Man of the House

Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill’s personal and political memoir is a fascinating description of how a politician thinks and operates. O’Neill takes the reader from me rough and tumble of Massachusetts politics, where characters such as James Michael Curley were still operating in their flamboyant fashion, to sessions with the president over war policy. O’Neill’s motivation to become a politician—to him, an honorable calling—came from a summer spent mowing lawns at Harvard University for seventeen cents an hour. When he saw the new Harvard graduates drinking illegal champagne, it so angered him that he vowed that he would work to give people of his class and situation the opportunity to enjoy the life which those Harvard men took for granted. Politics was the most effective way to bring about that change.

O’Neill grew up in North Cambridge, which was an Irish Catholic stronghold only two miles from Harvard but a world away. His father worked for the City of Cambridge and was active in union work. As a senior at Boston College, O’Neill began his political career by running for the Cambridge City Council; he was defeated, but his name was becoming known. In 1936, he ran for and won a seat in the Massachusetts legislature. Although victorious, he had not done as well as he expected in his home district, thinking that it was not necessary for him to campaign vigorously there. He learned from the experience that “all politics are local,” a lesson he has never forgotten.

O’Neill became speaker of the Massachusetts legislature in 1948 after he led the fight to elect more Democrats and break the Republican hold on the legislature. He expanded the powers of the speaker by enforcing party discipline. He did get in trouble when he had the state of Massachusetts give James Michael Curley a pension; the Republicans had agreed to the pension because Curley was poor but complained once it was passed. O’Neill’s chance to become a member of the House of Representatives came when John F. Kennedy decided to run for the Senate. O’Neill faced his most difficult challenge ever in the primaries against Michael Lo Presti. Since the congressional district included Italian and Irish sections, it became an ethnic fight. O’Neill appealed to independent voters who were eligible to vote in either primary, and that was the difference in a very close election.

O’Neill and the Kennedys have been linked in a number of ways, and he goes into detail to discuss his relationships with that famous clan. His relationship with John F. Kennedy was cordial but never really close. The cool and elegant Kennedy was a different politician from a different background; O’Neill did admire Kennedy and praises him highly, perhaps somewhat too highly, since he makes excuses for Kennedy’s Vietnam policy and lack of legislative accomplishments. He does tell one amusing story of how Kennedy received four more votes than O’Neill in the Senate and presidential race because a family in North Cambridge was “off” O’Neill.

O’Neill’s relationship with Robert Kennedy was very different. The younger Kennedy’s arrogance and ruthlessness were unveiled in his dealings with O’Neill, and he calls him “a self-important upstart and a know-it-all.” In his turn, Kennedy saw O’Neill as a political hack and did not bother to thank O’Neill when he let Kennedy replace him at the presidential convention. At one time, O’Neill feared that Edward Kennedy would run for his seat in Congress, but the Kennedys assured him that Edward would never challenge him.

When O’Neill came to Congress in 1952, he quickly fit in. He was friendly with John McCormack, who was high in the leadership and who would later become Speaker of the House. He also became a member of Sam Ray-burn’s board of education. In 1955, he became a member of the Rules Committee because, according to Sam Rayburn, “you understand party loyalty.” (O’Neill’s success can be contrasted with the failure of John F. Kennedy in the House: Kennedy ignored the leadership and went his own way—and never accomplished very much as a congressman.)

O’Neill never sponsored much legislation but effectively worked behind the scenes with other congressmen. He was the first to suggest that Cape Cod be named a national seashore and helped convince residents to accept the change. He did not, however, put his name on the final bill and let others take the credit. His party loyalty, however, was tested during the Vietnam War. His children were opposed to...

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Booklist. LXXXIII, August, 1987, p. 1700.

Commentary. LXXXIV, December, 1987, p. 76.

Library Journal. CXII, October 15, 1987, p. 84.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. September 13, 1987, p. 1.

The Nation. CCXLV, October 10, 1987, p. 382.

National Review. XXXIX, September 11, 1987, p. 65.

The New Republic. CXCVII, October 5, 1987, p. 36.

The New York Times Book Review. XCII, September 6, 1987, p. 1.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXII, July 31, 1987, p. 61.

Time. CXXX, September 14, 1987, p. 78.

The Wall Street Journal. CCX, September 3, 1987, p. 17.