Kevin Cullen

A loyalty much richer than any bank account

By Kevin Cullen
Globe Columnist / November 7, 2010

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article

Your article has been sent.

Text size +

The Bunker Hill Day parade goes right by Gerry Doherty’s house in Charlestown, and one day in 1946 the parade stopped and a skinny guy walked into his house.

His name was Jack Kennedy.

“He was as thin as a straw,’’ Gerry Doherty said. “We didn’t think he’d last the parade.’’

James Michael Curley had resigned his congressional seat to become the mayor of Boston again, and Jack Kennedy, war hero, was running for it.

Gerry Doherty’s father, who never got past the third grade, stepped forward to shake Kennedy’s hand and told him, “My son here has just been accepted to Harvard.’’

Jack Kennedy, a Harvard man, turned to regard Gerry Doherty, his interest piqued.

“The next time I saw him was when he was running for Senate, and I worked for him,’’ Doherty said, picking at a chicken salad plate at the Parker House.

In fact, he would go on to work for all the Kennedy brothers — Jack, Bobby, and Teddy. Doherty, then a state rep, delivered campaign literature and, more important, votes for Jack when Jack ran for reelection to the senate. His ability to understand the street component of politics convinced President Kennedy that Doherty should be steering Teddy’s maiden Senate campaign in 1962.

Doherty prepared an analysis of Teddy’s chances, with some blunt advice. Jack Kennedy had Doherty fly down to the White House. Jack was going through it, point by point, when a helicopter landed on the South Lawn and he had to excuse himself to greet the British prime minister.

“Can you stay over and see Bobby tomorrow?’’ the president asked Doherty.

Bobby Kennedy, the attorney general, went through the analysis.

“You’ll run the convention,’’ Bobby Kennedy said.

Teddy won the Senate seat. Jack was assassinated. And then Bobby decided to run for Senate in New York, and he asked Gerry Doherty to work for him.

“Bobby told me he had a lot of issues people, but he didn’t have a lot of people who understood ordinary people,’’ Doherty said.

When Bobby ran for president, he asked Gerry Doherty to run Indiana for him. Bobby was scheduled to speak in a black neighborhood in Indianapolis on April 4, 1968. Bobby was in the air, flying to Indianapolis, when Martin Luther King Jr. was shot to death in Memphis.

Dick Lugar, then the mayor of Indianapolis, called Doherty and told him that Bobby had to cancel. They couldn’t guarantee his safety.

“No,’’ Doherty told Lugar. “He’s going to speak.’’

He knew Bobby Kennedy, and he knew Bobby was not going to pull out.

“The mayor wants you to cancel,’’ Doherty told Bobby Kennedy after the plane touched down.

“I can’t,’’ Kennedy replied.

“That’s fine,’’ Doherty said.

Bobby Kennedy broke the news to the crowd, whose gasps were silenced by one of the greatest impromptu speeches given by any American politician. Bobby reminded them that a white man killed his brother, too.

There were riots in 60 cities after King’s murder, but there were no riots in Indianapolis.

And then Bobby was gone, murdered like his brother, like Dr. King. Gerry Doherty continued to work for Teddy until Teddy died last year.

But when I say work, there is a need for clarification here. Doherty was a political consultant and strategist long before the title became part of the lexicon. And yet he never took a dime for any of that work, over five decades.

The subject of a salary came up once, in 1962. Doherty went to see his father and his father said this: “We do these things because we believe in it. Let them owe you.’’

Let them owe you. It made sense. And it worked. He was a state rep from 1957 to 1964, and he got jobs for his constituents and friends. Patronage wasn’t a dirty word back then. His law practice thrived after he left the state Legislature. But he never got paid for being one of the best intuitive political guys in the business.

Compare this to the guns-for-hire mentality of today’s consultants who believe in polls and focus groups and being paid a lot. Compare this to John McCain’s consultants who bad-mouthed Sarah Palin after McCain lost the presidency. Compare this to Tim Cahill’s strategists who jumped his ship and sold him out to a competitor in the middle of the just concluded Massachusetts gubernatorial campaign.

“There’s no loyalty today,’’ Gerry Doherty was saying. “These consultants don’t know any more than the corner grocer. And they’ll cross lines for money. It’s about money now, not loyalty, not ideas. If they want to save democracy, they should make it illegal to hire consultants.’’

The partisanship of politicians makes the cynicism of consultants worse, Doherty says.

“Back in our day, a guy would tell you, ‘I can’t vote with you on this, but maybe on something else,’ ’’ he said.

He considers Charlestown’s skating rink his greatest legislative achievement. And he got it only because Republicans helped him, a lifelong Democrat.

Tomorrow night, there will be hundreds of people at the Kennedy Library, celebrating the day when, 50 years ago, Jack Kennedy was elected president.

The old-timers who worked for the Kennedys for something more than money are dying off. Last week, it was Ted Sorensen, Jack’s speechwriter. Dick Donahue is hanging in there, but he’s not getting any younger.

Neither is Gerry Doherty. But, at 82, he’s still got his fastball. And he’ll be at the library, remembering not just a president, but a time when loyalty was worth more than all the money in the world.

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at