The Speaker recalls: political tales from the professional pol

Man of the House: The Life and Political Memoirs of Speaker Tip O'Neill, by Thomas P. O'Neill Jr., with William Novak. New York: Random House. 387 pp. $19.95. Graduation day at Harvard. The men of the class of 1927 gathered under a sun-dappled tent on the university grounds to celebrate the occasion with bootleg champagne.

Tip O'Neill, the man who, a half century later, would ascend to a spot at the apex of the national political hierarchy, clipped hedges nearby. And seethed.

``It was the illegal champagne that really annoyed me,'' O'Neill recalls. ``On that commencement day at Harvard, as I watched those privileged, confident Ivy League Yankees who had everything handed to them in life, I made a resolution. Someday, I vowed, I would work to make sure my own people could go to places like Harvard, where they could avail themselves of the same opportunities that these young college men took for granted.''

So begin the memoirs of Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr., the Massachusetts Democrat who served as the Speaker of the House of Representatives for the decade ending last January. Mr. O'Neill's convictions were formed early in life, through the bitter experience of being Irish, Roman Catholic, and from working-class stock at a time when the Irish were outcasts, the Protestants had all the money, and there was virtually no middle class to aspire to.

Everything changed, of course - except for Tip's political philosophy, which he wore on his sleeve even as hurricane Ronald Reagan blasted through Washington.

To call O'Neill a New Dealer is understatement. O'Neill is the very embodiment of the New Deal and has been its living, breathing symbol - many would say artifact - during the Reagan years.

O'Neill thus endured brickbats from Republicans and Democrats alike during the Reagan revolution's heyday. But he stuck to his guns. Meanwhile, Reagan-style laissez faire lost some of its allure and errant Democrats returned to the fold.

O'Neill, in collaboration with celebrity ghostwriter William Novak, rather grandiloquently calls ``The Man of the House'' his ``political testament'' to those trying years. But forget about the testament part. This book's a page turner, a feast for political junkies and anyone else who revels in insiders' gossip.

O'Neill is a masterly raconteur who knows how to spin a tale, settle a score, and keep things humming along with wily charm and understated Irish wit.

Perhaps it's not surprising that some of the stories have drawn return fire: Rowland Evans and Robert Novak, for example, have called the story he tells about them ``totally untrue.''

Needless to say, O'Neill rarely hedges when he tells a story. The results can be engrossing - as, for example, when he writes about the Kennedy clan. With conspicuous and disarming ingenuity, O'Neill recalls his role as a middleman in what seems to have been a Kennedy family effort to buy Edward McCormack out of his 1962 race against Edward Kennedy for a US Senate seat.

As O'Neill tells it, President John Kennedy directed him to talk with aide Kenneth O'Donnell. ``If Eddie drops out now, we'll make him an ambassador to any country he wants,'' O'Neill recalls O'Donnell telling him. ``We also understand that he's in debt for a hundred thousand dollars. If he gets out now, old Joe will make sure that the debt is taken care of, and Eddie will be retained as a lawyer for some of the Kennedy ventures.'' McCormack, O'Neill reports, turned the offer down.

O'Neill is at his best, however, when he settles back to tell his own story. The book positively sings as he recalls a more innocent age of Boston ward politics in the 1920s and 1930s. The chapter about James Michael Curley is as vivid and uproarious as anything that has been written about the twice-convicted mayor of Boston and governor of Massachusetts. Other passages, loving descriptions of the political climate surrounding O'Neill's youth and coming-of-age in state politics, rise to the level of the classic.

Take the story of Martin Lomasney of Boston's West End. As O'Neill tells it, Lomasney would meet new immigrants at the dock, get them registered to vote, get them a job, and find them a room in his precinct. On election day, Lomasney would greet one of his charges at the polls with a marked ballot. ``When you came out, you'd give Martin the clean ballot, and he'd mark it off and give it to the next in line.''

Lomasney was obviously corrupt, but in a well-meaning sort of way. The pol took care of his flock - could the government have any higher duty? O'Neill carried those early convictions to his last day in politics. No one can yet say whether O'Neill was a great Speaker.

But, having read his book, no one should have any doubts what he stood for.

Peter Osterlund is on the Monitor's staff.

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