Lawrence O'Brien, Democratic adviser and former commissioner of NBA, dies

September 29, 1990|By Los Angeles Times

Lawrence F. O'Brien, a key strategist for four presidential election campaigns who later served as U.S. postmaster general and commissioner of the National Basketball Association, died of cancer Thursday night at the New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Center. He was 73.

Lauded for his pragmatic ability to organize and compromise, Mr. O'Brien was put in charge of John F. Kennedy's successful 1960 presidential campaign and later headed the ill-fated campaign of the slain president's younger brother, Robert F. Kennedy. Mr. O'Brien had been with each Kennedy when he was slain.

After President Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, Mr. O'Brien worked for his successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, and ran Johnson's successful 1964 campaign against Barry Goldwater.

Johnson named him postmaster general, and Mr. O'Brien subsequently prepared a report that moved the postal department from Cabinet status to semipublic corporation.

After Robert Kennedy was fatally shot in 1968, Mr. O'Brien headed the presidential campaign of Sen. Hubert H. Humphrey, who lost to Richard M. Nixon.

Mr. O'Brien served as chairman of the Democratic National Committee from 1970 to 1972, when the party was in shambles because of anti-Vietnam debates between hawks and doves. He left politics after George McGovern was defeated by Nixon.

While serving as Democratic Committee chairman, Mr. O'Brien was the target of the June 17, 1972, Watergate break-in that spelled the downfall of Nixon two years later.

Mr. O'Brien called the break-in "an incredible act of political espionage" and urged citizens to reject the claim that the incident and other "tricks" ordered by Nixon were "politics as usual."

He became commissioner of the National Basketball Association 1975 and served until 1984. He was credited with settling the so-called "Oscar Robertson suit" in 1976, providing free agency in the league, and with supervising a smooth merger between the NBA and the rival American Basketball Association.

He also averted a 1983 players strike by negotiating a landmark collective bargaining agreement for professional sports, which stabilized the troubled league. The agreement provided an innovative cap on how much money teams could spend on salaries and benefits in return for giving players 53 percent of the league's gross revenues.

Born July 7, 1917, in Springfield, Mass., Mr. O'Brien was brought up on politics by his Irish immigrant father. After Army service in World War II and completing night law school at Boston's Northeastern University, O'Brien worked for a Massachusetts congressman, Foster Furcolo, and then, in 1952, took over John Kennedy's campaign for the U.S. Senate.

He is survived by his wife, Elva Brassard O'Brien; a son, Lawrence F. O'Brien III; a sister; and two grandsons.

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