Last of the Big Spenders

January 07, 1994

Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill was an old-fashioned pol straight out of Central Casting. A little disheveled, a little bombastic, a wheeler-dealer exuding just a suspicion of the corrupt, not very well educated or eloquent -- a Northern, urban Irish relic of a past that the likes of the Kennedys and the Moynihans had put behind them.

Mr. O'Neill, who died Wednesday at 81, had an image problem so great that the Republican Party in 1980 attacked "politics as usual" with a television commercial in which an O'Neill look-alike drove a car until it ran out of gas. The car stood for traditional liberal Democratic politics and philosophy. The next year a Republican member of the House of Representative said of him, "He's just like the federal budget, fat, bloated and out of control."

In a sense these criticisms struck home. Some Democrats wanted a more up-to-date, attractive spokesman for their party on television. Tip O'Neill and what he stood for were out of favor in the 1980s. He knew that. He recognized that another Irish charmer, Ronald Reagan, represented a new era in American politics. The day of the federal government striving to help "little people," the people who needed help the most, was over. He said of himself in 1981, "You know, I've been one of the big spenders of all time. It's true. I am a big spender. . . You know, I've always thought it was the obligation of government to help people."

Government was Tip O'Neill's life. He was elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives in 1936 at age 24 and rose to its speakership. He was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1952. He was speaker from 1977 till his retirement in 1986, and he was in control more often than not.

He helped lay the groundwork for big Democratic wins in the 1982 House elections, then worked to get bi-partisan support for a number of key pieces of legislation in 1983 and 1984. He retired saddened by what he saw happening to America's "little people" because of Reagan policies, but "[taking] some comfort from the knowledge that without Tip O'Neill, the damage would have been a lot worse," as he put it.

As for his image problem, the American people came to sense his genuineness, to find him attractive -- so much so that a Baltimore advertising agency successfully used him in commercials for a hotel chain after his retirement.

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