Local Style, National Presence

THE political maxim ``all politics is local'' was eminently lived by Thomas P. O'Neill Jr., who rose from his North Cambridge suburb of Boston to Speaker of the Massachusetts House to Speaker of the House of Representatives in Washington.

What makes politics local?

It is seeing and being seen. It is observing the human element. It is recognizing that the neighborhood has an identity of its own, that people need jobs, that school access is needed for developmentally challenged children. It is remembering that people have names and that they crave the validation of being known by those names.

O'Neill's success was not related to the proximity of Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which shared some of the luster of local Boston luminaries like John F. Kennedy.

But it was promoted by an era of Boston political culture that continues despite a constant assertion its time has passed. The culture is partly Irish: It sees territory in terms of parishes and precincts; it likes to congregate and gab and sing. The underlying polarity between Brahmin Yankee and the newcomers, chiefly Roman Catholics, earlier this century still fuels Boston politics - though ``newcomers'' now embrace many other ethnic and racial groups.

History and topography contribute to the fractionalized nature of Boston politics. There is none of the undifferentiated sprawl of suburbs in other parts of the country. New England streets do not run straight for long; hills, bends, ponds intervene.

A ``Tip'' O'Neill may be caricatured. A capacious figure, his hair atumble, he was a perfect foil for another Irish politician, Ronald Reagan, a matinee idol whose hair color never faded and whose haircombing never wavered.

O'Neill in Washington did better against Mr. Reagan than he was given credit for. He rallied Democrats in the House in proportions seen only in the best years of Kennedy and Johnson. Reagan's victories in Congress came from joining a relatively few Democratic defectors (Republican in their political profile) with an unprecedented Republican uniformity. O'Neill seemed wounded, perplexed at times at the course of things in the nation's capital. The growing independence of legislators from any kind of leadership was part of it. O'Neill grieved over a creeping hardness of heart in national affairs.

Socially Washington, too, is local. The capital is a town. Many of its neighborhoods, principally the district, are black and unenfranchised. The powerful - those in office or those employed to influence them - move in their own corridors of familiarity. One can see in Washington individuals yearning to be recognized - not the least reporters signaling to be called upon.

Communities live on beyond their present inhabitants. Reporters get to know one another over the years at many sites, events, and interviews. It is the same with the politicians they cover: They have been through countless hearings, battles, campaigns, and dinners together.

If one's sense of community, of localness, is healthy, one will be less likely to disagree in a way that might embitter. If localness is expecting neighbors to read one's values openly in one's acts, it is a quality O'Neill superlatively expressed.

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