O'Brien, Lawrence Francis, Jr. ("Larry")
O'BRIEN, Lawrence Francis, Jr. ("Larry")
(b. 7 July 1917 in Springfield, Massachusetts; d. 28 September 1990 in New York City), Democratic political strategist, government official, and congressional liaison in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, who as postmaster general developed a plan to reorganize the United States Post Office as a quasi-government corporation.
O'Brien, a Roman Catholic of Irish descent, was the older of two children of Lawrence Francis O'Brien, Sr., a café owner and local Democratic politician, and his wife, Myra (Sweeney) O'Brien. Lawrence, Sr., and Myra were immigrants from County Cork in Ireland. O'Brien was born to politics because the Roland Hotel, the boardinghouse and restaurant his father owned, was the informal Democratic headquarters in western Massachusetts. Politicians like James Michael Curley, the mayor of Boston, and David I. Walsh, the first Irish-American U.S. senator from Massachusetts, came to the Roland to meet with local Democratic leaders.
While helping with the family business and assisting with his father's political activities, O'Brien enrolled in the night extension program of Northeastern University in 1937. He completed an LL.B in 1942, although he never practiced law. The U.S. Army drafted him, but because of his poor eyesight he was assigned as a clerk at Camp Edwards, Massachusetts. In 1944, while still in the army, he married Elva Brassard. Shortly after being discharged in 1945 he managed the first of two congressional campaigns for his friend Foster Furcolo. In 1946 Furcolo was narrowly defeated, but in 1948 he was elected, and O'Brien became his administrative assistant in Washington, D.C. O'Brien returned to Springfield in 1950 after breaking with Furcolo. In 1952 a young congressman, John F. Kennedy, asked O'Brien to organize a statewide campaign against the Republican senator from Massachusetts, Henry Cabot Lodge. Kennedy was elected with O'Brien's organizational assistance, but O'Brien refused an opportunity to move to Washington, D.C., as a Senate aide. He remained in contact with Kennedy, working to maintain the senator's stature in Massachusetts.
In 1959 O'Brien joined the Kennedy for President campaign. He exhibited a gift for turning finite campaign resources into a large number of votes. The classic example is the West Virginia primary in which Kennedy faced Minnesota Senator Hubert Humphrey. O'Brien devised a plan to use the state's housewives to mobilize primary voters. Because these women were at home during the day, he gave volunteers lists of 300 names, a short statement, and allowed them to use their own phones to call voters. The campaign was able to reach thousands of voters at little cost. O'Brien wrote two campaign manuals for the Democratic National Committee: Citizens for Kennedy and Johnson: Campaign Manual (1960) and The Democratic Campaign Manual 1964 (1964). In reviewing the 1960 primary campaign, Kennedy named O'Brien "the best election man in the business."
Kennedy asked O'Brien to become special assistant to the president for congressional relations, the president's lobbyist to Congress. O'Brien applied many of the techniques he used to win campaigns in developing the Office of Congressional Relations. The office kept track of members of Congress, their constituencies, and pet projects. With this information O'Brien disbursed presidential patronage efficiently and effectively. After President Kennedy's assassination in Dallas, Texas, on 22 November 1963, the new president, Lyndon B. Johnson, asked O'Brien to stay on as congressional liaison. O'Brien also managed Johnson's successful 1964 reelection campaign.
The Johnson administration had a full agenda of domestic policy programs as well as foreign policy issues, especially the war in Vietnam. O'Brien was given significant latitude to shepherd the domestic legislation, known as the Great Society, through Congress. In 1965, for example, the Office of Congressional Relations was able to secure passage of the Higher Education Act over the objections of conservative members of Congress. Conservatives were concerned that the law gave scholarships to students who would otherwise have to work to pay for their education. Other bills that passed during O'Brien's tenure as congressional liaison included those creating the Peace Corps and the Alliance for Progress, Medicare, the model cities program, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, various voting rights legislation, and a nuclear test ban treaty.
By 1965 O'Brien was ready to return to the private sector. Johnson convinced him to stay in Washington, D.C., by appointing him postmaster general, a cabinet position. He was able to continue his legislative work as well as develop a new direction for the Post Office. As postmaster general, O'Brien suggested to Congress that the Post Office become a quasi-governmental corporation. Congress balked at the suggestion until 1969, but he was able to introduce greater mechanization as one way to reduce costs at the Post Office.
O'Brien resigned from the Johnson cabinet in April 1968 in order to manage Senator Robert F. Kennedy's campaign for president. After Kennedy was assassinated in June 1968, O'Brien returned to Springfield "with nothing to do and nothing I wanted to do." Vice President Hubert Humphrey convinced him to lead the Humphrey for President campaign through the primary and general election as well as serve as chairman of the Democratic National Committee. Richard Nixon defeated Humphrey in November 1968.
For the remainder of the decade O'Brien managed his own public relations and management consulting firm, O'Brien Associates. Among the firm's clients was Hughes Enterprises, the conglomerate owned by the reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes. O'Brien returned to politics in 1970 as the chairman of the Democratic National Committee. A target of President Nixon's reelection apparatus, he endured three audits by the Internal Revenue Service. On 17 June 1972 five men were arrested while replacing listening devices in O'Brien's Democratic National Committee office in the Watergate complex. These men were eventually determined to be agents of Nixon's reelection campaign committee; the subsequent cover-up and investigation led to Nixon's resignation in 1974.
Retiring as Democratic National Committee chairman after the Democratic Convention in July 1972, he returned to O'Brien Associates. He also wrote his memoir, No Final Victories: A Life in Politics—From John F. Kennedy to Watergate(1974). In 1975 O'Brien became the commissioner of the National Basketball Association and lent his organizational talents to the growth and stabilization of the league. Retiring from that position on 1 February 1984, O'Brien spent the last years of his life in New York City, where he died of cancer. His wife and their son survived him. He is buried in St. Michael's Cemetery in Springfield, Massachusetts.
O'Brien's political papers can be found at the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston, Massachusetts, and at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library in Austin, Texas. His memoir, No Final Victories: A Life in Politics—From John F. Kennedy to Watergate (1974), provides insight into his role as presidential adviser and Democratic Party operative. Nigel Bowles, The White House and Capitol Hill: The Politics of Presidential Persuasion (1987) is a scholarly examination of O'Brien's role as a congressional liaison. Patrick Anderson examines O'Brien's role as a presidential adviser in The President's Men: White House Assistants of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, and Lyndon B. Johnson (1968). Obituaries are in the New York Times and the Washington Post (both 29 Sept. 1990). The Lawrence F. O'Brien Oral History Interview is available at both the Kennedy and Johnson presidential libraries.
John David Rausch, Jr.