Inside the Kennedy White House


"They have since become a close-knit, highly professional team that is known in Administration circles as the Irish Mafia.'" - Time cover story, September 1, 1961

Now that Barack Obama has officially moved into the White House, many feel a sense of optimism, despite the vast challenges facing America.

Such feelings, naturally, recall January of 1961 when, on a bright, frozen Washington morning, John Fitzgerald Kennedy was inaugurated, declaring that "the torch has been passed to a new generation - born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage."

It wasn't just Kennedy's speech, youth and good looks that gave people a reason to feel optimistic. It was also the undeniable history of the occasion.

Kennedy was the descendant of an Irish Famine survivor and America's first Catholic president. So, awareness of this "ancient heritage" was inevitably going to trickle down and change the kinds of people at the center of American power.

As a trailblazer himself, Kennedy opened doors for those who might otherwise not have made it to the corridors of power.

Specifically, Irish American Catholics played a central role in early 1960s Washington.

Who were these movers and shakers who were so close to Kennedy, so Hibernian in background and temperament that they came to be called "the Irish mafia"?

The Irish "Murphia"

Of course, there had been Irish powerbrokers in Washington before Kennedy. Both James Farley and Thomas (the Cork) Corcoran were close aides to Franklin Roosevelt, while Mike Mansfield (the son of Irish immigrants) was elected to the Senate the same year JFK became president. However, the Irish - even when they achieved great power in New York, Boston and Chicago - generally ruled over their native cities, rather than Washington.

All that changed with JFK's election in 1960. The most prominent Irish Americans surrounding Kennedy were David Francis Powers, Dick Donahue, Kenneth O'Donnell and Lawrence O'Brien, a quartet of political wizards who were aiding JFK long before he ran for president.

When you also consider that JFK's brother, Bobby, was one of his closest aides (and his Attorney General), as well as the informal advice often given to JFK by his father, Joe Sr., you see why it was whispered that Kennedy presided over an "Irish Mafia" - or "Murphia," as Jackie Kennedy once called them. (Kennedy confidant and biographer Theodore Sorensen once commented that despite the jovial nature of the term, the group actually disliked the term "Irish Mafia," at least initially.)

"Powers" That Be

David Powers was the son of Irish immigrants from Cork who settled in Charlestown, Massachusetts. Always humble, Powers once said he was merely "a newsboy who met a president," referring to a childhood job. Powers - "Boston to his fingertips," according to the "Encyclopedia of the Irish in America" - first worked for Kennedy in 1946, when JFK ran for Congress.

Powers "was recruited to add a sense of working-class realism to what the Harvard-educated Kennedy feared might be perceived as his own lace-curtain credentials as a political candidate," the Washington Post once noted. Powers himself once said: "While Jack Kennedy was a completely new type of Irish politician himself, having come from such a different background, he was, at bottom, very Irish and he could never hear enough of the old Irish stories."