Obituary: Thomas P. O'Neill

Godfrey Hodgson
Friday 07 January 1994 00:02

Thomas Philip ('Tip') O'Neill, politician: born Cambridge, Massachusetts 9 December 1912; Member, Massachusetts House of Representatives 1936-52, Speaker 1948-52; Member, US House of Representatives from Massachusetts 11th, later 8th, District 1953-87, Majority Whip 1971-73, Majority Leader 1973-76, Speaker 1977-87; partner, O'Neill and Athy, Washington 1987- 94; author of Man of the House: the life and political memoirs of Speaker Tip O'Neill 1988; married 1941 Mildred Miller (three sons, two daughters); died Boston, Massachusetts 5 January 1994.

THOMAS P. O'NEILL, universally known as 'Tip', after a long- forgotten baseball player of the 1880s, was Speaker of the US House of Representatives from 1977 to 1986. He was the last of a line: the shrewd, genial tribe of working- class Boston Irish politicans.

A tall, burly man with powerful hands, a shock of white hair and a rubicund face with the map of Ireland on it, O'Neill was a lot more intelligent and sophisticated than he looked. Yet first impressions were not wholly deceptive. He incarnated the political style of the Boston Irish: their machismo and sentimentality; their good fellowship and capacity for resentment; above all their fierce loyalties, to their country, their church, their neighbourhood and their own kind, and above all to the Democratic Party.

Tip O'Neill grew up in North Cambridge, the Irish working-class neighbourhood that shared the city of Cambridge, Massachusetts, with Harvard University, the citadel of the hereditary foe to the Massachusetts Irish. In his autobiography, Man of the House (1988), O'Neill evokes that distant world with deft touches. His father was a bricklayer, a city councillor and the president of a temperance society; an uncle had died of drink. The O'Neills were good Catholics, but baseball was a second religion.

O'Neill was a member of a gang called Barry's Corner. The boys hung out in an abandoned barbershop and played gin rummy for a nickel a game and listened to the World Series baseball on the wireless in Tupper's drugstore. Tip went to Gaelic school as a child, taught by the sister-in-law of Terence MacSweeney, the mayor of Cork who died in a hunger strike in 1920. 'We had a tremendous hatred of the English,' he acknowledged simply, though on my two meetings with him he was warmth and friendliness personified.

'Not all of our problems with the English were in the past,' O'Neill said. It is a revealing remark; revealing of how much, the Revolution and the Battle of Bunker Hill notwithstanding, the Boston Irish identified the proud Yankees who controlled the financial power in Boston with the English.

It was at Harvard University in 1927, O'Neill said, that he first decided to go into politics. He was not a Harvard man, but that summer he was working as a groundsman, cutting the grass in Harvard yard. Years later when he wrote his autobiography he could still remember the anger he felt as he watched the Harvard students in their white linen suits drinking champagne, illegal at the time because of prohibition. 'Who the hell do these people think they are?' he said to himself.

There was a world of opportunity, though, for a clever, determined Irish working-class boy in Boston, with a father in politics and a family who wanted him to succeed. His mother died when he was nine months old, but his stepmother encouraged him.

He said later that he learnt five lessons from his father. The first was loyalty. The second was honesty. The third was to remember his responsibilities: 'I am my brother's keeper.' The fourth was 'to remember, always, from whence I came'. And the fifth was that public life was a great honour. So O'Neill went to St John's Grammar School, and then to the Jesuits at Boston College. While he was still there he went down to Washington to meet President Roosevelt, and before he graduated ran for the Cambridge city council. It was the only political race he lost in his life.

In 1936 he ran for the state legislature, and was duly elected, with a lot of help from the Barry's Corner gang, the Boston College graduates, the political veterans of the world of James Michael Curley and The Last Hurrah, and not least from all the people his father had helped to get a job.

It was the middle of the Depression, and O'Neill's politics were the basic working-class politics of work and wages. When he was a national and to some extent an international figure, he still insisted that 'all politics is local politics'. He meant that if policies were to be adopted, let alone be successful, they must be made comprehensible and relevant to people like the policies that affected them directly in their own lives. In good time he became speaker of the Massachusetts legislature, and in 1953 he was elected a member of Congress in Washington. In 1970, when his fellow Massachusetts Irishman the austere John McCormack retired, O'Neill joined the Democratic leadership, and in 1977, after Carl Albert resigned, he succeeded to the Speakership.

Up to that time, O'Neill had been an amiable, independent-minded and respected legislative technician. He earned the respect of such different political colleagues as Speaker Sam Rayburn, the Massachusetts senator and president John Kennedy, and the Senate majority leader Lyndon Johnson. He was an easy-going, likeable man who liked a drink, a joke and a game of golf, though his liberal principles were not negotiable and he was, perhaps surprisingly, an opponent of the Vietnam war.

O'Neill's loyalty extended to Jimmy Carter. They might not have seemed natural soulmates, just as Georgia and Massachusetts are the equivalent in American politics of oil and water, or in this case of whisky and water. But O'Neill respected Carter, and only held it against him that he was not sufficiently willing to ask for help . . . from the Democrats in the House.

It was not until Ronald Reagan became president in 1981 that O'Neill entered the heroic phase of his congressional career. He disliked Reagan personally, politically and ideologically. To O'Neill's mind, Reagan, as an Irish Democrat who had switched to being a conservative Republican, had broken one, if not two, of O'Neill's five commandments: he was guilty both of disloyalty and of forgetting where he came from.

O'Neill's judgement was simple and unforgiving. He regarded Ronald Reagan as the worst president of the United States he had seen. 'Give him his due,' he added gruffly, 'he would have made a hell of a king.' O'Neill fought Reagan because he saw him as the enemy of the poor. He also disagreed with Reagan's foreign policy, and in particular with his support for the Contra rebels in Central America, and there was an interesting reason for that. Through his aunt Ann, known as Sister Eunice, a Maryknoll sister, he had imbibed the order's strong opposition to conservative groups like the Contras.

O'Neill became something of a hate figure to the conservatives, who saw him as the embodiment of the old liberal Democratic politics. That was the way, unrepentantly, he saw himself.

(Photograph omitted)

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