Thomas P. O'Neill

After a 16-year career in the Massachusetts legislature, Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill (1912-1994) won election as a Democrat to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1952. He was easily re-elected thereafter, rising to majority whip, then majority leader, and finally to Speaker of the House, 1977-1987.

Thomas Philip O'Neill, Jr., was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on December 9, 1912, the third child of Thomas P. and Rose Ann Tolan O'Neill. His father was a bricklayer and a professional politician, serving on the Cambridge City Council and then as sewer commissioner for that city. Young O'Neill, a rabid baseball fan, acquired the nickname "Tip" after a major league ballplayer also named O'Neill.

His mother having died within nine months of his birth, "Tip" was raised by his father with the help of a housekeeper before his father remarried. A mediocre student at the St. John's parochial school but a social leader, "Tip" dreamed of becoming mayor of Cambridge (a goal befitting his father's oft-repeated maxim, "all politics is local"). At 15 O'Neill worked locally in the presidential campaign of fellow Irish Catholic Al Smith.

After brief experience as a truck driver, O'Neill enrolled in 1933 at Boston College, where he pursued a liberal arts education while continuing to drive a truck and supplementing his income by skillful poker-playing. Following graduation in 1936 he found law school not to his liking and embarked directly on a political career.


Professional Politician

After experiencing the only electoral defeat he would ever suffer (for Cambridge City Council, while a college senior), O'Neill won election to the Massachusetts State House of Representatives as a Democrat in 1936. With his party vastly outnumbered, he could do little but concentrate on patronage—which he did, arranging for the hiring of hundreds of his constituents for public service work. In these early years O'Neill worked between legislative sessions in the Cambridge city treasurer's office.

In June 1941 he married former schoolmate Mildred Anne Miller, with whom he had five children: Rosemary, Thomas P. III (later lieutenant governor of Massachusetts), Susan, Christopher, and Michael. He improved his financial situation in the 1940s when, evicted from his city job by political rivals, he entered into the insurance business—an enterprise he continued for over two decades. He did not serve in the military during World War II, originally receiving exemption to serve in the legislature and then receiving a physical deferment due to mild diabetes.

Popular among party colleagues in the state legislature, in 1946 O'Neill was elected House minority leader. (That same year he unsuccessfully supported a friend against young John F. Kennedy for the Democratic House nomination in his home congressional district.) As minority leader O'Neill's greatest achievement was helping to organize a successful strategy in 1948 to elect a Democratic majority to the Massachusetts lower house. The Democrats' narrow victory made O'Neill the youngest Speaker in the history of the Massachusetts legislature. He was a highly effective Speaker, proving adept at "headcounting," producing strong party unity, and helping ensure passage of the new Democratic governor's so-called "Little New Deal." Respected for his fairness, the affable O'Neill was willing to apply pressure, when necessary, to keep his troops in line. In 1950 he again masterminded the Democrats' statewide victory. Both he and other Democrats expected he would ultimately become governor.


A Long-time Congressman

In 1952 O'Neill succeeded to John Kennedy's House seat (as Kennedy advanced to the Senate) after winning a hard-fought primary—the last close electoral contest he would face. As a protege of House Majority Leader John McCormack, also of Massachusetts, he rapidly gained access to the inner circle of power in the House. Through the sponsorship of McCormack and powerful Speaker Sam Rayburn, O'Neill was placed in 1955 on the important Rules Committee—as a "loyalist" of the House Democratic leadership. Over the next several years he attained little national visibility but gained a reputation as a shrewd and helpful master of internal House process and a staunch party regular—a "politician's politician."

Democratic control of the White House in the 1960s enabled O'Neill to play a constructive role as he helped to pass the New Frontier and Great Society legislative programs. His only significant rebellion against the Democratic administrations was on the federal school-aid bill, which he opposed.

In 1967 O'Neill revised his image as an unwavering party loyalist by becoming the first "establishment" Democrat to break with President Johnson over the Vietnam War, even backing the anti-war candidacy of Senator Eugene McCarthy for the 1968 presidential nomination. By the early 1970s this stance, combined with his support for a number of House procedural reforms, won him a unique reputation as an old-style politician with reform sympathies. He was thus a popular choice when selected in 1971 by a new Democratic House leadership team to be majority whip.

In less than two years O'Neill rose to the post of majority leader, after the incumbent (Representative Hale Boggs) disappeared and was presumed dead in an airplane crash. As he had done as majority whip, O'Neill brought energy to this new post, eclipsing the indecisive Carl Albert, Speaker of the House during much of the 1970s. Remaining a strong partisan, O'Neill took a cautious line during the Watergate crisis. Still, he was a powerful force in urging his colleagues to prepare for impeachment proceedings against President Nixon in early 1974. After Nixon's resignation O'Neill actively supported legislative initiatives to limit the budget and war-making powers of the presidency. Toward Nixon's successor, his old friend Gerald Ford, O'Neill was personally cordial but politically uncompromising. His deep instinct for the underdog, however, led him to avoid criticizing Ford when the latter gave Nixon a full pardon.


Speaker of the House

When O'Neill succeeded Albert as Speaker in 1977 (without opposition), a new president of his own party moved into the White House: Jimmy Carter. Opposites in personality and divided over the necessity of compromise between Congress and the White House (O'Neill had always thought compromise the essence of politics), O'Neill and Carter nevertheless developed a friendly relationship. The Speaker loyally backed Carter's policies in the House, helping to pass both the president's energy package and a bill creating a Department of Education. O'Neill advised Carter to pay more attention to the domestic problems of inflation and energy shortages and believed, with other traditional liberals, that the president was too conservative in his policies. Yet when Edward Kennedy challenged Carter for the 1980 Democratic nomination, O'Neill remained neutral and eventually served as chairman of the 1980 convention controlled by the president's supporters. During his first years as Speaker one of O'Neill's most notable achievements was passage of a strong code of ethics for House members.

Republican successes in the 1980 elections greatly altered O'Neill's situation. With Ronald Reagan in the White House and the Senate under Republican Party control, the Speaker stood as the top-ranking elected leader of his party. Never a television personality, he made himself very accessible to the press and increasingly spoke out on the major issues. It was as party strategist, however, that he had greatest impact. Unsuccessful in his efforts to block Reagan's sharp reductions in domestic spending and "supply side" tax reductions in 1981, O'Neill kept fellow Democrats from agreeing to a bipartisan compromise on the troubled Social Security System, thereby keeping the subject alive as an issue (along with the 1981 tax measure) for the upcoming congressional elections. The Democrats' strong showing in 1982 vindicated the strategy.

O'Neill enjoyed greater power and prestige in dealing with the Reagan administration after 1982. The president then lacked the working majority of Republicans and conservative Democrats that he had relied on previously and thus had to be more accommodating towards the Speaker and his followers. In early 1984, however, O'Neill announced he would seek only one more House term. Winning re-election easily (as he had for 30 years), he resumed his role as leader of the opposition as Reagan began his second term. Truly a transitional figure between the old politics and the new, he was rated among the strongest House Speakers in history upon his retirement in 1987.

O'Neill's memoirs, Man of the House (1987), written with William Novak, became a best-seller. He also wrote All Politics is Local, with Gary Hymel. (1994) Tip O'Neill died in Boston, at the age of 82.


Further Reading on Thomas P. O'Neill

The only book-length treatment of O'Neill's life was Paul Clancy and Shirley Elder, Tip: A Biography of Thomas P. O'Neill, Speaker of the House (1980). Jimmy Breslin's How the Good Guys Finally Won (1975) discussed at length O'Neill's role in House activities related to Watergate. In 1987 O'Neill with William Novak wrote Man of the House: The Life and Political Memoirs of Speaker Tip O'Neill.