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The Lincoln Memorial, the Capitol, and Tip

By Peter OsterlundStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 15, 1986


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.

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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.

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.''