O'Neill, veteran of 40 years in US politics, dies

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POLITICAL friends and foes alike paid homage yesterday to Thomas 'Tip' O'Neill, the Speaker of the House of Representatives for 10 years until 1987 and one of the most imposing figures of modern US political history, following his death, aged 81, at a Boston hospital on Wednesday evening.

The White House said Mr O'Neill was 'a great American who served his country with distinction for many decades'. Ronald Reagan, who as president did almost daily battle with O'Neill on Capitol Hill, described him as 'one of our nation's most able legislators'.

It was as the Democrat bulwark against the conservative revolution begun by Mr Reagan that O'Neill achieved his greatest notoriety. He was also instantly recognisable to all Americans - and a gift to cartoonists - because of his enormous frame, his bulbous, blood-hound features and his unkempt sweep of white hair. A large, Cuban cigar was often wedged in his fingers.

O'Neill, who served five terms as speaker and whose political career spanned five decades, underwent surgery for cancer in 1987, the year of his retirement, and again in 1990. Relatives said he suffered a heart attack while at hospital for a routine check-up.

A New Deal liberal committed to generous government spending, especially in defence of the poor and disadvantaged, O'Neill was the most senior Democrat in Washington during the Reagan years. In a caustic moment he said Reagan was the 'least knowledgeable of any president I've ever met, on any subject'.

Yet, as with other political enemies, O'Neill had a warm personal relationship with the former president. In his tribute, Mr Reagan remarked: 'As Tip once said during one of our fiercest political battles: 'Don't worry, when 5 o'clock rolls around, we'll put business aside and just be friends'.'

The memory of O'Neill on Capitol Hill is one of an old- style, back-slapping politician who was on first-name terms with every member of Congress and was happiest striking deals in back rooms. 'Now they go in there and all they want to talk about is saving the whales or abortion,' he said shortly after retirement.

He was also noted for his commitment to his Boston constituents, sending flowers, for instance, when their relatives died. One of his favourite credos was that 'all politics is local'. He entered the House in 1952, taking the seat vacated by John F Kennedy when he moved to the Senate. His seat was taken in 1987 by JFK's nephew, Joseph Kennedy.

Obituary, page 14

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