Tip O'Neill never forgot the soup line

January 10, 1994|By Sandy Grady

SOMEHOW it's OK if Tip O'Neill was in Congress 35 years and speaker of the House for 10 -- yet most people remember him from a motel chain's TV ads, popping out of a suitcase.

You can't think of that ad -- Tip grinning, pop-eyed, clownish, "full of himself" as the Irish say -- without smiling.

It was Tip playing Tip, a booming teddy bear who made a triumph of life with blarney, guts, sentiment and laughter.

That's why there was no false melancholia after O'Neill's death at 81. Faces lit up as people told Tip stories.

Start with Ronald Reagan's State of the Union speech in 1986. Television viewers saw O'Neill and vice-president George Bush whispering behind Reagan. They didn't hear this conversation:

Tip: "It's voodoo economics. You understand that, don't you, George?"

Bush: "Shhh, be quiet, Tip."

Tip: "C'mon, George, you don't believe this [barnyard epithet], do you?" [Bush shaking with restrained giggles].

There isn't going to be another Tip O'Neill in national politics, not in our lifetimes. Maybe not ever.

The game has turned cold, played by blow-dried hustlers. They talk like anchormen and scurry for money, too frantically ambitious to laugh.

There's not going to be another Tip, last of the old-style liberals who saw the soup lines in the Great Depression.

And damned if he'd let it happen again.

Not going to be another Irish papa bear who called members of Congress (if he liked them) "old pal."

Or broke all PC rules by slinging a big paw around congresswomen and bellowing, "Howya doin', darlin'?"

He loved Franklin Roosevelt, the old Boston neighborhood, good whiskey, poker, cigars, his wife Millie, the Red Sox and Irish stories.

He despised the New York Yankees and most Republicans.

Most triumphant lives have ironic twists. Tip O'Neill became famous and semi-rich because of his enemies -- television and Ronald Reagan.

At O'Neill's death, Reagan recalled that no matter how bitterly they fought, at 5 o'clock the two old Irishmen would gab over a pop -- "and sometimes Tip and I pushed the clock ahead."

It was also true that Tip (who called him "Reegen") held the Gipper in bemused contempt.

"He was a four-hour-a-day president," O'Neill said a couple of years ago. "He was an actor who'd read his lines. He was the least knowledgeable president of my lifetime."

Then with a wink: "But he woulda made a helluva king."

Reagan's popularity almost buried O'Neill in the early 1980s. His own Democrats rushed to Reagan's banner. ("In any other country, Democrats would be five parties," growled O'Neill.) Republican schockmeisters ran TV ads caricaturing a fat, stogie-smoking Tip as "the last of big-time spenders."

Oddly, the ads made O'Neill a celebrity. People liked him. He began battling Reagan on Social Security, defense, the Nicaragua contras. He hired Chris Matthews, a fast-talking Philadelphian, to help with anti-Reagan quips. "Doing press for Tip," said Matthews, "was like doing makeup for Catherine Deneuve."

While O'Neill had distrusted television ("you can't tell a story in a sound bite"), his shaggy hair and gravelly voice made him a video persona.

When the pair left office, O'Neill's popularity rating was 67 percent, the president's 43. "Makes an old boy feel good," purred O'Neill.

Tip was also nearly broke. His Boston bank balance was $2,900. But the fame of his anti-Reagan years paid off. A best-selling book, "Man of the House," was worth a million. Madison Avenue found this jowly, bubbly ex-pol a smash on TV.

After the suitcase ad for Quality Inns, followed by commercials for Miller Lite, the Trump shuttle, Hush Puppies and American Express, critics raged at O'Neill's pandering. But Tip wasn't selling the House speakership. He was selling Tip.

I'm not proposing O'Neill for sainthood. He could hate hard and use brass knucks.

When Rep. John Boutillier, R-N.Y., called him "big, fat and out of control," O'Neill ran him out of politics.

O'Neill savaged Jimmy Carter's top aide, Hamilton Jordan, as "Hannibal Jerkin -- he thinks you get a House speaker at Radio Shack."

Richard Nixon once said, "O'Neill's the most ruthless speaker in history."

Being called "ruthless" by Richard Nixon is like Ross Perot criticizing your haircut.

Sure, O'Neill could drip sentiment. Before a packed house I heard Tip, then 78, croak a love ballad to Millie. "'Thank you," he said, "for being mother and father to our kids."

At the funeral of friend Rep. Silvio Conte, D-Mass., O'Neill said, "I hear five bells ringing. Final adjournment. Goodbye, old pal."

Now that five bells have rung for O'Neill, he's famed for his quote, "All politics is local." Meaning: Take care of your people in hard times.

Beneath the Irish blather, O'Neill never forgot those '30's soup lines in the rain.

No use waiting for another Tip O'Neill. There won't be one.

Sandy Grady is Washington columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News.

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