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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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.