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.

Failing in his race for the Cambridge City Council in 1935, O’Neill won a seat in the state legislature a year later. A party regular, he took an independent line when he opposed loyalty oaths for teachers. Like his later opposition to the Vietnam war, this may have been more an act of expediency than courage—in a district that housed several universities. In 1948, at the behest of his mentor, Representative John McCormack, O’Neill masterminded the campaign that won the Democrats control of the Massachusetts House of Representatives for the first time in that state’s history. Victory made him the first Democrat and the first Catholic ever to serve as Speaker. Three issues Democrats rode into office that year were housing for veterans, increased power to labor unions, and opposition to birth control.

At the early stages of his career, O’Neill, a devout Catholic, awarded much weight to his religious convictions and the policy positions of the Church hierarchy. He went so far as to block President Kennedy’s federal aid to education initiative because it had exempted parochial schools. A decade later, he was pressuring fellow Catholics from working-class constituencies to toe the new party line in favor of abortion. He ventured even farther when he enthusiastically backed compulsory school busing, reversed himself on parochial school aid, and opposed what would later go by the name "school choice."

O’Neill’s early opposition to Vietnam facilitated his rise up the ranks of the House leadership. He made himself the bridge between southern committee chairmen and party reformers. He ingratiated himself with the latter through innovations like open teller voting and used their support to maximize the powers of the House leadership at the expense of committee fiefdoms.

As House majority leader, O’Neill was among the first to sense that Nixon would not survive Watergate. What most perturbed him about the scandal was not the illegalities but the fact that Nixon crossed an established political boundary by poaching Democratic contributors. Assuming the public stance of a "disinterested" observer, O’Neill worked feverishly behind the scenes and through the press to create an air of inevitability about Nixon’s impeachment. Farrell convincingly portrays him as the "stage manager" of the entire process.

Elected speaker just before Jimmy Carter’s inauguration as president, O’Neill was poised to follow in the footsteps of Rayburn and McCormack by passing a Democratic president’s activist agenda. Frustrated at Carter’s fiscal restraint and budgetary caution, he found his true calling as the public face of a despondent Democratic party determined to resist the "Reagan revolution." In that role, O’Neill showed himself more a tactician than a visionary. He had made a career of finding the center of gravity within his party and maneuvering himself into a position where he could enforce the prevailing orthodoxy.

Reagan was just the reverse. For him, high office was a means through which to enact his deeply held beliefs. He obtained his opportunity not by accommodating his views to the mainstream of his party but by supplanting that mainstream through his powers of persuasion, charm, and organization. "We are too great a nation to limit ourselves to small dreams," Reagan proclaimed. One of his dreams was to lighten burdens he believed prevented people living in circumstances similar to those he had experienced from getting ahead, as he had.

"We didn’t live on the wrong side of the railroad tracks, but we lived so close to them we could hear the whistle real loud," Reagan once snapped at O’Neill’s attacks. "I think it is sheer demagoguery to pretend that this economic program which we’ve submitted is not aimed at helping the great cross-section of people in this country that have been burdened for too long by big government and high taxes."

Having escaped the poverty of his youth, Reagan made sure the door behind him stayed open. Of the two determined Irish Americans who grace Farrell’s pages, Ronald Reagan was the one who best remembered where he came from.

Alvin S. Felzenberg directs the Mandate for Leadership Program at the Heritage Foundation.