Tip O'Neill and the Democratic Century Essay - Critical Essays

John A. Farrell

Tip O’Neill and the Democratic Century

Shortly before his death in January, 1994, at the age of 81, Tip O’Neill published an acute primer entitled All Politics is Local: And Other Rules (1993). Throughout a long political career he measured success in terms of services rendered for constituents. Most important was providing opportunities for working-class people to join the ranks of the middle-class. With his towering bulk, cigar-smoking mannerisms, and faith that government could cure society’s ills, he personified to his admirers an old-fashioned urban progressivism. To conservatives he exemplified the flatulence of tax-and-spend liberalism.

Born under modest circumstances in North Cambridge, O’Neill served sixteen years in the Massachusetts legislature before seeking John F. Kennedy’s House seat in 1952 when JFK made a successful bid for the Senate. O’Neill won under questionable circumstances; an adversary noted, “The gravestones voted.” A quarter-century later the florid Speaker-elect with a penchant for blarney seemed anachronistic in the reform-minded post-Watergate atmosphere. A compulsive gambler, he waged limited wars with President Jimmy Carter, who was concerned with the rapidly expanding costs of Great Society entitlement programs. He was the most prominent Democrat left standing after the 1980 election. The resultant face-off between O’Neill and Ronald Reagan, two canny Irishmen, for America’s soul is what gives this book its high drama. Writes Farrell: “Theirs was no sophistic debate: these were world views clashing, hot lava meeting thundering surf.” By limiting the impact of the so-called “Reagan revolution,” O’Neill kept faith with his half-century old political principles.

Sources for Further Study

The Atlantic Monthly 287 (March, 2001): 90.

The Christian Science Monitor, March 13, 2001, p. 11.

Library Journal 126 (November 9, 2001): 121.

The New York Times Book Review 106 (March 11, 2001): 8.