O'Neill, Thomas Phillip, Jr.

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O'Neill, Thomas Phillip, Jr.

In many ways, Democrat Tip O'Neill epitomized the cigar-smoking, deal-making American politician of a bygone era. A tough, gregarious leader, O'Neill was the formidable Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives from 1977 to 1986. He was a die-hard liberal whose commitment to America's poor and working class remained undiminished throughout his 35 years in Washington, D.C. When O'Neill died of cardiac arrest at age 81 on January 5, 1994, President bill clinton eulogized him as one of the nation's most prominent and loyal champions of American workers and as a man who genuinely loved politics and people.

Thomas Phillip "Tip" O'Neill Jr. was born December 9, 1912, in a working-class section of Cambridge, Massachusetts. His Irish Catholic father, Thomas O'Neill Sr., was a bricklayer and member of the Cambridge City Council. His mother, Rose Tolan O'Neill, died when O'Neill was just one year old.

At an early age, O'Neill developed a passion for politics. When he was 15 years old, he spent hours working on Democrat Alfred E. Smith's unsuccessful presidential campaign against herbert hoover. During his senior year at Boston College, O'Neill ran for public office for the first time. He entered the race for the Cambridge City Council and lost by a mere 150 votes.

This early defeat taught the young candidate a valuable lesson about politics. Taking his local support for granted, O'Neill had failed to campaign in his own North Cambridge neighborhood. The voters from his district resented his neglect and did not back him as strongly as expected. O'Neill never repeated this tactical error. After the city council loss, O'Neill's father reportedly observed, "All politics is local." For years, O'Neill quoted his father's maxim and applied it to his work.

In 1936, the year he graduated from college, O'Neill enjoyed his first victory at the polls. Using the political leverage of jobs and favors, he won a seat in the Massachusetts House of Representatives, from the North Cambridge district. O'Neill served in the state legislature for 16 years. In 1952, he launched into national politics and was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, beginning a congressional career that included an appointment as majority whip in 1971 and election as majority leader in 1972. He reached the pinnacle of legislative power in 1976 when he rose to the House speakership.

Outgoing and outspoken, O'Neill was known for his partisanship and for his skillful use of power. He embodied the liberal politics of the Democratic Party during the late twentieth century. His support of federal social programs was unbending. As the political right grew in power, O'Neill fought conservative proposals such as a balanced budget because they threatened the education, housing, and Welfare programs he cherished.

As Speaker of the House, O'Neill led Congress during the administrations of Presidents jimmy carter, a Democrat, and ronald reagan, a Republican. O'Neill did not respect Reagan's intellectual capabilities or his conservative policies. After clashing repeatedly with Reagan during his two terms in the White House, O'Neill called his fellow Irishman the least knowledgeable president he had ever worked with in 35 years in the nation's capitol. The two were polar opposites on nearly every political issue, particularly the government's role in American life.

O'Neill's legislative legacy includes a code of ethics for House members and a drive to impeach President richard m. nixon. O'Neill also was among the first Democrats to speak out against the Vietnam War during the 1960s. He once told an interviewer that the only vote in his congressional career that he regretted was his affirmative vote on the gulf of tonkin resolution in 1964. (The resolution increased American troop involvement in Southeast Asia.) Partisan to a fault, O'Neill had voted for the measure because he felt duty bound to support the Democratic president, lyndon b. johnson.

While in office, O'Neill shared a bachelor apartment in Washington, D.C. with Representative Edward Boland of Massachusetts. His wife, Mildred ("Millie"), and their five children stayed in the home district. According to Capitol Hill legend, the refrigerator in the men's apartment was stocked mostly with diet soft drinks, beer, and cigars. O'Neill did not survive more than a quarter century in Washington, D.C., without some tarnish to his reputation. In 1978, he was criticized for accepting favors from Tongsun Park, an influence-peddling rice merchant from South Korea. An ethics committee investigation concluded that O'Neill had shown bad judgment in allowing Park to throw parties for him. The committee cleared O'Neill of any illegalities.

"You can teach an old dog new tricks—if the old dog wants to learn."
—Thomas "Tip"O'Neill

O'Neill retired from Congress in 1987. He subsequently spent most of his time in Washington, D.C., or at Cape Cod with his wife. O'Neill wrote a best-selling book about his experiences in Washington, entitled Man of the House, and starred in popular commercials for credit cards. He died January 5, 1994, in Boston, Massachusetts.

O'Neill was a throwback to an earlier era of backroom politics on Capitol Hill. The colorful Massachusetts congressman was a master at pressuring representatives to pass or block key legislation. O'Neill enjoyed a national reputation but remained loyal to the constituents back home. He is remembered as an unapologetic liberal, proud of his role in assisting the poor, the unemployed, and the least privileged Americans. He was one of the last and most highly regarded of the old-style American politicians.

Further readings

Farrell, John Aloysius. 2001. Tip O'Neill and the Democratic Century. Boston: Little, Brown.