The Boston Irish Honors 2016 for Distinguished Public Service: Paul G. Kirk, Jr.

Photo by Margaret Brett HastingsPhoto by Margaret Brett Hastings
His middle name is Grattan, after Henry Grattan, the Dublin orator who fought for Irish parliamentary freedom. Charles James Fox, the British leader, called him “the Irish Demosthenes.”

Paul G. Kirk Jr., a political leader and for 40 years confidant of the Kennedy clan, has seldom heard praise for his speechifying. As a captain in the US Army Reserve, he was known as a tough, fair officer. In his career as a political organizer and Senate aide, he was known for something unusual in Washington: silence.

“He’s an amazing listener,” according to Caroline Kennedy, US Ambassador to Japan. “It’s all about the work for him, not the credit.” That rare trait was cherished by her uncle, Edward M. Kennedy, who recruited the dark-haired young Bostonian after Kirk worked in Robert F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign of 1968.

“I’ll give it two years,” Kirk told Kennedy several times. The temporary assignment multiplied into decades as the senator came to depend on Kirk. In “True Compass,” Kennedy’s memoir, Kirk and his wife Gail make frequent appearances: at Harvard football games (Paul played on the varsity in the 1950s); at Thanksgiving and other family dinners in Hyannis Port; and sailing on Nantucket Sound.

The senator may also have been a matchmaker. Paul and Gail met when they were working in Kennedy’s Senate office. In the 1960s, senators often banned intra-office dating, but as Kennedy told me, “That’s a stuffy, old-fashioned custom. Gail and Paul are made for each other! You know that! What’s the Latin phrase?” “Amor vincit omnia? “Yes,” Kennedy roared. “Love conquers all!” 

Now 78, the Newton-born Kirk and Gail live on Cape Cod in Marston Mills.

The senator’s dependence on Kirk grew. Kennedy asked him to be his personal lawyer, representing him in divorce proceedings. After Kennedy’s death in 2009, Kirk was master of ceremonies at the televised funeral. Kirk also carried out the provisions of his friend’s last will and testament.

It seemed almost inevitable that when Gov. Deval Patrick was seeking to name someone to a short stay in Kennedy’s Senate seat, he considered many worthy names, but Massachusetts ended up with US Sen. Paul G. Kirk

As a young Kennedy aide, Kirk “was lucky enough” to make the acquaintance of Larry O’Brien of Springfield, a close adviser to President Kennedy, Postmaster General under President Johnson, and loyal son of the Mattoon Street neighborhood of Springfield, where he learned politics at the ward-and-precinct level.

O’Brien, who later became commissioner of the National Basketball Association, knew what a “ground game” relies upon. “Political organization is not complicated,” O’Brien would say, “but it is hard work, and not many people care to perform it 10 or 12 hours a day.”

Kirk listened in 1985 when friends urged him to seek the chairmanship of the Democratic National Committee. The party was still recovering from nominee Walter Mondale’s 49-state loss to President Reagan’s re-election effort. Even Massachusetts went the Gipper’s way; the Republican incumbent won 51 percent of the Bay State’s vote.

Running for national chairman is seldom easy. Among the half-dozen contenders Kirk faced were formidable opponents from the South and West. Former North Carolina governor Terry Sanford was supported by other Southern governors. California State Chairman Nancy Pelosi had been endorsed by New York’s governor, Mario Cuomo, and its senior senator, Daniel Patrick Moynihan. 

The Massachusetts candidate had the support of the most reliable voting bloc in the Kennedy era’s success in American politics: labor union members. With their help, Kirk won the chairmanship. 

In 1987, Nancy Pelosi was elected to Congress and went on to become the first female Speaker of the US House of Representatives. In her storied and formidable career, the only time she lost an election was to Paul Kirk.

As DNC chairman, he supervised get-out-the-vote efforts in the 1986 congressional elections when Democrats made a modest comeback, winning five House seats and eight in the Senate.

Kirk then became involved in shaping the future of American presidential politics. He listened in 1987 when a newly formed nonprofit group, the Commission on Presidential Debates, asked him and the chairman of the Republican National Committee, Frank J. Fahrenkopf, Jr., to serve together. Since 1976, presidential debates had lacked the two parties’ official endorsements and had been targets of candidate manipulation. 

Fahrenkopf, a Nevadan, was an ardent Reagan Republican but he and Kirk agreed to share the chairmanship. They became friends and remained so after Kirk left the commission in 2009.  

Kirk did not run for re-election at the DNC, returning home to Boston. He was a longtime member of the law firm of Sullivan & Worcester and became involved in civic causes, including chairmanship of the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation. He also served as a director of several companies, including ITT, Bradley Real Estate, and the Hartford Financial Services Group.
Today, Kirk serves as chairman, CEO, president, and treasurer of Kirk & Associates Inc. He is of counsel to the law firm Sullivan & Worcester, where he was a partner from 1977 to 1989.

A loyal alumnus of Harvard College and Harvard Law School, he has often returned to the playing fields of Cambridge. He is past chairman of the Harvard Board of Overseers nominating committee and is the chairman of the Harvard Overseers Committee to Visit the Department of Athletics. He has been a trustee of St. Sebastian’s School and at Stonehill College, which awarded him an honorary degree.

In 1999, his interest in football attracted Boston civic leaders who were alarmed at the prospect of the New England Patriots moving to a new home in Connecticut. Hartford was offering the NFL franchise a new stadium on the banks of the Connecticut River. 

Even though some NFL owners disliked the idea of swapping the Boston television market, the nation’s sixth largest, for the smaller Hartford market, the clock was ticking down in Foxborough.

Luck and an Irish connection intervened, as the New York Times explained on April 21, 1999:
“Blame it on Dan Rooney, the Pittsburgh Steelers’ owner. Last December, Rooney and Paul G. Kirk Jr., the former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, were at a reception honoring the Irish winners of the 1998 Nobel Peace Prize. They spoke about ‘’what a tragedy it would be if the Patriots left the area,’’ Rooney said. ‘’I said it didn’t look like anybody was doing anything,’’ he added, ‘’and Paul said it looked like a foregone conclusion that they’re gone. I said, ‘They still have to take it to the league.’ Paul took it from there.’’

Kirk’s Irish roots are in County Cavan and County Louth. On the Kirk side, his grandfather left Ireland at age 14 to seek his fortune in America. One of his sons, Paul G. Kirk Sr., became an associate justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Court. 

On his mother’s side, today’s honoree was an O’Connell, a family that settled in Lowell in the 1850s. One of its sons was Cardinal William Henry O’Connell, who presided over the archdiocese of Boston from 1907 to 1944.

After the death of Henry Grattan in 1820, the British writer Sydney Smith said, “No government ever dismayed him. The world could not bribe him. He thought only of Ireland.”

The Grattans, the Kirks, and the O’Connells could salute today’s Boston Irish Honoree in a bipartisan fashion with a favorite saying from Ronald Reagan of the Tipperary Reagans:

“There is no limit to what a man can do or where he can go if he does not mind who gets the credit.”

Martin F. Nolan was a reporter, editor, columnist, and editorial page editor at the Boston Globe during a 40-year career at the newspaper.