The Lincoln Memorial, the Capitol, and Tip

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

AMONG the monuments in the nation's capital are the Jefferson Memorial, the Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Monument, and the domed edifice of the Capitol. Then there's Tip.

Few Washington politicians have the staying power of Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. Fewer still achieve his prominence. Almost none can claim to have become a virtual symbol of one of the three branches of the federal government.

But Mr. O'Neill can. When he retires at the end of this 99th Congress, the Massachusetts Democrat will have logged 10 unbroken years as the Speaker of the House of Representatives -- the longest continuous term for any Speaker. His rumpled attire, mop of white hair, and elephantine presence have made him the darling of photographers and cartoonists. He has led House Democrats through the toughest challenge to their institutional dominance in more than a generation.

Recommended: Could you pass a US citizenship test?

Above all, he is one-half of the most famous pair of political antagonists in the country. For the last six years, circumstance has pitted O'Neill against Ronald Reagan, and it is his role as leader of the loyal opposition that has propelled O'Neill into celebrity status.

``Had Carter won in 1980, Tip wouldn't have attained the visibility he did, wouldn't have stayed as long as he did, and wouldn't be receiving $1 million to write a book about his life,'' says Ronald M. Peters Jr., director of the Carl Albert Congressional Research and Studies Center, named for the Oklahoma Democrat who preceded O'Neill as Speaker.

In a party leaderless after Mr. Carter's defeat, O'Neill became the point man. Yet even though he has crossed verbal swords with Mr. Reagan daily, nevertheless the continued popularity of ``the great communicator'' continues to amaze O'Neill:

``I have people . . . say to me, `Tip, I've voted for you for 40 years. I love ya. I have a problem. When you go to the House, don't be mean to the President of the United States. I love him.'

``It was Labor Day,'' he continues. ``I was at the Italian Festival down in Ward , 1 and the crowds [said]: `Tip, please, please, we love Reagan.' Well, I don't know what it is they love about him. But there's a flair, there's a charisma, and there's a quality of leadership that the fella has that they like. They don't like what he stands for, but they do like him.''

O'Neill relates the tale in a mirthful, rapid-fire mumble. For this interview, he slumps in a wooden swivel chair behind the desk in his private office, just off the House chamber. The surrounding walls and tables are cluttered with mementos of a political career spanning a half-century that began when, at age 24, Tip O'Neill became a member of the Massachusetts House.

The Speaker looks like a tough, old Boston pol, and he talks like one, his discursive speech betraying roots in the immigrant neighborhoods of Cambridge, Mass. O'Neill has represented those same neighborhoods in Washington for 33 years, taking over the seat when its young occupant, one John F. Kennedy, became a senator.

In hindsight, many Democrats agree that it would have been hard to pick a better match for Reagan than O'Neill. About the same age, they were both born poor. Both are Irish in heritage, and, some say, in temperament. Both have deeply held beliefs about government, and they are at opposite ends of the political spectrum.

O'Neill ``is everything you hoped the Democratic Party would be, just wrapped up into one guy,'' says US Rep. Charles Rangel (D) of New York.

``No one reacts to gut issues the way Tip does,'' says Rep. Leon Panetta (D) of California. ``People sense that he's compassionate, that he's on their side. . . . He communicates compassion very strongly.''

Yet O'Neill's reviews were not always so glowing. When the Reagan revolution first swept Washington in 1981, the Speaker was on the ropes.

He stood fast against the initial Reagan juggernaut, defending the Democratic programs of the 1950s and '60s. Meanwhile, the Democratic majority in the House was split as conservative Democrats, sensing a shift in the national mood, bolted from their leadership to vote with colleagues on the Republican side of the aisle to freeze or reduce spending for domestic programs.

During the 10 days before a vote on the first Reagan budget in 1981, O'Neill's office was deluged with 53,000 letters, 8,000 of them from his own district. Their message, says O'Neill: ``Give the President a chance.''

By voting with House Republicans, Democrats gave Reagan working Republican majorities in both houses of Congress, and thus the tools with which the White House was able to halt the decades-long growth of the American welfare state. O`Neill also came under fire from his colleagues for not exercising the powers of his office to bring House Democrats into line at a time when party discipline was desperately needed. O'Neill's critics found this all the more frustrating because institutional reforms of the early 1970s had left the speakership at its most powerful in US history. Those criticisms, now muted, continue to this day nonetheless.

That O'Neill happened to look like a stereotypical old-fashioned politician did not help him, either. ``He was quite an eye-catching symbol there,'' admits House minority leader Robert Michel (R) of Illinois. ``Unfortunately for us as Republicans, I'm afraid a general image has been projected out there [that] Tip . . . is the House.''

But that did not stop the Republicans from using that symbol against the Democrats. In the 1980 campaign, the Republican Party ran a highly successful television ad showing an O'Neill look-alike blithely driving a car until it ran out of gas. Later, freshman Republican Rep. John LeBoutillier brayed that the Speaker was ``just like the federal budget -- fat, bloated, and out of control.''

Democrats soon began to fret that O'Neill was projecting the wrong image for their party. In 1982, a number of House Democrats seriously contemplated replacing him with someone more telegenic. ``That didn't amount to anything,'' says majority leader Jim Wright (D) of Texas, who is expected to replace O'Neill as Speaker at the beginning of the 100th Congress, in January. ``It was just a lot of blowing in the wind.''

But O'Neill now says that period may have been the most difficult in his career. ``That's when it hurt the most,'' he says, ``knowing in my heart that I was right and my party leaving me, and fellows out there calling for a change in leadership. . . . But I stood my guns.''

If anything, his image took a stiffer pasting than his institutional reputation. ``When a fella is leader of the popular party and all he has is a 13 percent approval rating in the country, he's got two alternatives -- fight like hell or quit,'' O'Neill says. ``And I had no intention of quitting.''

Instead, Tip got even, quietly pursuing his strategy: He went about putting Republicans on the record in favor of Reagan initiatives and against Democratic alternatives on the key issues of the federal budget, taxes, and social security. A recession arrived with the 1982 congressional elections. O'Neill watched House Republicans walk the electoral plank.

Thirty-three Democrats had been swept out of the House by Reagan's coattails in 1980, and Senate Democrats were banished to unaccustomed minority status; in the 1982 elections O'Neill's party posted a gain of 27 in the House. GOP hopes of grabbing the House majority for the first time in a generation were quashed.

``The Republicans were deliberately trying to set Tip up in a point-counterpoint situation -- Tip vs. Reagan -- and by doing so they hoped to take the House away from us in '82,'' recalls Rep. Tony Coelho (D) of California, the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. ``Instead, Tip came out on top.''

After the election, O'Neill pursued a more cooperative strategy, helping to pass bipartisan gasoline tax and social security bills that many observers predicted would die on the House floor. Partly as a result of that cooperative spirit, House Democrats survived the 1984 Reagan landslide in far better shape then anyone expected.

The critics in his own party quieted, plaudits tumbled in, and his reputation solidified as the White House found itself bogged down in Congress on a plethora of foreign and domestic issues. O'Neill became one of the party's top fund-raisers. ``Every time he shows up, we triple our contributions,'' Representative Coelho says.

By the time O'Neill announced his impending retirement in January 1985 his public popularity was soaring. ``Now my rating is at 63 percent,'' he says; ``I must have done something right.'' That is nearly as high as the President he has opposed.

Whatever he does from here on, he knows his niche in history has been assured. What does he want history to say about him?

``He came with a certain set of ideas and he stayed with them all the way. He helped in the development of America,'' O'Neill says. ``Fifty years in public life, and I wouldn't change five minutes of them.''

Share this story:

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.

Loading...

Loading...

Loading...