Tip O'Neill was more than a Boston Irish pol

ON POLITICS

January 07, 1994|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- It was always easy for the Republicans to attack Tip O'Neill. He was the quintessential, fat, red-faced, cigar-smoking, Boston Irish politician.

But O'Neill, who died the other night at 81, was far more complex than that caricature suggested. Although, like most Irish pols from Boston, he enjoyed sitting around late into the night telling stories, he also was often far ahead of his time on many important issues.

He was among the first congressional Democrats, as early as 1967, to break with Lyndon Johnson on his conduct of the war in Vietnam. And in January 1974 he was the first Democratic leader to suggest that the embattled Richard Nixon should consider resignation.

As speaker of the House of Representatives a decade later, he endorsed and pushed reforms of its rules and ethical standards. Despite his image as an old-fashioned clubhouse backslapper, O'Neill was at heart a vintage liberal Democratic activist who believed government had functions to perform that could not be done by anyone else. He talked with great pride one night -- after a taste or two -- about how he had managed to push through the first federal appropriation for research on the problem of knock-knees.

O'Neill's liberalism made him an obvious target for conservative Republicans during the Reagan era. They were able to use him as a bogey man in raising money for their conservative candidates. Save the country from Tip O'Neill.

O'Neill seemed unimpressed by his critics. When an obscure Republican congressman called him and Congress "big, fat and out of control," the speaker replied: "I wouldn't know him from a cord of wood." And when Jimmy Carter's White House chief of staff, Hamilton Jordan, treated him rudely, he dismissed him as "Hannibal Jerkin."

O'Neill was astute and flexible enough to accept advice about his image. After years of avoiding such things, he began to appear on television talk shows and, to the consternation of the Republicans, saw his approval rating rise steadily until he was no longer useful as a bogey man.

O'Neill came from the old school of politicians who, although fiercely partisan, understood the difference between enemies and adversaries. "To be perfectly frank," O'Neill once told a reporter about the House minority leader, using his favorite qualifying phrase, "I like Bob Michel."

O'Neill had a difficult time with Ronald Reagan. Although both men professed a warm after-work relationship, O'Neill was a professional who believed in politics and government and found Reagan hard to accept, once calling him "the least knowledgeable of any president I've ever met. He works by three-by-five cards." Once, returning from a White House meeting, he reported as much in sorrow as in anger about a congressional leader suggesting a possible course to Reagan and Reagan looking over to an adviser, whose almost imperceptible negative nod scotched the suggestion. "Imagine," said O'Neill, "the president of the United States had to ask a staff man -- and right in front of everybody."

In the end, O'Neill should be remembered for his many substantive achievements in a long career in public service. It is more likely, however, that he will be recalled as the man who told marvelous stories -- such as the one about Boston Red Sox star Carl Yastrzemski and the Polish pope.

The speaker took a Massachusetts delegation to the Vatican and learned later that "Yaz," a Polish-American, was hurt that he hadn't been included. On return he apologized and informed the star that the pope had asked about him. "Really?" Yastrzemski said. "Yeah," Tip cracked, with a famous 1978 Red Sox loss in mind. "He said, 'Is it true that Yaz popped up to end that playoff game against the Yankees?'"

O'Neill also loved to tell about Yaz calling on him upon his retirement from baseball with thoughts of running for lieutenant governor. "How much do you make now, Yaz?" he asked. The player gave him a six-figure number. "Do you know how much the lieutenant governor makes?" Tip asked. "No," Yaz said. "Twenty-five thousand," O'Neill replied. "Well," Yaz concluded, "the hell with that."

Tip O'Neill was always good for a laugh -- and much more than that.

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