Tip O’Neill and the Democratic Century
Shortly before his death in January, 1994, at the age of eighty-one, Tip O’Neill, proud Massachusetts son of a North Cambridge ward heeler, put together an acute political primer entitled All Politics Is Local—And Other Rules (with Gary Hymel, 1994). Born in a rented third-floor apartment, he never lost sight of his roots and wanted the worth of his half-century career as a public servant measured in terms of opportunities provided for working-class people. With his towering bulk, back-room mannerisms, and faith that government could ameliorate, if not cure, society’s ills, he personified to his admirers an old-fashioned concept of politics as service to constituents. To conservatives he exemplified the flatulence of tax-and-spend liberalism. To its great credit, Tip O’Neill and the Democratic Century examines both the strengths and weaknesses of its subject’s political creed and character. Readers learn about O’Neill’s ingratiating qualities but also his flaws. Like former U.S. president Warren G. Harding, he could not say “no” to cronies and was an inveterate gambler. After witnessing a hydrogen bomb explosion at Yucca Flats, Nevada, he discovered bruises around his belly. He feared radiation poisoning, but the discoloration turned out to be from leaning against Las Vegas craps tables. Though some thought the nickname “Tip” was short for “tipsy,” alcoholism was not one of his vices. The nickname derived from a St. Louis Browns namesake who mastered the art of fouling off pitches until he got a fat one to hit. It was once common for O’Neills to be called Tip, much like Rhodes boys were called Dusty.
Irish American Bostonians, writes Farrell, viewed politics “through a prism of ethnic resentment.” While a Harvard lawn boy, O’Neill received a reprimand for clipping around trees seated rather than from a kneeling position. The children of Boston Brahmins snubbed his sister at Boston Latin School. O’Neill’s friend Jeremiah Sullivan could not get in the door of blueblood law firms despite a Harvard law degree. Rarely did “town and gown” come together as equals although, according to family lore, O’Neill’s great-great-grandmother, Catherine Quinlan O’Connell, swapped stories with poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in a Harvard Square grocery store. Mummy Kate, as she was called, returned to Ireland at age one hundred with a seventy-nine-year-old son and lived three more years.
Thomas P. O’Neill, Jr., inherited a love for politics from his father, an immigrant’s son with an eye toward social mobility. At fourteen, he and other Barry’s Corner gang members passed out leaflets for State Representative Charles Cavanaugh. A year later, they campaigned for Al Smith, grandson of an Irishman and the United States’ first Catholic major-party candidate for president. In 1935, O’Neill made a bid for Cambridge City Council while attending Boston College. The following year, on the coattails of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s reelection landslide, he won a seat to the Massachusetts General Court. Because a poker-playing buddy was the brother of presidential intimate Missy LeHand, he got to meet FDR. O’Neill later claimed to have been dumbfounded to find his hero in a wheelchair.
O’Neill served sixteen years in the Commonwealth’s Lower House. During his freshman term, he earned the wrath of the Cambridge American Legion for opposing a bill requiring educators to take a loyalty oath. He believed it demeaned his sister, who taught parochial school. In 1949, the wily lawmaker became the first Democrat to serve as Massachusetts house speaker. Looking for broader horizons, he eyed John F. Kennedy’s congressional seat. The two were never particularly close, but O’Neill appreciated Kennedy’s tipping him off in advance about his intent to run against incumbent senator Henry Cabot Lodge in 1952, thus giving him a head start on rival Michael LoPresti. Farrell compares the LoPresti-O’Neill fight to a tribal war. O’Neill won under questionable circumstances. An adversary noted, “The gravestones voted.”
Initially, O’Neill disliked being a U.S. Representative. Leaving his wife Millie and five children back home, he roomed with fellow freshman Eddie Boland in sparse quarters and joined the Tuesday-Thursday delegation that went home for long weekends. He curried favor with constituents, badgering judges, prison wardens, or immigration officials for favors and letting lobbyists make phone calls from his office or trade on his good name. His biggest headache was keeping the obsolete Boston Naval Shipyard afloat (it remained open until 1973). A protégé of party leader John McCormick (whose poker games were too rich for his blood), O’Neill secured a spot on the powerful House Rules Committee. Soon he gained entry to the “Board of Education,” Speaker Rayburn’s smoke-filled hideaway inner sanctum. There “Mr. Sam’s” closest buddies relaxed and drank hard liquor, occasionally relieving themselves in a small sink. O’Neill entertained them with stories about Boston rogue politicians such as James Michael Curley.
(The entire section is 2099 words.)