The Essential Tip O'Neill

Tip O'Neill and the Democratic Century, by John
A. Farrell. Little, Brown and Company, 776 pages, $29.95.

Jimmy Breslin called Tip O'Neill "a lovely spring rain of a man" and John A. Farrell proves Breslin right in Tip O'Neill and the Democratic Century. Farrell, a prizewinning veteran reporter for The Boston Globe, has written a book as lovely as its subject, and also as big and accomplished.

Yes, there are stories--including a few that you may not have heard before, like this one: O'Neill, who was blissfully disengaged from the popular culture, was chatting at a fundraiser with a handsome young man who seemed to think that O'Neill knew who he was. After the young man left, O'Neill asked a friend, "Who was that?" The answer: "Warren Beatty."

O'Neill looked blank for a second. "The lion tamer's son?"

Then there was the time when O'Neill heard that Barney Frank, his fellow Massachusetts congressman, was going to announce publicly that he was gay. O'Neill quietly began to inform a few colleagues. "Barney is coming out of the room," he told them. And once when O'Neill, as a freshman congressman, returned home from a trip to Nevada to see a hydrogen bomb test, he discovered a band of bruises around his belly. Worried that he might have radiation poisoning, he went to see a doctor. No, the doctor told him, you don't have radiation poisoning. You got the bruises by banging too hard against the craps tables in Las Vegas.

All the familiar O'Neill material is here, too. Farrell tells us, for example, about winning Mrs. O'Brien's vote ("People like to be asked") and reminds us that "All politics is local" (a hand-me-down from O'Neill's father, who was the Cambridge, Massachusetts, superintendent of sewers). But anecdotes are only one of this book's virtues. Farrell has written a knowing and engaging biography of O'Neill, a lucid chronicle of his times, and a wonderfully realized portrayal of the settings in which he spent his life: Boston during the first half of the twentieth century and Washington during the second half. The unexpected value of Farrell's book is the example it offers today's Democrats about how to survive and even thrive during a Republican presidency.

O'Neill, a model for today's Democrats? Old, rumpled, overweight, gruff-voiced, pretelevision, pre–New Democrat Tip O'Neill?

Scoff if you like. Then try to name another nationally prominent Democratic leader within memory--executive or legislative, federal or state--who has retired from public life with flags flying and reputation intact.

Thomas P. O'Neill, Jr., appeared on the national scene so late in life--he was 64 when he became Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives in 1977--that it's hard to imagine what an able young politician he was. As a senior at Boston College, O'Neill came within 229 votes of being elected to the Cambridge City Council. After winning a seat in the state legislature two years later, he rose through the ranks to become speaker of the Massachusetts House of Representatives. At age 37, he was the second-youngest house speaker in the history of the state, as well as the first Roman Catholic and the first Democrat. One reason O'Neill won the job was that his colleagues liked him so much--he was always good for a card game, a story, or a cigar. The other reason was that they respected him for his courage--for taking on the McCarthyites who wanted to force all of the state's teachers to swear a loyalty oath, for example.

It never occurred to O'Neill that politics wasn't the best career in the world or that government was anything other than a force for the good. As a boy, he lived the solid middle-class life that a family income rooted in public office afforded. He followed his father around Cambridge and watched him dispense jobs and buckets of coal to his working-class constituents. O'Neill turned 21 the year Franklin D. Roosevelt became president, and cheered when unemployed friends found jobs in New Deal programs and pensionless old neighbors began drawing Social Security. In Massachusetts, as Farrell points out, even the Republicans were liberals.

O'Neill's first major crusade as speaker at the Massachusetts statehouse involved health care for the mentally ill. The way he approached the issue reveals the approach to politics and government that marked his entire career. His interest in the state's decaying system of mental hospitals was piqued when a constituent with a Down's syndrome child sought his help in getting the child hospitalized. O'Neill drove the child to the state hospital in Belmont and was turned away: The waiting list already had 3,600 names on it. So he left the child in the waiting room and then phoned to say: "The child is in your hospital. Find a bed." But he also rammed through the biggest one-year capital outlay in state history in order to fund new hospital construction. Good politics in the form of constituent service is what got the child into the old hospital. Good government in the form of new legislation financed the building of new ones.

O'Neill never wore his religion on his sleeve, but Farrell leaves little doubt that O'Neill's political sensibility derived from his immersion in Catholicism. As a boy in parochial school, he was instructed in the gospel: blessed are the poor, the meek, those who mourn, and those who thirst for justice. "Other boys heard the sermons as well," Farrell points out, but other boys had not lost their mothers when they were infants, as O'Neill had. "O'Neill's intimate sense of loss made him an insistent, and powerful, tower of strength for the needy," according to Farrell. Later in O'Neill's political career, pundits would point to his faith to explain why he supported the Hyde Amendment restricting abortion access or opposed American intervention in Central America. What they missed was the O'Neill who told his son's senior class, "In everything you do, you must recall that Christ loved man and wished us, for our own sakes, to love Him. The method by which we exercise that love is by loving our fellow man, by seeing that justice is done, that mercy prevails."

O'Neill was elected to Congress in 1952 when John F. Kennedy left his 11th Congressional District seat to run for the Senate. O'Neill and the Kennedys never had an easy relationship: Joseph P. Kennedy pumped campaign funds to a state legislator named LoPresti who was running against Tip in the Democratic primary because he figured that his son, Jack Kennedy, had the Irish vote locked up but could use some help with the Italians. Being on the outs with the Kennedys didn't hurt O'Neill a bit in Congress. House Democratic leader John McCormack, another Massachusetts politician who had problems with the Kennedy family, was a more valuable patron in that setting than any Kennedy.

McCormack introduced Tip to Speaker Sam Rayburn's "board of education," an after-hours gathering of House insiders. When McCormack's retirement in 1971 created an opening for a big-city northerner in the House Democratic leadership, O'Neill was appointed party whip. Two years later, he was elected majority leader by his fellow Democrats, and four years after that he was elected Speaker. In both elections, the vote was unanimous. A potential rival for majority leader withdrew by saying in front of the House Democratic caucus, "Tip, I can tell you something that nobody else in this room can. You haven't got an enemy in the place."

Backslapping bonhomie was not the whole story of O'Neill's rise to power. The House Democrats who elected him Speaker were post-Vietnam, post-Watergate reformers: young, suburban, independent, and impatient with traditional ways of doing things. The O'Neill this generation liked kept his cigars in his pocket but also helped uproot conservative southern Democrats from their committee chairmanships and broke early with President Lyndon B. Johnson over Vietnam. O'Neill's shift on the war was "the most politically significant ... of all the congressional changes of position," according to Congress's official history of the Vietnam War.

O'Neill's fondest dream had been to serve as Speaker with a Democratic president. It came true in a those-whom-the-gods-would-punish kind of way when Jimmy Carter was elected in 1976. Substantively, Carter was a different kind of Democrat from O'Neill. The Speaker, as his former aide Chris Matthews summarized his political philosophy, "believed in the programs. Programs for people." O'Neill's heart for the poor and afflicted, and his inclination to slip a few hundred million in their direction, was boundless. "I've been one of the big spenders of all time," he proclaimed to a group of reporters, then waxed rhapsodic about programs he had funded to cure knock-knee and help dwarves grow taller. Carter, for his part, believed in fiscal austerity and government reorganization.

These differences in substance were nothing compared with O'Neill and Carter's differences in style and temperament. O'Neill was, as the title of his memoir put it, a "Man of the House." Carter regarded Congress as part of the mess he had been sent to Washington to clean up. O'Neill's approach to legislating was to get everybody with a political stake in a decision into the same room and keep negotiating until there were enough votes to pass the bill. Carter's was to study a problem from every conceivable angle, arrive at the correct solution, and then tell O'Neill and Senate Majority Leader Robert C. Byrd to go pass it into law. In the end, O'Neill couldn't decide whether the Carter administration failed because it was unlucky ("You get a good hand, and the dealer drops the deck") or because it was made up of, as he put it, "a bunch of pricks."

In 1980 Carter lost his bid for reelection to Ronald Reagan and the Republicans took control of the Senate. Overnight and by default, O'Neill became the most prominent Democrat in the country. Reaganites were thrilled: They had run a commercial all through the election year that showed a fat, white-haired, cigar-chomping O'Neill look-alike driving a big car and running out of gas. Democrats worried that the Republicans would complete their electoral realignment by winning the House of Representatives in the midterm elections of 1982. Reagan already had a governing majority in the House: 190 Republicans plus 40 members of the southern-dominated Democratic Conservative Forum, the so-called boll weevils.

O'Neill adapted readily to his new role as leader of the opposition, both in the media and in Congress. Matthews helped him craft sound bites for his daily press briefings and taught him to repeat them until the evening news programs had no choice but to air them. O'Neill's public image gradually went from "big, fat, and out of control" (the epithet of a Republican congressman--who got beat in the next election) to "this big guy with a good heart and a lot of guts," everybody's favorite Uncle Tip.

In Congress, O'Neill crafted what Farrell calls a "give him rope" strategy for dealing with Reagan. Knowing that the American people would not turn their backs on Reaganomics until they had seen it fail, O'Neill watched patiently as the Republican and boll weevil coalition enacted the president's tax and budget cuts. But he pounced when Reagan tried to cut Social Security benefits for early retirees and when the economy slid into its deepest recession since the 1930s. Far from losing the House in 1982, the Democrats gained 26 seats. Far from losing programs, Farrell argues, O'Neill preserved the New Deal and the Great Society with all their "muscle and bone--and even some flab" intact. Reagan remained personally popular, but the Reagan Revolution was dead in the water.

Give Bush rope" is not a strategy that Democrats who are still convinced that Al Gore won the presidential election are likely to embrace in 2001, and even in O'Neill's day it wasn't the approach taken by the party's liberal writers and thinkers. But for elected Democrats who believe that George W. Bush's policies are ill advised, as O'Neill believed that Reagan's were, a patient strategy based on a confident appraisal that the Bush administration will use that rope to hang itself is worth considering.

The more important lesson today's Democrats can learn from the late Speaker (he died in 1994) is about the place of religious faith in politics. The Democratic Party seems increasingly uncomfortable with religion. This may explain why references to "faith-based organizations" conjure up, for some liberals, images of Baptist preachers pressuring women not to have abortions instead of Reform Jews feeding the hungry and Catholic nuns nursing AIDS victims--even though there are a lot more of the latter two kinds of group than of the former. Church attendance is just one of several measures of how secular the Democrats have become. In the 2000 presidential election, Bush beat Gore by 20 percentage points among voters who attend religious services at least once a week, while Gore beat Bush by 17 points among those who seldom or never attend.

What Democrats can learn from O'Neill is that the social-justice strain in all of America's major-faith traditions can be both an anchor and a spur when it comes to liberal politics. No poll or election could ever dissuade O'Neill from thinking that the fundamental purpose of government is to help "the least of these"--he believed that deep in his soul. O'Neill's religion never let him lapse into the inertia or sullenness that is born of losing. For him the Cross was a sign of ultimate victory in the face of momentary defeat. Whether from religious conviction or some equally compelling wellspring of purpose, modern Democrats not only need to say the right things, they also need to believe that the stakes are high enough to do them.