Hundreds of Tip O'Neill stories. My favorite has...

THERE ARE

January 10, 1994|By THEO LIPPMAN JR.

THERE ARE hundreds of Tip O'Neill stories. My favorite has to do with him and James Michael Curley.

Curley was the legendary Boston pol. Four times elected to Congress, four times elected mayor, once elected governor, twice jailed. (He was elected mayor after being indicted for influence peddling.) Edwin O'Connor's Frank Skeffington in the novel "The Last Hurrah" was based on Curley. (Spencer Tracy played him in the movie.)

Anyway, Tip and he didn't get along. O'Neill said he was "corrupt -- even by the ethics of his day, which were pretty loose." But they reconciled late in Curley's life. O'Neill was running for re-election to Congress once, and a down-on-his-luck Curley asked him if he could raise money for his campaign. Tip said sure, and a few days later Curley brought him an envelope. "I raised $500 for you," he said, handing over an envelope with $450 in it.

This kept up on an almost daily basis. "Here's a thousand bucks for you," Curley said one time, handing over an envelope with $900 in it.

That was O'Neill's last meeting with Curley, who died a few years later. After the campaign, a man called on Tip for a favor. He didn't live in the district, so Tip told him to see his own congressman. The man complained, "Well, that's a fine way to treat a friend." He said he had contributed a lot of money to O'Neill's campaign. Tip said he had no record of it.

"Jim Curley came to me and said he was raising money to put Tip O'Neill on television, and I'm the one who paid for your TV time," the man said. O'Neill laughed and told him how Curley had raised money for him, even about his skimming 10 percent.

"We both had a good laugh over that," O'Neill recalled. Then the man said, "Now I understand why you've never heard of me. But I remember how much money I gave to Curley to pay for those ads, and let me tell you, I'm afraid you were the one who [got the] 10 percent."

***

Liberal Democrats like to say they want to help "the little people." Tip meant it literally. "A doctor came down here to talk to us," he said once. "He said the average dwarf grows only 46 inches high, and if we appropriated $45 million for research, maybe that could be increased to 52 inches. So I got the $45 million in the budget."

***

No one was ever more partisan than Tip O'Neill. This may have kept Ted Agnew from becoming president. Vice President Agnew was about to be indicted in 1973. Shrewdly he asked Speaker Carl Albert to conduct a House inquiry into charges against him. This could have stalled the grand jury and led to months or even years of investigation. It might have dragged on till President Richard Nixon resigned.

House Republicans favored this as damage control. Speaker Albert was inclined to go along. But Tip, then House majority leader, talked him out of it.

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