Machine Man: Barratt O’Hara of Illinois

By Ray Hill

There have been numerous political machines throughout the country; some infamous still to this day. Most of those political machines were to be found in big cities. Tennessee had two active political machines, both of which thrived for a period of time. The best-known of course was that headed by Edward H. “Boss” Crump. Of less notoriety was the machine run by Hilary Howse of Nashville. There was the machine of Frank Hague whose defiant utterance, “I am the law!” has been much written about and frequently quoted. Perhaps the most notable political machine in American history is Tammany Hall, especially under the notorious Boss Tweed. There was also a formidable political machine in Chicago; more than one in fact. The most durable was that founded by Patrick Nash, a man who became wealthy through contracts with the City of Chicago, and Edward J. Kelly, who rose from sewer worker to mayor. The Kelly-Nash machine selected officeholders from aldermen to governors and United States senators. There were those instances where they also made men president of the United States, most notably John F. Kennedy in 1960. The Kelly-Nash machine came under the control of Richard J. Daley when he became mayor of Chicago. One of the rewards given by the machine locally was a seat in Congress. Most ambitious politicians preferred a seat on the Board of Aldermen to that in the U.S. House of Representatives. While the machine sent some bright young men to the House, it also gave a seat here and there to aging ward healers who had been faithful to the political organization. One such man was Barratt O’Hara.

O’Hara lived a long and colorful life. As with most lives, Barratt O’Hara’s had its ups and downs, but the Irishman had a veritable zest for living. O’Hara had played football in high school, a normal enough experience for most teenage boys, but by fifteen, he was a corporal in the Spanish-American War, landing in Cuba three days after Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders. At fourteen, he had gone with his father, a Berrien County Circuit Court judge, to Nicaragua to map territory. The elder O’Hara had received a presidential commission from Grover Cleveland to go to the Latin American country to survey a prospective route for a canal linking the Pacific and Atlantic oceans.

Eventually, Barratt O’Hara settled in as a reporter, working in St. Louis and Chicago. At age twenty-one, O’Hara was the sports editor for the Chicago American. Sometime later, he went to work as an editor at a competing Chicago daily, the Examiner. It was while working as a reporter and editor that Barratt O’Hara began attending classes at the Chicago-Kent College of Law. When America entered the First World War, Barratt O’Hara became an officer and went to France. After returning home from the war, O’Hara practiced law. By age thirty, O’Hara had been elected lieutenant governor of Illinois and was the youngest person to be elected to that position. O’Hara was also a part of a radio program where he spoke up for the Democratic Party and organized labor.

While in Congress, Barratt O’Hara was most proud of his perfect attendance record. Once when headed to his office one snowy day, the congressman slipped on the ice and ripped his trousers. “I went anyway,” O’Hara later recalled.

For eleven years, Congressman Barratt O’Hara answered every roll call but one. That was because his friend James Bowler had died, and he attended the funeral. Evidently the only thing that could stop O’Hara from showing up for work was death. O’Hara readily acknowledged it was “unreasonable” for the folks back home to expect a congressman to maintain a 100% attendance record, but he also insisted a representative’s record should never fall below 90% without some calamity having occurred.

It was while practicing law Barratt O’Hara gained recognition from the leaders of the Chicago political machine. He and his law partner, William A. Saxon, did a bustling business representing the city in matters relating to subway construction and traction litigation. O’Hara made periodic attempts to return to public office, at various times seeking the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate and the gubernatorial nomination in 1920. Those and another attempt to regain the lieutenant governor’s office all ended in defeat. Eventually, Barratt O’Hara was put forward as a candidate for the Democratic nomination to represent Illinois’ Second District in the U.S. House of Representatives against incumbent Republican Congressman Richard B. Vail in 1948. The Democratic ticket ran strongly in the Land of Lincoln in 1948 and Barratt O’Hara nudged Congressman Vail out of office narrowly. Former Congressman Richard Vail sought a rematch in 1950 and beat O’Hara decisively. 1952 saw the third match between Barratt O’Hara and Richard Vail and although Republicans were running very well in Illinois, they weren’t running as well in Chicago. O’Hara won again by a small margin. The last grudge match between Barratt O’Hara and Richard Vail was fought in the 1954 election. This time the result was definitive. O’Hara had managed to entrench himself in Congress and won better than 60% of the ballots cast and ended the political career of Richard Vail. O’Hara’s percentage of the vote dipped a bit in 1956 when Dwight Eisenhower was winning in Illinois easily, but after that, the congressman was never again seriously challenged in either the Democratic primary or general elections until the end of his legislative career.

Barratt O’Hara could regale any number of people with his recollections, both the common man and kings and presidents. O’Hara charmed John F. Kennedy by recalling stories about his beloved grandfather, John “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald, for whom he was named. “I told him one day he got his sweetness from his mother’s father, who was mayor of Boston at one time,” Barratt O’Hara remembered after the president’s murder. “We were always friendly and about two weeks before he was killed, he served as a guide when I took several constituents through the White House. When we left, he said, ‘Barratt knew my grandfather.’ Those were the last words I heard him say.”

A highly partisan Democrat, Barratt O’Hara was once asked why he had moved from Berrien County, the congressman thought for a moment before answering. He snapped he had moved “because there were too damned many Republicans in Berrien County.” Yet he was very warm personal friends with Clare Hoffman, an arch-conservative congressman from Michigan.

If a career can be made by a political machine, so, too, can it be ended by the same machine. Barratt O’Hara turned eighty-six on April 28, 1968, but one reporter wrote that “the wolves” were already “howling” after Congressman O’Hara. Bob Seltzner, editor of the Daily Calumet acknowledged O’Hara’s “legs aren’t nimble, and he is a bit stooped when he stands, and he doesn’t chase up and down the stairs” yet his “booming voice in public address” seemed to be an indication of his remaining vitality. There were rumors the Daley machine would “dump” the congressman who wanted a 10th term. And as is always the case when there is an elderly incumbent, a host of younger prospective candidates waited in the wings, ready to pounce if the opportunity presented itself. Some Democrats fretted it would be awkward to try and unseat 72-year-old Senator Everett Dirksen in 1968 while backing an 86-year-old congressman for reelection.

After quite nearly having beaten Congressman Barratt O’Hara, who had the machine endorsement in the 1966 Democratic primary, Abner Mikva remained eager to go to Congress. During the two years following his defeat, Mikva was supposedly courting Mayor Daley, a rumor Mikva always hotly denied.

Another handicap for the sitting congressman was the fact the Daley organization always raised the necessary money for Barratt O’Hara’s campaign. Loss of the machine’s endorsement meant the incumbent would have to raise campaign funds himself, something he had never done during his eighteen years in Congress. Bun Borrowdale, one of O’Hara’s most vocal supporters in the district, told a reporter, “The Congressman has never coveted someone else’s position. He might have some reservations if someone were to covet his position.”

Barratt O’Hara was the oldest member of Congress when he began his campaign for renomination in 1968. After his close call inside the Democratic primary in 1966 and with Abner Mikva running once again, the machine thought it better to give the younger candidate the nomination. The ward captains voted not to endorse Congressman O’Hara for the Democratic nomination. For the first time in twenty years, Barratt O’Hara’s name would not appear on the machine’s list of endorsed candidates. Mayor Richard J. Daley called President Lyndon Johnson to ask that some post be found for O’Hara, perhaps as an alternate delegate to the United Nations.

Not one to take things lying down, Barratt O’Hara refused to bow to the will of the machine. The 86-year-old congressman stubbornly insisted upon running again without the endorsement of the machine. Friends and supporters tried to reason with O’Hara. Backers warned the congressman he could not possibly expect to beat the Daley machine. Even as the returns showed him losing badly, Congressman O’Hara said he felt sure he could have won yet again had only the people come out to vote.

Age and time had caught up with him and Barratt O’Hara ran a very distant second to Abner Mikva in the Democratic primary and won only 26% of the vote. A tearful O’Hara acknowledged defeat.

The Chicago Tribune printed a story noting tears came easily to the aging congressman, although O’Hara insisted he was not bitter about his defeat. Congressman O’Hara insisted he was proud of the thousands of votes he had received while waging a “poverty-stricken campaign.” The reporter thought the defeat stung more than the congressman conceded. O’Hara said his loss in the primary was “a real relief.” The Tribune reporter believed the mist in the eyes of the old congressman belied the statement. When the three bells rang signaling a vote in the House, O’Hara looked at an aide and said, “Thank God, I don’t have to worry about those anymore.” A few hours later, the bells rang three times once again. Barratt O’Hara worked on his correspondence and stayed at his desk. “I knew they weren’t key votes,” O’Hara told the reporter, “or I’d have gone over.”

For a decade, O’Hara had spent most of his time as a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, an odd assignment for a Chicago congressman. For a decade, Barratt O’Hara had headed the subcommittee on Africa. Not surprisingly, O’Hara was the last veteran of the Spanish-American War to sit in Congress.

O’Hara told the reporter of his growing fear of other countries acquiring nuclear capabilities, especially China. “The night a group of us was called to the White House to be told about the capture of the Pueblo, we all knew how close we could be to World War III,” Congressman O’Hara recalled.

Long a widower, Barratt O’Hara did not return home to live in Chicago but rather chose to remain in Washington, D.C. The old war horse apparently couldn’t bear to leave what had become his home. Although he owned a home in the Windy City, O’Hara continued living in his apartment at the old Congressional Hotel. Yet once out of the House of Representatives, the former congressman began ailing. O’Hara entered Georgetown University Hospital where he slipped away, dying from congestive heart failure at age eighty-seven. Barrett O’Hara Jr. laid the blame for his father’s passing squarely on the machine. The Daley machine having refused to endorse Barratt O’Hara in 1968 had broken the congressman’s heart, his son said.

After his death, Barratt O’Hara was remembered in an editorial in the Benton Harbor, Michigan Herald-Palladium as “a gutty patriot, a good-hearted human being, a loyal friend, a charming person who lifted the spirits of those around him. . .” The editorial noted O’Hara was “a remarkable man.” “One who was a distinguished credit to his native heath and to the art of living.”

© 2024 Ray Hill