- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 13, 2001

When Tip O'Neill's 81-year-old heart gave out at last in 1994, the former speaker of the House was in Boston's Brigham and Women's Hospital with his son Tommy by his bedside and a great January snowstorm raging outside. They had just been talking about doughnuts.
O'Neill's coffin was taken to the Massachusetts State House on Beacon Hill, where exactly 45 years earlier he had been sworn in as the first Democratic speaker of the General Court, the lower house of the state legislature. No politician had lain in state there since James Michael Curley. Thousands filed past to pay their respects, and an aide slipped a few cigars into the casket.
Somewhat later, millions watched the funeral Mass, conducted by a cardinal and six priests at the church of St. John the Evangelist, in the North Cambridge neighborhood where O'Neill had grown up and which he represented in Congress for 34 years. Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford were there. Carl Yastrzemski, the great Red Sox outfielder, was an honorary pallbearer.
Thomas P. O'Neill Jr., the son of a Cambridge superintendent of sewers and the grandson of a young man from County Cork who fled the potato famine in 1851, lived a glorious American political life, and it has been wonderfully chronicled by John A. Farrell of the Boston Globe.
In some respects, writing a life of Tip O'Neill must have been a straightforward and not unpleasant task. The biographee was both colorful and accessible, and the biographer knew him well. He was the product of a culture in which anecdotes are an art form. He was covered for decades by some of the country's best journalists.
But in "Tip O'Neill and the Democratic Century" Mr. Farrell does much more than recycle old stories from the wealth of available material. His writing is sharp and his reporting is thorough; there's plenty of new information here. (The section on O'Neill's role in securing the economic future of the Boston Globe, which thereafter treated him in print like Mother Teresa, is particularly noteworthy.) And although Mr. Farrell's fascination with his subject is never hidden, his reporter's perspective is detached, and his judgments are fair. He gives his reader biography, not hagiography.
Three of the best books about American politics in the 20th century are novels: Robert Penn Warren's "All the King's Men," Edwin O'Conor's "The Last Hurrah," Allen Drury's "Advise and Consent." Mr. Farrell's "Tip O'Neill" will go nicely on a shelf with those three; when this political life is eventually rewritten as fiction, as it inevitable will be, it'll be unlikely to offer any improvement on the real thing.
Seven presidents occupied the White House during Tip O'Neill's years in Congress, and by the time the last of them, Ronald Reagan, came along, the speaker had come to be seen almost as a cartoon a cigar-chomping urban Democrat like Chicago's Mayor Daley. The Republicans certainly treated him that way, with a famous campaign ad depicting a large white-haired pol in a big car running embarrassingly out of gas.
But he himself never ran out of gas. He was a lion to the end, fighting some epic and mostly losing battles with President Reagan, and providing vital courage and leadership to his battered, increasingly goofy party until the last day of his long career.
He had come to Washington in 1953, after a rough election which his Italian opponent insisted had been stolen by the thieving Irish. The seat he filled had, for six years, been John F. Kennedy's. Before that it had been Curley's. He lived by the maxim that all politics is local, and he loved his neighborhood as much as he loved his country, but he had a nation-sized ego and wasn't easily cowed by the powerful, even if they were Democrats. He had a considerable talent for invective, and often displayed it.
In 1957, when Robert Kennedy reportedly was talking about reclaiming his brother's congressional seat as though O'Neill were the family caretaker and had been holding it for him, he promptly quashed that threat. RFK, he told Mr. Farrell, "was a self-important upstart and a know-it-all." (Three years later, to his distress, his election sources in the district told him that Jacqueline Kennedy had "blanked" him with her absentee ballot, voting for her husband for president but casting no vote at all for Congress.
After John Kennedy's assassination, O'Neill faced down Lyndon Johnson over the proposed closing of the Boston Navy Yard, blocking administration bills in the House Rules Committee until Johnson gave up. He had little respect for the Carter administration.
Like Bill Clinton, whom he professed to admire, O'Neill was a brilliant and thoroughly political man who came from humble beginnings and found fame, influence and great psychic rewards in the public sector. But the differences are much more illuminating.
O'Neill had deep roots in the place where he grew up, and they were there until the day he died. He was intensely loyal, and he had the many lifelong friendships which such loyalty nourishes. He had an extensive and devoted family.
The story of his life is at once entertaining, touching and even inspirational, but it is certainly not Clintonesque.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer living in Maryland.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2020 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide