REP. JOE MOAKLEY: Hi, how are you? Good. Nice to see you. It's a great day, huh?
MAN: It's beautiful. It's beautiful.
REP. JOE MOAKLEY: St. Patrick is doing us fine today, isn't he?
KWAME HOLMAN: Joe Moakley is recognized instantly at South Boston gathering places like Castle Island.
REP. JOE MOAKLEY: How are you?
REP. JOE MOAKLEY: Sure, sure. How are you?
MAN: John Donovan.
REP. JOE MOAKLEY: Yeah sure. I remember all the Donovans, down there.
MAN: Yeah, yeah.
KWAME HOLMAN: In Massachusetts' Democratic-dominated political world, Moakley is a loved figure. He's spent a lifetime in elective office -- the last 29 years in Congress -- doing hands-on constituent service on behalf of South Boston's largely blue-collar residents.
REP. JOE MOAKLEY: I'll say a prayer for you.
KWAME HOLMAN: Moakley always is available to locate needed housing, secure a college placement, or arrange for a job.
REP. JOE MOAKLEY: Oh, sure. Now are you Jenny's daughter?
WOMAN: No. I'm Henry's niece, Bill's daughter.
REP. JOE MOAKLEY: Oh, Bill's. Okay.
REP. JOE MOAKLEY: Because Henry just passed on...
WOMAN: Yeah, he did.
REP. JOE MOAKLEY: ...Not too long ago. I know it's terrible. So it's Jenny and Henry are my friends for years.
WOMAN: No, I know. My sister-in-law Janet used to work for you.
REP. JOE MOAKLEY: Oh, sure, sure. That's right.
WOMAN: How are you doing?
REP. JOE MOAKLEY: Good. Now are you still up the library, are you?
WOMAN: Yes, I am. I didn't know you knew that.
REP. JOE MOAKLEY: I know a few things.
REP. JOE MOAKLEY: I am the U.S. government. There's only two people that our constituents see that represent the U.S. government. One is the postman and me. Well, they're not going to tell the postman their troubles, so I get them. And being in this business since 1952, I'm used to doing... you know, interceding and being the ombudsman, and I don't... I would love to say I'm a legislator, or a parliamentarian, or anything else, but the truth is I'm a servant of the people, and as a servant, whatever they call off that menu is what I try to do.
KWAME HOLMAN: But these days there's an extra handshake, or hug, a shout of "Good luck, Joe." Earlier this year, Moakley announced he won't seek a 15th term in the House because he has leukemia. His cancer can't be treated because of drugs he takes to support a liver transplant.
MAN: You look good.
REP. JOE MOAKLEY: I feel good. You know, God is good and I just hope that the doctors are going to miss their objective this time. You know, seven years ago, they told me I had two months to live and we beat that, so...
MAN: You're in our prayers.
REP. JOE MOAKLEY: Oh, thank you. Thanks, Rick.
KWAME HOLMAN: Like his constituents, Joe Moakley's colleagues in Congress view him with affection, but also with respect, as one of the most effective legislators there is. Moakley operates mostly behind Congress' closed doors and has avoided the national spotlight. But his pending retirement set off a rediscovery of the proud liberal, and he now is getting kind of recognition and credit many say he long deserved. It began with President Bush's address to Congress in February.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: My budget also increases funding for medical research, which gives hope to many who struggle with serious disease. Our prayers tonight are with one of your own who is engaged in his own fight against cancer, a fine representative and a good man, Congressman Joe Moakley. (Applause)
KWAME HOLMAN: House leaders quickly called up a resolution naming South Boston's new federal courthouse after Joe Moakley. Some two dozen members testified.
REP. JACK QUINN: I do not know Joe Moakley's district exactly -- I will tell you, Joe -- and I know you like to be called a regular guy, which you are, but I have a feeling that that district back there in Massachusetts, when you care about the rest of the regular guys, you're caring about the teachers. You're caring about the cab drivers and the truck drivers. You're caring about the electricians and the carpenters. You're caring about the people that really make this country what it is.
KWAME HOLMAN: And last month, President Bush devoted his very first Rose Garden signing ceremony to the Moakley Courthouse Bill. Moakley employed his signature self-deprecating humor.
REP. JOE MOAKLEY: I always thought, growing up, that my name would be on some federal building, but I thought it might be written in chalk with some political expletive right behind it. (Laughter) I feel fine. On a day like this, the good Lord is sharing his sunshine with us and allowed the president to have this in this wonderful, wonderful Rose Garden... and these are memories that I'll take with me.
TOM OLIPHANT: Mr. Moakley is a great yarn. It's a great story about somebody who came up out of a neighborhood and became a major national figure, really by the sweat on his brow.
KWAME HOLMAN: Boston Globe columnist Tom Oliphant has observed and admired Joe Moakley from his earliest days.
TOM OLIPHANT: The reason that everybody is paying attention to Mr. Moakley's departure is that he has been such a significant player behind the scenes, involving some of the most important questions of the last 20 and 30 years -- every big domestic policy argument you can think about, whether it's Medicare, tax cuts, budgets, and all the rest of it.
KWAME HOLMAN: As a top lieutenant of the Democratic leadership, Moakley wields that quiet influence from the Rules Committee, which dictates the course of all house legislation.
SPOKESPERSON: This is going to be tomorrow...
KWAME HOLMAN: He delivered on party priorities as committee chairman until Republicans won House control in 1994. Now he is the top-ranking Democrat. Moakley is a clear partisan. But he's earned the respect of members across party and ideology. Twice his colleagues voted him most popular member. Moakley says his legislative success grows out of his commitment to civility.
REP. JOE MOAKLEY: Many of the things that I get through, people say the only reason we voted for this is because of you. And many votes are cast in Congress because of the personality of a person. Unfortunately, I've seen bright, bright people who are so acerbic that they couldn't get a library card passed in the Congress. And then other people who get pretty good legislation because they work so hard at it, and they're liked, they can get better results.
KWAME HOLMAN: Though Moakley's usual portfolio is bread-and-butter domestic issues, he played a pivotal role in reversing U.S. support for El Salvador's then-repressive government during that country's civil war in the late 1980s. But Moakley's involvement in that period's hottest foreign policy debate arose typically, from a plea for help from his constituents.
REP. JIM McGOVERN: It all began with a group of Salvadoran refugees coming to visit him in his Boston office, and talking to him about what was going on in their country, and about how they feared going back, and they asked him for help. And that was the beginning of his involvement.
KWAME HOLMAN: Jim McGovern got his start working in Joe Moakley's office. He's now a third-term Massachusetts Congressman. He helped Moakley investigate the killing of six Jesuit priests in El Salvador. Eventually American policy changed, setting the stage for a new U.S. approach toward all of central America.
REP. JIM McGOVERN: He fought for years, until he was finally successful, to pass a bill that would suspend all the deportations of Salvadoran refugees in this country, because he believed, and I think he was right on this, that sending them back in the middle of the war was the wrong thing to do.
KWAME HOLMAN: Tom Oliphant says El Salvador provided a rare public glimpse of Joe Moakley at work.
TOM OLIPHANT: You did get a taste of him in action, and particularly after the mass murder of those priests, the dispatching of his aide and protégé, Jim McGovern -- who is now a Congressman -- down there; the relentless insistence on getting to the bottom of the murders, producing the discovery that the death squads had government support and were involved in this, and then at that moment using it, in effect, to make further assistance to that government politically impossible, which in turn created the climate that led to the negotiated settlement of the war.
KWAME HOLMAN: John Joseph Moakley was born into South Boston's Irish American enclave 74 years ago. At 15, he joined the Navy and served three years in the South Pacific. But it was at the right arm of another legendary Boston Democrat, former House Speaker Tip O'Neill, that Moakley honed his political skills.
REP. JOE MOAKLEY: 1952, I was first elected to the Mass. House. Speaker O'Neill was elected to the U.S. House that same year, and a young fellow named Jack Kennedy was elected to the U.S. Senate. That was a good year, 1952.
KWAME HOLMAN: But 20 years later, Moakley faced what he calls his most difficult time in politics. Many of his friends and neighbors took to the streets to reject court-ordered school busing between predominantly white South Boston and the black community of Roxbury. Moakley too, opposed the busing order, but refused to join in the demonstrations. For that his South Boston constituents demonstrated against him.
KWAME HOLMAN: That was one of the worst times.
REP. JOE MOAKLEY: Terrible time. Terrible time.
KWAME HOLMAN: Demonstrations at your house...
REP. JOE MOAKLEY: Well, it was because my people thought that I should be out in the streets, and screaming and hollering and railing people. And I said look, I'm against it, but I'll do my work in the halls of Congress. But that wasn't enough.
See, the whole thing was that the way that the remedy to busing was they were going to bus everybody from South Boston into Roxbury, and the school in each area, there was no difference. And there was just an exercise in futility. If they were going to bus them into areas where the school system was much better, fine. But this was just trying to equal the color situation by an artificial means, and there was no pot of gold at the end of it. The schools in Roxbury were no better than the schools in South Boston.
KWAME HOLMAN: Leonard Alkins is president of the Boston NAACP. He has known Joe Moakley for more than 30 years.
LEONARD ALKINS: He was one of the few politicians from the South Boston area who was not inciting to riot. He was responsible, and that's why people of color have respected him for all these years.
KWAME HOLMAN: Moakley also is respected for his ability to steer federal money back home. By far Boston's number one example is the Big Dig. The troubled harbor and freeway overhaul has seen projected costs double, then triple. Nonetheless, Joe Moakley and the rest of an influential Massachusetts Congressional delegation have kept federal dollars flowing to the largest single public works project in U.S. history. And it was Moakley who almost single-handedly secured the federal funds to erect the new U.S. courthouse in South Boston. An expert in urban programs, Moakley proudly says it's helping anchor needed redevelopment.
REP. JOE MOAKLEY: It's a state of the art courthouse, and people come from all over the world just to view it.
KWAME HOLMAN: After a ceremony on April 18, the courthouse will bear Moakley's name. Moakley suggests his work largely is a function of where he came from.
REP. JOE MOAKLEY: Public service, you know, is the ability to help the most vulnerable in our society. And if you represent an area that has a lot of blue-collar workers, you're going to get a lot of people who are going to need your help.
MAN: And I always said Joe Moakley always took care of Southie and I hope the people realize that.
REP. JOE MOAKLEY: Atta boy.
KWAME HOLMAN: Congressman Joe Moakley says he'll continue to serve his constituents as long as his health allows.