Tip O’Neill and the Democratic Century
By John A. Farrell
Little, Brown and Co., New York, 776 pages
Back in the Watergate summer of 1974, the syndicated columnist Mary McGrory was waxing eloquent about the men toiling to bring down Richard M. Nixon. “The night-school students are saving the country,” McGrory bubbled. “I don’t think [federal Judge John] Sirica or [House Judiciary Committee Chairman Peter] Rodino spent a day in a regular undergraduate school. And I’m certain that Tip didn’t.”
Actually, a colleague corrected her, Thomas P. O’Neill Jr.–then majority leader of the US House of Representatives and the grand strategist of Nixon’s undoing–was a graduate of Boston College.
“Oh, yes,” McGrory admitted. “But thank God it wasn’t serious.”
That story, recounted in Jimmy Breslin’s How the Good Guys Finally Won, speaks volumes about the perceptions and misperceptions that helped usher Tip O’Neill to power. For five decades, O’Neill prospered mightily in the business of politics because so many people–friend and foe alike–insisted on seeing only the side of him that McGrory saw.
That side was surely real: Tip O’Neill was every bit the glad-handing, cigar-smoking, favor-swapping Irish pol that his neighbors in North Cambridge knew him to be. But the rest of Speaker O’Neill–the lover of history, the sophisticated strategist and master of parliamentary maneuver, and the partisan gut-fighter with the sharpest shiv on Capitol Hill–all of that was real, too, and much more serious than the familiar caricature.
In the 14 years since O’Neill came home from Washington, we’ve gotten mostly the McGrory side. O’Neill certainly contributed to the current image in his 1987 autobiography, Man of the House–an unusually good political memoir that nonetheless smoothed the rough edges off a lot of recent history. But it’s been since his death in 1994 that the myth-makers have been especially busy: O’Neill has been extolled, at least in these parts, as a sort of benevolent 280-pound leprechaun, a genial teller of stories and slapper of backs.
But it was no leprechaun who took down Richard Nixon, fought Ronald Reagan to a bloody draw over the fate of the Great Society, and in the process helped raise Congressional partisanship to a new and ugly level. Remembering that Tip O’Neill, warts and all, is a serious obligation–if only to make sure that history, unlike so many of O’Neill’s opponents, does not underestimate the man.
John Aloysius Farrell is clearly up to the task. Farrell is one of The Boston Globe’s most respected Washington hands, and Tip O’Neill and the Democratic Century is a smart, politically savvy biography. Farrell has a practical understanding of how things get done on Capitol Hill, and an ability to convey that understanding in crisp and lucid English. Unlike a lot of today’s press corps, Farrell sees Washington politics in perspective, and can explain them without getting all breathless.
Republicans should be warned that this is no Kitty Kelley, smash-and-grab bio; Farrell is an O’Neill fan, and he describes the Speaker’s philosophy in sometimes gushing terms. What most distinguished Tip O’Neill, Farrell writes, was “a magnificence of spirit, deep compassion and a rock-hard set of beliefs…. He reveled in the collectivity of purpose, in the fruits of charity, neighborhood and fellowship.” But for all the occasional rose petals, Farrell remains a sober judge of O’Neill’s successes and failures in the arena. He may be a sympathetic chronicler, but he is also a fair-minded one.
The book is, to be honest, more successful in recounting the details of O’Neill’s public life than those of his private life. We get much more about the House Rules Committee and the oil-depletion allowance than about, say, any of the Speaker’s five children. O’Neill always strove to keep his private life private, and in this book Farrell has been respectful–perhaps a bit too much so–of that desire.
But in so doing, Farrell has mercifully spared us the sort of glib psychologizing that pollutes so many recent biographies. Like his subject, Farrell has little time for the touchy-feely stuff. Tip O’Neill was a big man who did very big things on a very public stage, and his biographer has accordingly kept his focus on the stage, not the wings.
Thomas P. O’Neill Jr. became the embodiment of the Irish Catholic urban Democrat just as that peculiar breed was dying out. But while most analysts have emphasized the Irish Catholic element of O’Neill’s political persona, Farrell places at least as much importance on the Speaker’s fierce Democratic partisanship.
From the early days, O’Neill’s career was defined in partisan terms: He was the first Democrat to serve as Speaker of the Massachusetts House of Representatives, after engineering a stunning upset of the state’s somnolent GOP in 1948. Even after his election to Congress in 1952–succeeding John F. Kennedy as representative of what was then the 11th District–O’Neill remained a major force in state Democratic politics, and seriously considered running for governor as late as 1960.
Once he decided to pursue power in Washington, O’Neill defined himself as the most regular of regular Democrats. He began as one of Speaker Sam Rayburn’s loyal lieutenants on the Rules Committee, and emerged as a protege of Rayburn’s successor, South Boston’s John McCormack.
But it was not until after McCormack retired in 1970 that O’Neill began his dizzying rise to power. He shrewdly outmaneuvered a platoon of better-known rivals to win appointment as majority whip in 1971, and only six years later took up the gavel as Speaker.
Part of this rapid ascent can be attributed to fate: A plane crash claimed the life of Majority Leader Hale Boggs in 1972, allowing O’Neill to move up the leadership ladder. And part can be attributed to O’Neill’s subtle political skills: As Farrell notes, O’Neill “played the happy Irishman, with no small element of calculation. He had won the affection of his colleagues, while masking his ambition from potential rivals.”
But perhaps the greatest part must be attributed to a ruthless determination that most of his rivals did not recognize until it was far too late. O’Neill on his path to the Speakership left plenty of bodies in his wake: Phil Burton, Dan Rostenkowski, Dick Bolling, Wilbur Mills, and Wayne Hays, to name just a few. Farrell writes: “For all his good times and blarney, O’Neill never lacked the cold-blooded will to do what was necessary. When required, he could bring the hammer down and astound people with his cruel calculation.”
And if O’Neill had sharp elbows when infighting with fellow Democrats, he was stone-cold brutal to the GOP. It was O’Neill, more than anyone else, who as majority leader brought the hammer down on Nixon, serving as quarterback of the impeachment squad. Nixon’s resignation brought the accession of former House Republican leader Gerald Ford, whom O’Neill considered a close friend. But politics, for O’Neill, would always trump friendship. In 1976, O’Neill savaged Ford on the campaign trail, helping to defeat his good friend and elect Jimmy Carter, a Southern moralist he plainly disliked.
To O’Neill, there was no hypocrisy in any of this. He was simply playing by the old, familiar rules of Washington politics, by which Democrats and Republicans waged partisan warfare until 6 p.m., and then resumed their close friendships over cocktails and card games.
Carter never learned to play by those rules, and he and O’Neill never quite got along. Ronald Reagan, ironically, played the game–and got along with O’Neill–much better than Carter ever did, even as he and the Speaker waged a desperate war over the remains of the New Deal and the Great Society.
Politicizing Social Security was brilliant short-term politics,
but it forestalled needed reform.
It was during this war that O’Neill made a strategic decision with profound implications for the next 20 years of American politics. In 1981 the Speaker–taking a beating on Reagan’s early tax and budget proposals–decided that the Democrats would make their stand on Social Security, vehemently attacking any and all Reagan proposals to trim benefits.
The decision to politicize Social Security was brilliant short-term politics, helping the Democrats to a big victory in the 1982 mid-term elections. But it also forestalled precisely the sort of bipartisan reform effort that was so badly needed at the time, and locked the Democratic Party into an intransigent (but politically useful) position on any meaningful reform of Social Security or, in later years, Medicare.
To be fair, O’Neill’s stand was a product of more than political calculation. He was genuinely committed to standing up for the old and the poor and the disadvantaged, the “little guys” who relied on the programs of the New Deal and the Great Society. In his defense of those programs, O’Neill was being true to himself and his roots. But he was also playing a high-stakes game of power politics.
In the end, O’Neill won more than he lost. After 1982, Reagan’s legislative victories were few and far between, and the core of Roosevelt’s New Deal legacy remained intact. But the game itself was also changing, and before O’Neill retired in 1986, Washington was becoming a very different, and far meaner, place.
One of the biggest changes, of course, was the new ethical climate–the Watergate morality that O’Neill had done so much to foster. After Nixon fell, the number of ethics investigations mushroomed and the path was set for the sort of inquisition-by-special-prosecutor that defined the Clinton years.
O’Neill had several brushes of his own with the ethics cops. In his first few years as Speaker he faced multiple FBI investigations into his financial affairs, the most notorious of which involved Korean influence peddler Tongsun Park. O’Neill was cleared in every instance, though some of his dealings were of a fragrant sort that might not pass the smell test today.
Farrell is quick to excuse O’Neill’s financial misadventures. O’Neill “would trade favors, phone a judge, shave corners, bend the law,” Farrell writes. But at the same time, “this was a politician who was as determined to preserve from disgrace the good name of his family…as he was to succeed. His upbringing, his makeup and his pride kept him honest.”
True as that may be, O’Neill was undeniably a politician of the old school who had a hard time avoiding the financial-ethics trap that he himself helped create during Watergate. Two of his successors–Jim Wright and Newt Gingrich–would not be so lucky.
What O’Neill also helped create was, ironically, the era of Gingrich, Tom DeLay, and the Clinton impeachment. It was, after all, O’Neill’s in-your-face partisanship that triggered a reaction among Gingrich and his fellow conservative Young Turks in the mid-’80s. But those Young Turks had a better sense than O’Neill of where politics were heading in the media age.
Whereas O’Neill still lived by the “six o’clock rule,” Gingrich and the younger Republicans knew that there is no game clock on modern politics. In the era of 24-hour news coverage and live broadcast of House debates, there was no room for old-style congeniality or even civility. Politics was, to Gingrich and the new generation–now the generation in power–a 24/7 war, and fraternizing with the enemy was not allowed.
O’Neill seemed, in his last years as Speaker, not to understand the shift. At one point, Gingrich–then still a young back-bencher–bested the Speaker in a debate over the televising of House floor action, and the incident certified Gingrich’s status as a rising conservative superstar. O’Neill later told a key Gingrich ally, referring to both him and the future Republican Speaker, “I made you.”
In the 14 years since O’Neill last wielded the gavel, the climate in Congress has deteriorated badly. Partisanship of the most bitter sort infects debate and leads to gridlock, government shutdowns, and impeachment. Courtly lawmakers such as Daniel Patrick Moynihan leave Washington for good, bemoaning the hostile atmosphere. And the new president sees a need to devote much of his inaugural address to a schoolmarmish plea for “civility.”
This is surely not what Tip O’Neill had in mind when he first journeyed down to Washington in 1953. But it is an inevitable by-product of all he wrought.
Tip O’Neill and the Democratic Century is an admirable recounting of all the very big things that Speaker O’Neill did–and a reminder that not all of them turned out for the better.