Philip W. Johnston, a former chairman of the Massachusetts Democratic Party, always knew how to spot a winner.
The knack surfaced as a teenager. At 14, he wrote to a junior senator from Massachusetts, urging him to run for president. The senator promptly replied, "I am grateful for your many thoughtful remarks about my career. At the present time, I'm a candidate only for reelection to the Senate from Massachusetts. I have no idea what the future may bring, but it is good to know of your friendship. Every good wish." The letter, dated May 27, 1958, was signed by John F. Kennedy, and is now framed in Johnston's stately Boston office, overlooking 99 Summer Street.
The exchange marked the beginning of a close association between the Kennedy family and Johnston, former New England Administrator for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services under President Clinton, former Secretary of Health and Human Services under Gov. Michael Dukakis, and a five-term Massachusetts lawmaker with a distinguished, wide-ranging resume and enough political memorabilia to fill a museum. A history major early on at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst with a master of arts degree from the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, Johnston has chosen to live history in ways that edify. He sits on the board of the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute, is chairman of the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights, and was founder of the Robert F. Kennedy Children's Action Corps, a leader in promoting child welfare and juvenile justice in Massachusetts.
The head of Philip W. Johnston Associates, a leading public affairs and strategic communications consulting firm with offices in Boston, New York, and Washington, D.C., he has done more for health reform in Massachusetts than just about anyone, with the exception of Ted Kennedy, who was a close friend and mentor - a man with an "energy gene," as Johnston says. Johnston also is chairman of the Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts Foundation and the Massachusetts Health Policy Forum, and sits on the boards of the University of Massachusetts, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts, and the Massachusetts Medicaid Policy Institute. In addition, he was appointed by President Obama to the President's Commission on White House Fellowships.
At 65, Johnston is cranking away like a man half his age. "I always tell people I get either bored or depressed if I don't have a hundred balls in the air," he says. A cursory survey of his office with its scores of plaques, citations, photos, framed newspaper clips, and other keepsakes indicates that none of the balls have been dropped. "I think when I leave some day, they'll have a big bonfire," he jokes.
Hardly. The mementos tell the story of five decades of vision, accomplishment, and public service, reinforced by those in the front row. "In all my career, I've never seen such impressive organization and unity among Democrats," Ted Kennedy in November 2006 wrote the state Democratic chairman in congratulations for an exceptional campaign. In appreciation of Johnston's fine work with the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial, Ethel Kennedy extolled on a 1968 Time Magazine cover of her late husband, "To Phil, with love, thanks and admiration."
Johnston's office suite is lined with photos and autographed inscriptions from political rock stars, present and former. As he walks a hallway, he pauses to gape at one of them. "I'll have to take that one down," he observes in critical reference to a photo of the former North Carolina senator and Democratic vice presidential nominee John Edwards. The photo is facing a framed 1978 Boston Globe story detailing how Johnston and his buddy Andrew Card, then a colleague in the Legislature, advocated for an independent investigative commission to probe the New York-based construction management firm of McKee-Berger-Mansueto. In 1969, the company, known as MBM, won a contract to supervise the construction of the new UMass-Boston campus on Dorchester Bay. Investigations ultimately showed that MBM had bribed its way to a contract by laundering key political contributions. Just weeks ago, Common Cause, at its 40th anniversary, honored Johnston and Card for their significant efforts to reform state government. "I called Andy when I heard about the award, and told him I didn't think anyone remembered," says Johnston, noting that he was invited to the White House more often while George W. Bush was president and Card held sway as White House chief of staff than when he had worked for Clinton.
For a guy who has achieved so much behind the scenes in the arenas of government reform, health care, human services, and social justice, Johnston's public persona, by intent, is unassuming. Self-deprecating, Johnston is reticent to talk about himself. He's clearly more comfortable reflecting on the role models that define him. The long, impressive list starts with his namesake, his paternal grandfather, Philip W. Johnston, who in 1881 emigrated at age three from Sligo to Worcester with his widowed mother.
The luck of the Irish was not with the Johnstons at first. His grandfather and mother were turned away by older siblings in Fitchburg because the family didn't have enough money to feed them. "So they ended up on Belmont Hill in Worcester in a shack," says Johnston. "My grandfather left school in the second grade to help support his mother." Perseverance was at the root of the family tree. "A generation later, his son—my father—received a doctorate in psychology and physics from Harvard."
Johnston's father, Philip W. II, also grew up in Worcester. He married Elizabeth Mary Foley, daughter of a prominent local doctor with close ties to County Kerry. The couple moved to Natick, then Wellesley, to raise a family a short commute from Boston where his dad supervised the maternal and child health section at the state Department of Public Health (DPH) on Broad Street. Johnston's mother, a former teacher, stayed home to raise five children: Kate, Beth, Cindy, young Philip W. III ("trips" in an uppity Yankee family), Cindy, and Suzanne.
Johnston inherited his father's great passion for politics and his mother's bent for fairness and equality. Both were devout Catholics, but his father, a tough, bright and compassionate man, lost his faith in combat. "He left the church during World War II when his best friend was blown up next to him," notes Johnston. "He questioned everything about religion, then returned to church the day John Kennedy died."
Both his parents were avid Democrats, "Rooseveltians," as Johnston calls them, or Roosevelt Democrats, as many of our fathers would say. "My father loved Jack Kennedy," says Johnston. "They were similar in some ways: Irish, Catholic, Harvard, and Navy guys. I told Ethel recently that my father respected Kennedy because he was a hero, because of his courage in the war. My dad had no use for James Michael Curley. He thought Curley made the Irish look bad."
Throughout Johnston's childhood, talk of politics filled the dinner table as much as any meal. But it was his parents' remarkable example, those incredible teaching moments, that affected him most, like the day the pastor came to their Natick home with a petition to discourage a black couple from moving into the neighborhood. "'If those people buy a home in this neighborhood, next to the church, the church property will decline,'" Johnston quotes the pastor as saying. "I was seven years old at the time, looking up at my parents. It was a key moment. They could have gone either way. They could have been intimidated, and signed the petition." Johnston's father was unyielding. "You call yourself a priest!" he scolded the pastor, then swiftly threw him out of the house.
A few years later, the family moved to Wellesley, a town where women who were accepted to Wellesley College received a tuition-free education. Two of Johnston's sisters attended the school. Brahmin Wellesley neighbors were appalled when the family first moved in. "Most had never lived next to Catholics and Democrats," says Johnston. "A few years later, some of them moved out. They thought the riffraff had arrived."
Johnston played sports in Wellesley as a youth (a pitcher in youth leagues and a swimmer), but unlike most kids his age in the community, he had to work—bagging groceries at Star Market and flipping burgers at Sunshine Dairy. At Wellesley High School, his parents' dedication to social justice led Johnston to become involved in an organization called the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), one of the principal organizations of the Civil Rights Movement. A child of the 60s, Johnston has never left the generation or its core values.
At UMass-Amherst, Johnston continued his activism, and upon graduation, he became a social worker in Boston. He also volunteered for the 1968 presidential campaign of Robert F. Kennedy. He was assigned to advance work in New York, a critical state for Kennedy; Johnston had secured the position with Worcester connections through Kenny O'Donnell, Kennedy's campaign manager and former top aide to JFK. "I met Bobby in 1968 in New York," Johnston recalls. "My first impression of him was: hair, teeth, and extraordinary charisma! Bobby Kennedy has been a constant in my career. That's how I started and that's how I'll end—focused on Kennedy's issues of justice and fairness. His greatest gift, I think, was bringing poor whites and poor blacks together. Too often they are divided by politics. The right wing has been adept in telling working class whites that their enemy is black people. The reverse is true. Their enemy is rich white people."
Johnston, a longtime Marshfield resident, is simpatico in his views with his wife of 45 years, Beverly (Balestrieri). A former social worker, Beverly does volunteer work for the Boys and Girls Club in Marshfield. The couple has two children: Ellen, who works with Johnston, and Robert Martin (named after Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King), a New York attorney who heads the New York Executive Council, representing a group of technology and health companies.
Highly skilled at deflection, Johnston two hours into an interview redirects a question about his legacy on health care reform and social issues, and talks instead of role models again. It's a way, an observer senses, of taking measure of himself in the greatness of others. One gets the impression that such purposeful reflection keeps him self-effacing and ever passionate. "We've lost our bearing," he says. "We seem to keep repeating the same mistakes. I never thought, for example, that I'd see two Vietnams in my life. Now we have Iraq, and perhaps a third Vietnam in Afghanistan. Years ago we had the civil rights movement; today we have the anti-immigration protest. When my grandfather landed in Boston 129 years ago, no one stopped him at the dock to say you can't come here. I find it disturbing that racism and jingoism have raised their ugly heads."
Concedes Johnston, "I still have a limitless capacity for outrage."
He acknowledges, however, that "We've seen a lot of positive change." He pauses for a second to glance at the phone that's lighting up like the Fourth of July on the Charles. More balls flung into the air on health care and equality fronts. "I'm pleased with the change," he notes in a moment of shared self-reflection. "But it's just simply not enough!"
Greg O'Brien is president of Stony Brook Group, a publishing and political/communication strategy company based in Brewster. He is the author/editor of several books and contributes to various regional and national publications.