STAYING alive politically for more than a couple decades is no easy feat, especially in Massachusetts, where intraparty rivalries often run deep. But Thomas P. O'Neill Jr. made it look easy. And for this second-generation American of Irish ancestry, survival in office never seemed much of a challenge.
To ``Tip'' O`Neill, now basking in retirement after a half century in public office, there is no substitute for party loyalty and being true to one's beliefs. That, in effect, has been his philosophy since his toe first touched the political ladder in 1936, all the way up through the top rung in Congress, as speaker of the US House of Representatives.
Although hardly an adviser or confidant of Gov. Michael Dukakis, Mr. O`Neill makes it clear he is behind the Bay State chief executive in his quest for the Democratic presidential nomination.
``I've never been that friendly with him, even though my son Tommy was his lieutenant governor,'' he explains, but ``I admire Mike. I think he's done a fantastic job in putting education and industry and labor together. He's got a great record to run on.''
O'Neill says he never wanted to be president and that becoming House speaker, where he served during the last decade of his career, was his goal.
In 1954, he says, he seriously considered running for governor. But quickly abandoned the idea when statewide polls showed that even though he had been speaker of the Massachusetts House and was in Congress, he was not that well known outside Greater Boston.
O'Neill attributes his rise in the federal power structure to help from a fellow Massachusetts congressman who went on to be House Speaker, John W. McCormack. But O'Neill readily concedes that ``being in the right place at the right time'' played an important role in his advancement.
His relationship with John Kennedy, whom he succeeded in the House when the latter moved to the Senate in 1953, was cordial but never close. And in his just-published book, ``Man of the House,'' O'Neill also makes it clear that he and Robert Kennedy did not hit it off well.
O'Neill denies he was under any pressure, in last year's Democratic primary campaign, to support Joseph P. Kennedy II for the House seat he was vacating. O'Neill, who rarely faced formidable ballot opposition, says it appeared obvious just before Labor Day that the contest was between Mr. Kennedy and state Sen. George Bachrach. ``I came out behind Kennedy because I thought he believed in the principles that I believe in, thought he was more of a dinner-pail, more of a bread-and-butter, work-and-wages candidate than an environmental save-the-whale person,'' he says of Kennedy. O'Neill, who delights in describing himself as a ``lunch-pail Democrat,'' takes pride in his commitment to social issues and his role in passage of laws to improve the lot of the needy and working-class people.
He is particularly pleased, he says, with his role in pushing passage of legislation that led to establishing of the Cape Cod National Seashore.
``We were burned in effigy at Truro, we were stoned at Wellfleet - you know with bonfires and things like that, and we were booed out of the Eastham Town Hall,'' he recalls. ``In those days there were only 29 miles of public beaches in Massachusetts, and yet we have a coastline of over 700 miles, including the islands. We preserved 55 miles and over 2 million people a year go down there.''
Besides changes in candidates and their styles during his 50 years, the campaigning is vastly different, too, O'Neill says. ``With the advent of openness in public life and the advent of new people in public life, there are no more organizations. Each candidate today has to get his own crowd, ... make his own issues, and ... raise his own money.''
He recalls that when he was 14 years old going house to house lining up citizens to come out and vote, every ward had its own organization. ``They were active, and they were part of your social life, part of your political life.''
Looking toward next year, O'Neill says he expects the House to stay Democratic but is less sure of the Senate. He anticipates a close presidential election that he hopes will go Democratic.
Although he has sold his home in North Cambridge, O'Neill says he is no less a part of his old neighborhood. ``I always go back to various affairs; I still go to Frankie for my haircut; I still take my shoes to John the cobbler. My life style isn't going to change. I had rather be a lamppost in North Cambridge than be king of the universe.''