When Democrats Are Feuding (Like Now), Tip O'Neill Is the Man They Trust with the Gavel
That fortuitous blend of leadership and Irish blarney has brought O'Neill all the way from St. John's to the internationally scrutinized debating hall of the Democratic National Convention. As convention chairman, O'Neill, 67, will perform duties this week that are all but second nature to a second-term Speaker of the House of Representatives. But rarely has he confronted a personal and political dilemma so difficult as the battle between Jimmy Carter and Ted Kennedy. As a lifelong Democratic loyalist, O'Neill feels bound to the President by history, yet drawn to the rebellious senator by ties of friendship and ideological affinity. "Every day is a tough day for me—I never have an easy one," admits O'Neill. Painful though his assignment may be, Democrats of all stripes concur: No one could do it better than Tip. "If I were a candidate this year, I can think of no man I would rather have presiding over the convention," says Sen. George McGovern. "Both men will get fairness from him."
O'Neill's life is a classic American success story, and no one is more aware of it than the Speaker himself. "People keep talking about the good old days," he says. "Jeez, I remember living in a flat where four families used the same toilet downstairs. We didn't consider ourselves poor, but you know the poor don't live like that today." The youngest of three children, Tip lost his mother to tuberculosis when he was 9 months old. His father remarried when Tip was 7. "The transition of a new mother coming into the family never worked," he says somberly. "There was never much happiness in that home."
Tip turned to his neighbors, the Fitzgeralds, whose home was always full of people and talk. "I spent more time there than I did at my own house," he says. "There was also a terrific affinity between my brother, my sister and myself. And the nuns always watched out for me." Later he spent much of his time at Barry's Corner, a community hangout where a young man could always get into a card game. It was probably there that Tip acquired his nickname, taken from a baseball player named James Edward O'Neill, who was famous for tipping off fouls. "There were so many Sullivan, O'Donnell and O'Neill families that every kid had to have a nickname," says Tip. Only his wife and a handful of old friends still call him "Tom."
O'Neill met his wife, Millie (born Mildred Miller), when he was a junior in high school. "Even then Millie was the girl for Tom," recalls Sister Agatha, who taught them both (and later their son Tommy) at St. John's high school. "I don't think there was ever any other." Hardly an impulsive suitor, Tip did not pop the question until nearly 13 years later, at a Boston College hockey game in 1941. "I don't know—I just brought it up, I guess," he says bashfully. "Fortunately, she didn't say no, and we have been going on 40 years of a great marriage." While raising their five children, Millie gave Tip the home he had dreamed of as a child. "Everyone loved Millie from the first," he says fondly. "People kept coming in the front and back doors of my house. It was the meeting place—just like the Fitzgeralds' when I was a kid."
The home front was Millie's responsibility, because by the time they married, Tip was already a full-time politician. He was only 16 when he first entered the rough-and-tumble of Boston politics, campaigning door to door for the 1928 Democratic presidential candidate, Alfred E. Smith. Three years later, while working his way through Boston College, Tip led a student strike to protest a tuition hike from $200 to $225 a year. "The priest came out on the lawn and said, 'Boys, you've already missed two classes, and if you're not in your seats for the next class, you'll be tossed out of school,' " remembers an old friend. "We marched back in. We couldn't afford another school." For Tip, it was an invaluable lesson in the nature of power.
Another defeat brought further enlightment. This time he ran for Cambridge city council while still in college and lost by 156 votes. On election day he was approached by a neighbor. "Tip, I voted for you even though you didn't ask me," she said. The young candidate was aghast. "But Mrs. O'Brien, I shovel your sidewalk in winter, I mow your grass in summer, and I take out your trash twice a week," he protested. "I didn't think I had to ask you." "Thomas," she told him, "everyone likes to be asked." O'Neill has told this story so many times that Mrs. O'Brien now occupies a hallowed niche in Massachusetts political folklore. In every subsequent election the Speaker has out-cajoled, out-backslapped and out-buttonholed anyone who has had the temerity to campaign against him. He has asked, and his appeals have been heeded.
After that first narrow defeat, in fact, O'Neill never again lost an election. At 23, he was elected to the state legislature, entering the golden-domed statehouse on Beacon Street with two other young men who have remained among his closest friends—Edward Boland, now a U.S. congressman, and Leo Diehl, O'Neill's administrative assistant. "We never went home," Diehl recalls nostalgically. "It's a great business when you're young and single." Even when he married Millie five years later, Tip made no great change in his lifestyle. "He's a man's man, for God's sake," says Diehl. In the Hibernian tradition, Tip loves to play cards, smoke cigars, drink whiskey and spin tales. With women, he displays a courtly and slightly uncomfortable set of old-fashioned manners.
In 1947, at the age of 35, O'Neill was elected speaker of the Massachusetts House of Representatives, pushing through a wide range of social programs and occasionally, he says, "locking the doors to keep a fella from taking a walk." When John Kennedy vacated his congressional seat to run for the U.S. Senate in 1952, O'Neill called in his IOUs and replaced him. "I expected in 1958 to be a candidate for governor of Massachusetts, on the ticket with Jack running for reelection," he remembers. "But I was enjoying Washington and I could open doors around town. So when the time came I wasn't really interested."
O'Neill's early mentor on Capitol Hill was Rep. John McCormack, his fellow Bostonian, who was then House Democratic Whip and later became Speaker. In Tip's second term, McCormack wangled him a place on the powerful Rules Committee, where he helped plan party strategy with such down-home Machiavellians as Lyndon Johnson and Sam Rayburn. "I knew my own possibilities of ultimately being Speaker were good," admits Tip. "Being on the Rules Committee, being able to analyze the repercussions of a bill, and my political insight helped spread the word—'Tip knows what's going on in the House.' "
When it came to his own residence in Cambridge, though, Tip was less directly involved. For 25 years he shared a Washington bachelor apartment with Boland, going home only on weekends, while Millie raised the five kids mostly on her own. "That's the hardest type of life a fellow can have," says Tip, with regretful hindsight. "You go back to an apartment, you close the bedroom door and there's just four walls. Whenever there was a family accident or problem, I was always in Washington. Boy, I'm telling you, there's a lot of sadness that goes with being in public life." O'Neill has unhappy memories also of being frozen out of John F. Kennedy's circle of friends after JFK moved to the White House. The President's Irish Mafia aides were jealous of his friendship with Kennedy, says O'Neill, and simply cut him off the invitation list. Later, shortly before his assassination, JFK complained to O'Neill that he never came around for a visit. "What could I say?" says O'Neill with a shrug.
In O'Neill's case, of course, sacrifice was rewarded. He was appointed House Democratic Whip in 1971 and became Majority Leader the following year when Hale Boggs was killed in a plane crash. Rep. Sam Gibbons, who briefly considered running against him, bowed to the inevitable and withdrew, observing that Tip didn't have an enemy in the House. When Carl Albert stepped down as Speaker in 1976, O'Neill was the unanimous choice to replace him. Addressing new Democratic members of the House in 1976, O'Neill announced, "I intend to be a strong Speaker. You have all heard how you can't teach an old dog new tricks. Well, you can if he wants to learn, and this old dog wants to learn."
Not noted as a disciplinarian in the Rayburn mold ("Today there is very little a Speaker can do to punish," observes one Democratic congressman), O'Neill nonetheless issues a fatherly warning to every young congressman not to repeat the mistakes of his elders. "My advice to all of them is that this is such a loose town that you can get yourself in trouble if you don't have your bride and your family here," O'Neill explains. Fortunately for him, he says, Millie moved to Washington in 1977, just when congressional investigators were discovering that influence buyer Tongsun Park had hosted a birthday party for Tip four years before. "I showed up as a favor to another congressman," O'Neill grumbles, still nursing a wound he feels was inflicted unjustly. "I may have met the guy [Park] six times, but I never had a conversation with him." O'Neill was put through the wringer, but was later absolved. "I don't know how I would have gotten through all that Tongsun Park crap without Millie being here," he says with a sigh.
The O'Neills now share a cooperative apartment in suburban Bethesda, Md., near their son Christopher (Kip) and his two children. Millie's presence has had a noticeable impact on the Speaker's appearance. She has spruced up his wardrobe and trimmed his bulk—neither an enviable task. The night he was elected Speaker, he went to the theater and was called onstage for a bow. "Millie said, 'Oh God,' " he recalls, "but wouldn't tell me what was wrong. Finally she says, 'You've got on pants from one suit and a coat from another.' " Dieting is another struggle: Tip estimates he has shed half a ton over the years, then incorrigibly gained most of it back. Recently, while at the racetrack, he and Millie decided to bet on horses whose numbers corresponded to their weights. "When Millie heard I was up to 2-5-9, she said, 'Tom, you start the Scarsdale [diet] tomorrow,' " he admits sheepishly.
Even that effort must take second place this week as O'Neill presides over the quadrennial donnybrook that may determine his party's fate in November. Old-time loyalties will be sorely tested (O'Neill's own son Tom III, lieutenant governor of Massachusetts, is a staunch Kennedy ally), but O'Neill is confident he will weather the turmoil. "I'm going to be neutral and fair," he vows. "I'm in the twilight of my career, and I really don't know when I'll pull the curtain down. The only thing I can hope is that when I do, I can say to myself, I've been true to my God and my country, and I've left a heritage that Millie and the kids can be proud of. A man can't ask for any more."