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Congressional Lions: Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill, Jr.


Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill, Jr., served as speaker of the United States House of Representatives from 1977 until 1987, the third longest tenure (behind Sam Rayburn and Henry Clay). In his heyday, he was described as “a large, joyous, generous-spirited man with a bulbous nose, yellowed white hair that flopped over his forehead and an ever-present cigar.” A proud Irishman born in Massachusetts, O’Neill stepped into John F. Kennedy’s House seat when JFK left to represent Massachusetts in the U.S. Senate in 1953. O’Neill served in the House for 17 terms (34 years). As speaker, the feisty scrapper became well known for his pragmatic approach to governance. During the 1980s, he and President Ronald Reagan forged an effective partnership although they represented different political parties and harbored diametrically opposed political ideals.

I discuss Tip O'Neill at length in my upcoming book, Congressional Lions.

O’Neill was a liberal politician long past the time when such a stance was fashionable, and he could be a fierce opponent. He fought President Reagan over the necessity of maintaining social welfare programs that would ensure poor Americans were not left behind. Yet he understood the need for compromise, working with Reagan to reshape certain federal programs. When he died in 1994, O’Neill’s colleagues recalled a man who refused to yield politically, but who was a warm, genial human being. “Partisanship was put aside, and we could be the best of friends,” former House Minority Leader Robert H. Michel of Illinois recalled.

He was born Thomas Philip O’Neill, Jr., in North Cambridge, Massachusetts, in an Irish middle-class section known as “Old Dublin,” on December 9, 1912. The youngest of three surviving children, he never knew his mother. She died of tuberculosis when Thomas, Jr., was only nine months old. His father, Thomas, Sr., raised the children with the help of relatives until he remarried when his namesake was eight years old. Thomas, Jr., remembered “it wasn’t a happy time” because he was “passed from aunt to aunt” before the family stabilized.

Thomas, Sr., was tall, thin, austere, and well-regarded, a man who inspired respect even if he did not exude warmth. His children looked up to their father, but he was emotionally distant and sometimes inscrutable. The family patriarch began his career as a bricklayer, but he eventually served on the Cambridge City Council. Ambitious and hardworking, he moved away from physical labor in the private sector to become a civil servant, notably the superintendent of sewers in Cambridge. He developed considerable skill in anticipating the desires of the people in his community, always probing to determine who needed a job, who was unhappy, and who was voting a particular way.

Thomas, Sr., earned the title “the governor” because he distributed patronage jobs to his neighbors as if he controlled every aspect of their lives. In some ways, he did. A price had to be paid for the goodies he supplied, however, and that price was unswerving loyalty. If a fellow demonstrated his allegiance to the Democratic Party with sufficient zeal, he received a “snow button,” redeemable the next time inclement weather closed in on Cambridge. A man sporting such a button would snag a paying engagement clearing snow from streets and walkways. If a man could not produce the button, he was left out on the cold, so to speak. A public servant who could dole out jobs in that manner exercised genuine power to reward friends and punish enemies. The governor’s youngest child took note.

The young O'Neill earned the nickname “Tip” from a famous baseball player, Edward “Tip” O’Neill, who had played for the St. Louis Browns during the late 1880s and was best known for his ability to foul off pitches (called a “tip”) until he found the right pitch that allowed him to get on base. It became an appropriate sobriquet for a Massachusetts politician who would learn the virtues of patiently weaving through the legislative process to find exactly the right means of securing a victory.

He knew he was interested in politics from an early age. At 15, he campaigned for Democrat Al Smith in his unsuccessful bid for the presidency in 1928. Four years later, O’Neill supported New York Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt for president. After Roosevelt’s victory, O’Neill strongly supported the new president’s policies.

In 1935, while still a student at Boston College, Tip ran for a seat on the Cambridge City Council at the ripe old age of 22. He lost by 150 votes. It was the only loss in a lengthy political career.

He graduated from college in 1936. Disappointed but not discouraged by his city council loss, Tip threw his hat in the ring for a seat in the Massachusetts House of Representatives not long after he finished college. He won. Just 24 years old when he was sworn in, the new state legislator became a staunch defender of Roosevelt’s New Deal programs. He saw the misery inflicted on his friends and neighbors by the Great Depression, and he also saw how government could affect their lives positively. It was an insight into the value of government policies and programs that he never forgot.

Tip O’Neill paid his dues during the 1930s and 1940s, gradually mastering the legislative process and gaining seniority. In 1949, he became the first Democratic speaker of the Massachusetts House of Representatives in history. He held the post until shortly before he entered Congress in 1953.

Early in his career in the U.S. House of Representatives, he supported John McCormack, who became House majority leader and later speaker. O’Neill spent the next two decades slowly climbing the ladder, almost always demonstrating his fidelity to the party. The one major exception was the party’s policy on the Vietnam War. Initially, he supported President Lyndon B. Johnson’s intervention into the southeast Asian country to prevent the spread of Communism. By 1967, however, O’Neil had seen the error of his ways. Explaining his decision to oppose the war, he later wrote that “I knew it was the right thing to do.” He had supported the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin Resolution authorizing the Johnson administration to expand the conflict, but he believed his support had been a mistake. Now he would correct the error. “In the case of Vietnam,” he wrote, “now that my decision was made, I had no choice but to follow my conscience.”

In 1971, O’Neill became the House majority whip, the number three position in the leadership. His job was to count votes and ensure that his fellow Democrats worked together to support the party’s legislative agenda. Two years later, he became the House majority leader after a small airplane carrying Louisiana Congressman Hale Boggs disappeared in Alaska. Boggs was serving as majority leader at the time. Boggs’ plane presumably went down in October 1972, but the wreckage and his body were never found. He was not declared dead until early in 1973. The declaration opened up a special election for his replacement.

In 1977, House Speaker Carl Albert retired from Congress after he was accused of accepting bribes and gifts from a lobbyist working for the South Korean government. Tip had urged Albert to step aside as the scandal blossomed. He also asked for and received Albert’s blessing to campaign for the speakership. His decades of political experience and seniority paid off. Tip worked behind the scenes, visiting his colleagues to press for their support. He won the election and was sworn in as the 47th Speaker of the United States House of Representatives on January 4, 1977. He was 64 years old.

He became speaker just as a former Georgia peanut farmer, Jimmy Carter, entered the presidency. With a Democrat in the White House and Democratic control of both houses of Congress, O’Neill believed he would succeed in advancing a politically liberal agenda: guaranteed universal health coverage for all Americans, an expanded jobs program, and a robust social welfare state.

Despite their party affiliation, Tip O’Neill and Jimmy Carter enjoyed only a lukewarm relationship at best. They came to the national political scene with markedly different sensibilities and ideas about how to get things accomplished. O’Neill recalled his first conversation with the incoming president. Carter, he said, “told me how he had handled the Georgia Legislature by going over their heads directly to the people.”

The new speaker was aghast. “I said: ‘Hey, wait a minute. You have 289 guys up there who know their districts pretty well,'” referring to the 289 House Democrats anxious to enact favorable legislation. O’Neill was blunt to the point of rudeness: “They ran against the Administration” of Republican Gerald R. Ford, Carter’s predecessor, “and they wouldn’t hesitate to run against you.”

The president appeared shocked by this candid observation. “Oh, really?”

Carter and O’Neill never worked well together. The Georgian came to Washington as an outsider who was elected to change the status quo while the Massachusetts man was the consummate insider, a political operative well-versed on the ways to enact legislation. Among many differences, Carter was put off by legislation containing pork barrel projects that benefited House members’ constituents, but O’Neill understood that such measures “greased the skids” and allowed him flexibility in negotiating for the administration’s priorities. When Carter threatened to veto pet projects, the speaker reacted with disdain. It seemed that the president was hell bent on sabotaging O’Neill’s efforts. Lacking what the speaker believed was a coherent political agenda and unable to install party discipline in Congress, Carter fumbled through his single term in office, missing many opportunities to make his mark on government. The president enjoyed some successes, such as civil service reform, passage of ethics and energy legislation, and the Camp David Accords between Israel and Egypt, but O’Neill saw the administration’s legacy as a series of blunders and political ineptitude.

A majority of the voters shared the speaker’s assessment. Jimmy Carter lost the 1980 presidential election to former California Governor Ronald Reagan, a conservative Republican who presented a vivid contrast to his predecessor. From 1981 until 1987, Reagan and O’Neill faced each other largely as adversaries. Their world views could not have been more dissimilar. As one commentator noted, the incoming president and the crusty old House speaker “shared an Irish heritage, an interest in sports and an outgoing personality. But the two men had a profound philosophical disagreement about government: The Speaker regarded government as the solution to many social problems, as an agent of social change; Mr. Reagan regarded it as a problem in itself, interfering in the lives of Americans and impeding economic and social progress.”

Although the two men were fierce partisans unafraid to battle each other for supremacy, they also shared a begrudging respect for each other. During a celebration honoring O’Neill on his 69th birthday, the president expressed his fondness for his Irish opponent. “Tip,” Reagan said in his prepared remarks, “if I had a ticket to heaven and you didn’t have one, too, I would give mine away and go to hell with you.” It was a silly, standard Reagan witticism, but it brought tears to the speaker’s eyes.

The president shrugged off many of the speaker’s most pointed criticisms of the Republican’s policies. “Tip was an old-fashioned pol,” Reagan later reflected. “He could be sincere and friendly when he wanted to be, but when it came to the things he believed in, he could turn off the charm and friendship like a light switch and become as bloodthirsty as a piranha.”

The men spent most of the 1980s battling each other, although O’Neill retired two years before the end of Reagan’s second term. They occasionally worked together, but their points of agreement were few and far between. Legend has it that the president and the speaker joined forces to save Social Security during a budget negotiation in 1983, which required a compromise to increase the payroll tax, delay beneficiaries’ cost-of-living adjustments, require federal employees to enroll, and make recipients of more than $20,000 pay federal income tax on half of their benefits. The compromise contained plenty for skeptics to hate. Kansas Senator Robert J. "Bob" Dole, who later became majority leader, served as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee at the time. “Yep, Ron and Tip made that happen,” he sarcastically commented of the new law. “That’s what people say, anyway.”

After retiring from the House, O'Neill suffered from colon cancer, which required a colostomy, but he was determined to make the most of his remaining years. Rather than hide away and suffer in private, the former speaker joined athletes, movie stars, and other celebrities in recording public service announcements asking the public to be screened for colon cancer. In the twilight of his life, he remained what he had been throughout his congressional career: A large, generous, open, hearty man who wore his heart on his sleeve and unabashedly promoted liberal causes. A Republican congressman, John LeBoutillier of New York, once characterized the speaker as “fat, bloated, and out of control—just like the federal budget.” The comment was meant as an epithet, but O’Neill accepted it as a compliment. He was who he was, and he was unashamed.

After Tip O’Neill died of cardiac arrest on January 5, 1994, the accolades poured in from all quarters. President Bill Clinton recalled “a beautiful life well lived” by a man who “loved politics and government because he saw politics and government could make a difference in people’s lives.” Tom Foley, speaker of the House in 1994, described his predecessor as “the model of what a representative and a leader of the American people should be.” Bob Dole, a Republican senator who rarely saw eye-to-eye with the former Massachusetts lawmaker, nonetheless characterized O’Neill as “the congressman’s congressman.”


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© 2020 J . Michael Martinez