The recent death of Father Robert Drinan — the first Roman Catholic priest to serve as a voting member of Congress, representing Newton and other suburbs west of Boston for 10 years beginning in 1971 — offers not only an opportunity to remember and celebrate his principled political spirit, but also cause to recollect the sorry state of affairs that led to his election.
FATHER KNEW BEST, about everything from the secret bombing of Cambodia to reproductive rights.
Drinan, then the dean of Boston College Law School, ran and was elected to the House of Representatives as an insurgent Democrat opposed to the unpopular war in Vietnam, a conflict begun in earnest by Democratic president Lyndon Johnson, but recklessly expanded and criminally prosecuted by his Republican successor, Richard Nixon.
Although Nixon was driven from office by the threat of impeachment — a result of the White House–sponsored burglary of the Democratic National Committee offices in the Watergate office complex — his secret and unconstitutional bombing of Cambodia was a far more grievous offense.
Then, as now, Congress was too cowardly to cut an imperial presidency down to size. But Drinan, a true voice crying in the wilderness, was unafraid of the gangster then in the White House, and unfazed by his Democratic colleagues who feared going to battle with a president who, in 1973, still enjoyed widespread political popularity.
In July of that year, Drinan introduced a resolution to impeach Nixon for the high crime of secretly bombing Cambodia — that is, illegally waging war without congressional approval. No one had the guts to co-sponsor Drinan’s resolution.
A year later, Watergate caught up with Nixon. And as a member of the House Judiciary Committee, Drinan played an active role in forcing Nixon’s exit. Still, Drinan was dismayed that the greater crime would go unpunished. “How,” Drinan asked, “can we impeach the president for concealing a burglary but not for concealing a massive bombing?”
Less well remembered was Drinan’s ardent support for reproductive choice. As a Catholic priest, Drinan was personally opposed to abortion. As an elected representative, he fought for legislation to protect a woman’s right to choose. It is widely thought that Drinan’s stance on this issue led Pope John Paul II to forbid clerics from holding elected office, a move that led Drinan, a Jesuit, to dutifully retire from Congress.
As a politician, Drinan was unusually irreverent. He wanted to run for Congress under the banner “Vote for Father Drinan or Go to Hell.” His young campaign manager, John Kerry (who 14 years later would win election to the US Senate), persuaded Drinan to adopt the tamer but still witty line “Father Knows Best.”
Drinan’s legacy is still alive in Massachusetts politics. His campaign, along with the political agitation of Jerome Grossman’s Citizens for Participatory Politics and the State House activism of a young state representative named Michael Dukakis, laid the foundation for the grassroots-insurgent tradition that helped elect Deval Patrick governor. In a time of despair, Drinan represented hope. That is a noble legacy.
When Manuel Rivera unexpectedly and unceremoniously backed out of his appointment as Boston’s next school chief, he did the city a favor — a painful one, but a favor nonetheless. His bogus and self-serving explanations aside, Rivera did not have the political skill and sense of mission required to consolidate the gains of the Payzant era while wrestling with the host of challenges that demand immediate attention.