...in 1952, Thomas P. ("Tip") O'Neill of Cambridge announced that he would run for the Congressional seat being vacated by John F. Kennedy as Kennedy began a campaign for the Senate. O'Neill had already served seven terms in the state legislature. He would serve in the U.S. Congress for the next 39 years, the last ten as Speaker of the House. An affable man who believed "all politics is local," O'Neill played an important role in national affairs supporting civil rights, opposing the Vietnam War, and leading the fight for liberal causes. Although one of the most powerful men in the nation, at his death in 1994, O'Neill was remembered as a man who "never forgot where he came from."
Thomas P. O'Neill, Jr. known by almost everyone as "Tip," first ran for public office when he was still a college student. He lost his bid for a seat on the Cambridge City Council, but he learned two lessons that stayed with him for the rest of his life.
On Election Day, a neighbor told him that she would vote for him, "even though you didn't ask me." When O'Neill protested that he had known her since he was a child, had shoveled her walk and cut her grass, and didn't think he had to ask for her vote, she replied, "Tom, let me tell you something. People like to be asked." The next day, O'Neill's father ascribed the loss to Tip's failure to work hard enough in his own neighborhood. His advice became his son's motto: "All politics is local." Tip O'Neill never forgot these lessons, and he never again lost a campaign.
He was born in 1912 into an Irish-American family in North Cambridge, the neighborhood he called home for his entire life. His father, Thomas O'Neill, Sr., was a former bricklayer who had worked his way into a white- collar civil service job. The elder O'Neill was active in his union, his church, various community associations, and, perhaps most importantly for his son, the local Democratic Party. He was widely respected in the Irish-American community. Tip idolized his father; even after his death in 1953, Tip continued to use the suffix "Jr." to honor his memory.
Tom O'Neill, Sr. valued education, and his children received the best he could provide. His oldest son graduated from Holy Cross College and won a scholarship to Harvard Law School; his daughter became a teacher and, eventually, the first female principal in the Cambridge public school system. Tom attended St. John's High School, but he readily acknowledged that he was not the scholar his brother was. He had a gregarious personality, and an unquenchable appetite for sports, buddies, and card games. As he grew, his six-foot-four-inch frame helped him excel at football. He also loved playing and watching baseball, basketball, and golf. He earned his nickname imitating baseball great Edward O'Neill who was famous for hitting foul tips until he was walked. When Tip O'Neill graduated from high school in 1931, he did not go to college; he got a job driving a truck.
Eventually, a former high school teacher persuaded him to continue his education. Although he had not been a strong student, he had shown a gift for debate; one nun on the St. John's faculty remembered that as debate captain he could "talk you deaf, dumb, and blind." In the autumn of 1932, at the age of 20, Tip O'Neill entered Boston College.
Jesuit priests founded the college in 1863 to provide higher education to young Catholic men who were excluded from the Brahmin-dominated private colleges. By the 1930s, its students were almost entirely men of Irish descent who commuted to the campus from their homes in Boston and its suburbs. During his four years at BC, O'Neill rowed crew and fenced, but he devoted much of his extracurricular time to Cambridge politics. His senior class voted the affable, humorous, approachable O'Neill "Class Politician." After graduation, he stayed in North Cambridge and took a job with an insurance company.
In 1936 O'Neill ran for the state legislature. Applying the lessons he had learned from his unsuccessful campaign for city council, O'Neill developed a political style that would characterize him for life. He embraced the concept that all politics is local and that all politics is personal.
As his longtime friend and colleague U.S. Representative Joe Moakley recalled many years later, "He was a fellow who loved people and he knew everybody." O'Neill not only knew his constituents, he knew their needs; he was genuinely committed to improving their lives and protecting their interests. O'Neill held elected office for next 49 years. He served 15 years in the state legislature and 34 years in the U.S. House of Representatives.
O'Neill was a consummate politician. His personal trademarks his shock of unruly white hair, wide grin, broad Boston accent, and rumpled suits may have made him easy to caricature, but Tip O'Neill was a serious and skillful politician. One reporter noted that O'Neill was best behind closed doors, "unsticking the frozen gears of government by sheer force of his powerful personality."
His colleagues in the Massachusetts House and later in Congress recognized that O'Neill had a genius for getting things done; both bodies elected him Speaker. Tip O'Neill occupied the powerful position of Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives for a decade longer than any other individual has held that post and used the Speakership as a bully pulpit for the causes he cared about.
From the beginning of his career, O'Neill impressed his colleagues and constituents with his integrity. In the wake of the Red Scare, the Massachusetts legislature passed a bill requiring teachers to take a loyalty oath. O'Neill believed that the oath violated teachers' civil liberties, and he knowingly incurred the wrath of the American Legion by voting to repeal the law. His courageous act furthered his reputation both as an independent thinker and as a man who made his decisions based on principle rather than on what was politically popular.
In Congress, O'Neill continued to follow his conscience. He was one of the earliest opponents of the Vietnam War, freely criticizing the policies of a president from his own party. He was instrumental in the Watergate hearings and in the eventual resignation of President Nixon. He succeeded in pushing through reforms in the legislative process that made lawmakers more accountable to their constituents. He introduced TV broadcasts of House proceedings. He opposed the Pentagon's support for Nicaragua's Contra rebels.
O'Neill came of age during the Depression and was deeply committed to the New Deal approach to politics. He believed that government should take an active role in fighting poverty and injustice. He led the fight against Reagan-era budget cuts and was derided as a "tax-and-spend" liberal by conservative Republicans.
Tip O'Neill might have lived by the axiom that "all politics are local," but he was a national figure. In 1974, during the Watergate hearings, he appeared on the cover of Time magazine. In 1991 President George Bush awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom for serving the public steadfastly for 50 years "while maintaining his humor, humility and touch with the people."
At his death in 1994, O'Neill was eulogized as one of the twentieth century's most gifted politicians but also as a man who never forgot where he came from. As his North Cambridge neighbors said, "His hat still fit."
Tip O'Neill and the Democratic Century, by John A. Farrell (Little Brown and Co., 2001).
"Thomas Phillip (Tip) O'Neill, Jr. 1912-1994," Biographical Directory of the United States Congress.
Boston Globe, January 7, 1994 and June 6, 2006.
Boston Herald, January 6, 1994.
Worcester Telegram & Gazette, January 6 and 11, 1994.