O’Neill, Thomas Philip, Jr. (“Tip”)

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O’Neill, Thomas Philip, Jr. (“Tip”)

(b. 9 December 1912 in North Cambridge, Massachusetts; d. 5 January 1994 in Boston, Massachusetts), Massachusetts congressman who served for nearly four decades in Washington, holding positions as Democratic Party whip, majority leader, and Speaker of the House.

O’Neill was a third generation Irish-American whose father, Thomas O’Neill, was a bricklayer and superintendent of sewers in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and whose mother, Rose Ann Tolan, died within months of his birth. O’Neill had three siblings and attended parochial schools, graduating from St. John’s High School in 1931. During this time, he received his nickname, a reference to another O’Neill, a baseball player whose specialty was foul balls that encouraged opposing pitchers to miss the strike zone and walk him. O’Neill completed his education at Boston College, graduating with an A.B. degree in 1936.

During these formative years, he developed his political ideas. O’Neill had grown up in a world in which businesses regularly discouraged Irish applicants by displaying signs that read “NINA,” meaning “no Irish need apply.” As a cutter of grass on the Harvard campus, he deeply resented the privileged students of that institution. The ensuing Great Depression and New Deal programs of President Franklin D. Roosevelt convinced him that politics could change the prejudices and other ills of American society.

After a brief venture in insurance and real estate, O’Neill turned to politics. He was a Democrat because of family upbringing. As for Republicans, so one of his sons later said, he was tolerant, on the principle of “hate the sin, but love the sinner.” The five O’Neill children—he married Mildred Anne Miller on 17 June 1941—spent summers on the beach at Plymouth, Massachusetts, and remembered running down to the water yelling, “Last one in is a Republican!”

O’Neill’s political career began in college when he ran for the Cambridge City Council in a field of sixty candidates, of whom the top eight were elected. He finished ninth, having failed to campaign in his own neighborhood, whose votes he took for granted. His father thereupon told him, “All politics is local.” A Mrs. O’Brien had announced she was going to vote for him, and he told her he had thought that surely she would do so, as she knew him so well. “Tom,” she replied, “let me tell you something: people like to be asked.” He never forgot those two comments, and often quoted them.

His rise in politics was slow but sure. Elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives in 1936 and subsequently reelected, O’Neill became minority leader in 1947. When the Democrats for the first time since the Civil War obtained a majority in 1948, he became speaker. He put through a series of legislative acts that supported his social beliefs, among them a strengthening of the state’s mental health institutions; a reduction in interest rates to prevent usury; workmen’s compensation; doubling of teachers’ salaries; benefits for veterans and for the elderly; and laws making it illegal to bar anyone from employment because of color, creed, or age. In 1952 he successfully ran for the congressional seat vacated by John F. Kennedy, who that year was elected to the Senate. The race against Michael LoPresti was a close one—the last close race of O’Neill’s career. Arriving on the national scene early in 1953, the already much-experienced O’Neill took to Washington politics with gusto.

When he entered the House of Representatives it was an old-fashioned place dominated by the committee chairmen, mostly long-time southern congressmen. O’Neill dubbed them the “College of Cardinals.” Newcomers and first-termers were expected to keep their mouths shut and speak when spoken to. O’Neill chose to attend the daily morning meetings of the Democratic whip, John W. McCormack, also from Boston. Because his family remained in Cambridge, O’Neill was able to devote virtually all of his time to his work. McCormack, who eventually became speaker, was a formal, prim man who took nothing to excess. He did not drink alcohol, and it was said of him that he did not even burn the candle at one end. McCormack regularly invited O’Neill to accompany him on his evening rounds to receptions. During O’Neill’s second term, in an almost unheard-of appointment, McCormack placed him on the prestigious Rules Committee.

As a member of the committee, O’Neill undertook to enlighten his fellow House members about when bills were coming up and to remind them when they absolutely had to be present for a crucial vote. Over the years he came to prominence, mixing well with Republicans and exercising his skills as a manager of people by restraining committee chairmen such as the head of the Rules Committee, Howard W. Smith, “an arrogant son of a bitch”—in O’Neill’s words—”and an ultraconservative who was no more a Democrat than the man in the moon.” When a 1961 civil rights bill came up for vote, it so happened that Smith had to return to Virginia because a barn on his property there had burned. Speaker Sam Rayburn (with O’Neill’s ardent support) enlarged the Rules Committee to fence in Smith, and thus prevented him from successfully opposing the legislative program put forth by the newly elected Democratic president, Kennedy.

Under Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, legislation passed because Johnson was his own whip and Congress duly responded. Although Johnson did O’Neill a service by ensuring that Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara did not close down the Boston Navy Yard, O’Neill did not feel obligated to return the favor by keeping silent in his opposition to U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. This was a particularly audacious thing to do, in light of the fact that his working-class constituency was in favor of the war. Years later this act of conscience redounded to his credit when House liberals voted as a bloc in favor of his elevation to the speakership.

With the election of Republican Richard M. Nixon to the presidency in 1968, the task of Democratic House leaders became difficult. Several subsequent changes in House procedures were carried out largely in the Democratic caucus, changes such as a requirement of majority approval for the choice of committee chairmen and the chairmen of Appropriations Committee subcommittees. Regular meetings of the caucus provided a forum in which rank-and-file members could inform committee members of their views and in a few instances instruct them in their work.

In 1971 O’Neill became House whip. The next year, majority leader Hale Boggs of Louisiana disappeared in an airplane crash in Alaska, and some months later O’Neill took his place. During the election of 1972, the new majority leader took alarm over rumors of severe pressure on GOP members and even Democrats to make contributions to the Nixon campaign. Because of what O’Neill saw as the timidity of then-speaker Carl Albert of Oklahoma and of Judiciary Committee chairman Peter Rodino of New York, he came out strongly against Nixon and soon was supporting impeachment. He did not do this in preparation for the speakership, but it increased his popularity.

Upon the retirement of Albert, O’Neill was chosen speaker of the House in January 1977, and he immediately began to push for his own programs. His meeting with the Rules Committee, several members of which he appointed, was instructive. He told the committee on 24 February 1977, “I’ve committed myself as the leader of the party to the strongest ethics bill in the history of the country. And I’m asking you, the Rules Committee, as the one hand-picked committee that’s appointed by the Speaker.” He went around the room and took pledges of support. All eleven committee Democrats voted for the O’Neill rule.

The speaker made himself available, in his office or on the floor, for any member wishing to talk with him, a procedure he described in his memoirs as serving as a confessor, letting members get things off their chests. His predecessor had considered such availability a waste of time.

O’Neill came to the speakership in the same month that President Jimmy Carter entered the White House, but O’Neill was always on awkward terms with the Carter administration. The new president submitted legislation without consulting the House leadership, and his assistants seemed arrogant to many legislators, often not answering members’ telephone calls. Regarding Carter’s chief of staff, Hamilton Jordan, O’Neill later wrote, “As far as Jordan was concerned, a House speaker was something you bought on sale at Radio Shack.” He complained to President Carter, who in a signed photograph carefully thanked O’Neill for his political lessons.

Relations with the Republican president Ronald Reagan, inaugurated in 1981, were, if anything, worse. The victorious Republicans pushed through conservative programs diametrically opposed to O’Neill’s worldview. O’Neill called the president “Herbert Hoover with a smile” and “a cheerleader for selfishness” and noted that the name of the Irish village Ballypooreen, from whence Reagan’s family had come, meant “Valley of the Small Potatoes.”

A large man, obese in his later years, possessed of a bulbous nose, yellowed white hair, and everlasting cigar, O’Neill stood out in a crowd. For years he roomed in Washington with Representative Edward P. Boland, Democrat of Massachusetts, his closest friend. Their refrigerator, it was said, was stocked almost exclusively with beer. When he became speaker, his wife moved to Washington, and they remained there after retirement, with a summer house on Cape Cod, Massachusetts.

O’Neill retired from Congress in 1987 at the end of his seventeenth term. Also in that year, and again in 1990, he had surgery for colon cancer. O’Neill, who often spoke candidly about the disease, died in his beloved Boston at the age of eighty-one. Down to the end, he displayed his joie de vivre. He is buried in Harwich Port, Massachusetts.

O’Neill’s principal contribution to American politics was twofold. First was his extraordinary shrewdness, so evident in the storytelling in his memoirs and a book of stories published the year he died. The other contribution was his work in carrying on the New Deal tradition of the Democratic Party at a time when for some party members that tradition had lost its luster. As the president of Boston College, J. Donald Monan, said at his funeral mass, Tip O’Neill had a faith in who he was and where he came from—for him power was no attraction, only the desire to bring government help to people who needed it. He had a story for that, too. At a political dinner during his heyday of power he shared the rostrum with the two Massachusetts senators, Edward J. Kennedy and Edward Brooke. Two hundred people, he said, came up and asked Kennedy for his autograph; two hundred asked Brooke for his autograph; and twenty came up and asked Tip for jobs.

There are 685.5 linear feet of O’Neill papers, including 196.5 feet of artifacts, in the Boston College library. The only full-length account of O’Neill’s life is Paul Clancy and Shirley Elder, Tip: A Biography of Thomas P. O’Neill, Speaker of the House (1980). The congressman’s books are Man of the House: The Life and Political Memoirs of Speaker Tip O’Neill (1987), with William Novak, and All Politics Is Local: And Other Rules of the Game (1994), with Gary Hymel. There is an excellent obituary by Martin Tolchin in the New York Times (7 Jan. 1994).

Robert H. Ferrell