The Magazine

Tipping Point

Tip O'Neill and the end of the Democratic era

Jun 11, 2001, Vol. 6, No. 37 • By ALVIN S. FELZENBERG
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ANYONE WHO THINKS THE WRITING OF BIOGRAPHIES a declining art will be buoyed by the appearance of John Aloysius Farrell’s monumental study of legendary Democratic Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill. In Tip O’Neill and the Democratic Century, Farrell attempts, as his title suggests, both to tell the story of an important and colorful political figure and to recapture the spirit of the times in which he made his mark.

He succeeds at both tasks remarkably well, and he tells his tale with a vividness that enables his readers almost to see O’Neill work the ethnic wards of Boston and Cambridge, and to hear the roar of rallies and the clacking of chips at the speaker’s poker table.

O’Neill rose to power and prominence as the Democratic party was consolidating its majority status, bolstered by the votes of a growing middle class that saw itself as the beneficiary of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. When he left public life a half century later, the prevailing liberal consensus was giving way to a dynamic conservatism that advocated tax cuts and economic growth, while the Democratic party was disintegrating into a collection of liberal elites, obsessed with special pleading and group rights.

Even by the time he became speaker of the House in 1977, O’Neill was fighting a rear-guard action. Farrell sees as his most lasting achievement his "holding the bridge" against Reaganite assaults. In a rare but deliberate Churchillian pose, O’Neill proclaimed, "I did not become Speaker of the House to dismantle the programs that I fought for all my life, or the philosophy I believe in." Farrell credits Reagan with changing public expectations about the role of the federal government, curbing its expansion, seeing the potential for free trade and deregulation, and winning the Cold War. O’Neill’s lasting legacy, Farrell says, was shifting the terms of the debate from abolishing programs to scaling them back.

But is this right? Although he concedes that the scare tactics O’Neill used to achieve his ends more than bordered on the demagogic ("they want to abolish Social Security," "they want to kill Medicare"), Farrell never disagrees with O’Neill’s allegations about Reagan. As it happens, Reagan always insisted that his primary targets were the excesses of the Great Society, rather than the middle-class entitlements of the New Deal. The examples Farrell provides to suggest otherwise—reduced payments to early retirees and abolition of minimum monthly payments to those not enrolled in the Social Security system—were hardly of the kind that warranted the personal invective O’Neill injected into a policy dispute.

O’Neill proclaimed Reagan "cold and mean," said he had "ice water for blood," called him a "tightwad" and an "Ebenezer Scrooge," and said he had "no concern for the little man in America." Seldom does Farrell assess the role O’Neill played in producing the incivility much of contemporary Washington now decries. Nor does he contemplate what long-term effects the speaker’s disproportionate attacks against an increasingly popular president had on the electoral prospects of the Democratic party. Indeed, O’Neill, by his actions, probably put into greater jeopardy the program he most cherished. Ohio Democratic representative Lud Ashley, as Farrell notes, thought O’Neill had made it impossible for either party to trust its opposition ever again on matters pertaining to Social Security.

Even O’Neill’s genuine achievements proved short lived. The ethical laxities, sense of personal entitlement, corruption, and imperial manner in which the Democrats governed the House during O’Neill’s years helped produce the backlash that enabled the "Gingrich revolutionaries" O’Neill so detested to break a forty-year reign of Democratic control.

Prone though Farrell is to present O’Neill in the best possible light and give him the benefit of every possible doubt, one of the strengths of Tip O’Neill and the Democratic Century is that it provides the evidence to allow the reader to draw other conclusions. O’Neill once said of Reagan, "He and I both came from the same side of the railroad tracks. I never forgot from where I came. He kind of forgot." Farrell believes sentiments like these governed most of O’Neill’s actions as a public figure. A careful reading of his narrative suggests otherwise.

The youngest of four children, O’Neill was born December 9, 1912 in a working-class neighborhood in Cambridge. Farrell describes his childhood as "plain but comfortable." O’Neill’s father, a city employee and local politician, was never out of work, even during the Great Depression, and O’Neill, though he professed resentment even into old age at having to cut lawns at Harvard Yard, graduated from Boston College at a time when one of ten men his age went to college.