church had become frustrated by American complicity in Central American human-rights violations, says Flynn. Father J. Donald Monan, then the president of Boston College, had pushed for an American inquiry. Father Charles Beirne, then the vice-rector of the Jesuit-run University of Central America, worked closely with Moakley during his investigation and invited him to the campus to speak in July 1991. “The Jesuit fathers taught us that peace is better than war for the simple reason that life is better than death,” Moakley said in that address. “They taught us to value the dignity and to respect the rights of every human being, no matter how humble.”
Moakley’s work won him the featured role in a documentary about the killings in El Salvador, Enemies of War. (WGBX-TV 44 will air the documentary this Friday, June 1, at 9 p.m.) Esther Cassidy, the director of the film, met Moakley in early 1993 after returning from the memorial marking the third anniversary of the Jesuits’ murders. Cassidy, who found herself at the leftward end of the spectrum of progressive causes, had not voted in 20 years. At the time, she says, she “hadn’t heard about him at all.”
Cassidy asked Moakley how the constituents back in South Boston felt about his activities. “He said they were not for him. He said he took a lot of heat during the initial stages of his involvement,” she recalls. “But when they found out who killed the priests, they became supportive, because you don’t kill priests.”
Speaker Foley had turned to Moakley, the well-liked chairman of the powerful House Rules Committee, because he was somebody who came to the Central America issue without baggage. “He could defang the right wing and they wouldn’t take any BS from the left wing,” Cassidy says, recalling her findings in the documentary.
Indeed, Moakley went out of his way to follow his own path. He rejected the suggestion of an American role in the killings: “I believe those in El Salvador and in the United States who have suggested that our embassy orchestrated a cover-up of this murder case simply do not know what they are talking about,” he said in a statement of November 18, 1991. He also gave a degree of credit to the Salvadoran government for the actions it took to resolve the case. Throughout, Moakley pushed for peace, appealing to the guerrillas as well as the military. In his July 1991 speech at the University of Central America, he had this message for the guerrillas: “If you want our understanding, negotiate in good faith; end your campaign of sabotage — no more assassinations.”
Eventually, the situation in El Salvador did improve. In 1992, the government signed a peace treaty with the guerrillas that paved the way for democratic elections. In 1993, the United Nations established a Truth Commission for the country, the results of which echoed the findings of the Moakley Commission: that the Salvadoran military had been responsible for crimes such as the murder of the Jesuits.
Greater even than Moakley’s impact on El Salvador, though, may have been the influence he had on the political process itself. Today, politicians like Moakley have become increasingly rare. Cassidy says that in addition to being the subject of her film, he influenced her life — despite their differences on some political issues, such as abortion. “I didn’t believe in the American government,” she says. “I started voting again after meeting Congressman Moakley. He really converted me. I didn’t believe that there were people like Congressman Moakley in government. He didn’t take any baloney from anyone.”
So maybe we can say Moakley turned O’Neill’s saying on its head. He took international politics and made it local — one person at a time.
Seth Gitell can be reached at sgitell[a]phx.com.