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Hall of Fame: The Case Against Tip O'Neill



Does Tip O'Neill's career get him a place in the Hall? (Photo/John Duricka)

Yesterday we made the case for the inclusion of former House Speaker Tip O'Neill in the Fix Political Hall of Fame.

Today we argue the opposite.

Tone Deaf

O'Neill was raised a New Deal liberal and, even after his party -- and the country -- had moved beyond that governing model, he clung to those tenets, often to the detriment of the party he represented.

In an O'Neill obituary that ran in the New York Times in 1994, Martin Tolchin described the late speaker as an "old style politician" who "clung to his brand long after it ceased to be fashionable."

The problem for O'Neill is that his professions of liberal ideology wound up turning him into a caricature that was exploited by Republicans to put a face to what decades of Democratic rule meant.

During the 1980 campaign, Republicans built their campaign around O'Neill -- portraying him as a bumbling old man in infamous ads that showed him refusing to heed warnings that his car was low on gas before he ultimately ran out of fuel. "Vote Republican. For a change," says the ad's narrator.

National Republicans pooled their resources to flood the airwaves with the ads and, after they picked up 34 seats that fall, the O'Neill ads were widely credited as the main reason for that success.

Ethics Inconsistency

O'Neill was a strong voice for ethics reform during his speakership -- as we noted in our case in support of his Hall of Fame nomination -- but several events in his past made him a somewhat flawed messenger.

The biggest misstep was his connection to Tongsun Park, a Korean businessman who came to the U.S. with the express goal of spreading money around to congressmen to endear them to the South Korean government.

Although O'Neill was not even close to the worst offender in the scandal that came to be known as "Koreagate," he did allow Park to fete him at birthday parties in 1973 and 1974.

O'Neill was ultimately exonerated by the House Ethics Committee in 1978 although they did slap him on the wrist for the two birthday parties, which the committee said were of "questionable propriety." (Park was never convicted for his role in the bribery scandal but he did ultimately go to jail earlier this decade for his involvement in the United Nations' oil-for-food program.)

While O'Neill's involvement with Park was not ultimately a career killer for the Speaker, it became part of a broader argument made by Republicans in the early 1990s that Democrats' unchecked hold on power in Congress had led to a series of ethical lapses from Speaker Jim Wright (Texas) to Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dan Rostenkowski (Ill.) to O'Neill.

In that, O'Neill's relationship with Park was a piece of a broader puzzle that ultimately led to the Republican takeover of the House in 1994.

Substance Free

Unlike many of the greatest politicians, O'Neill never settled on a pet issue or set of policy concerns that became his life's work.

He was in politics because he loved the game, and, while he espoused and fought for liberal policies in keeping with his New Deal philosophy, it's clear that policy took a backseat to the cigar-chomping, back room wheeling and dealing that O'Neill so clearly treasured.

As a result, the legacy he left from a decade as Speaker is relatively scarce. He spent the better part of his speakership fighting back against the policies of President Ronald Reagan -- with a mixed record of success -- rather than advancing any of his own.

O'Neill was a mighty personality, inarguably, but from a policy perspective his footprint is faint.

Next week: The Vote. Will FDR, Nixon or O'Neill be the next member of the Fix Political Hall of Fame?

By Chris Cillizza  |  July 16, 2009; 4:25 PM ET
Categories:  Hall of Fame  
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Next: Morning Fix: Winners and Losers, Sotomayor Day 4

Comments

In most sports, you win some and you lose some.

Posted by: Lisa421 | July 20, 2009 4:32 PM | Report abuse

"You cannot win big without risk."

In most sports, losers don't get voted into the hall of fame.

Posted by: nodebris | July 17, 2009 10:33 PM | Report abuse

I agree with mnteng that Speaker O'Neill was a great politician, but FDR or Nixon were better.

Posted by: Lisa421 | July 17, 2009 2:41 PM | Report abuse

You cannot win big without risk.

Posted by: JakeD | July 17, 2009 1:18 PM | Report abuse

"Watergate was, essentially, Nixon playing the game of politics to the hilt"

And losing.

Posted by: nodebris | July 17, 2009 12:56 PM | Report abuse

Points taken, but I don't believe any of them should disqualify Tip from joining your HOF. His indiscretions are minuscule compared to some of our present-day congressmen. (Birthday parties? Bwwwaaahhh!)

".....Martin Tolchin described the late speaker as an "old style politician" who "clung to his brand long after it ceased to be fashionable." Kinda like the Republicans are now, huh?

Wonder if Chris Matthews will be inviting you on "Hardball" to discuss all this with you, Chris!

Posted by: NoBillary1 | July 17, 2009 12:09 PM | Report abuse

The "official" list in MLB is actually more than just two players -- are you just thinking of the two most (in)famous -- Pete Rose and "Shoeless" Joe Jackson? All of Jackson's teammates are banned, for instance. Regardless, this is not the Baseball HOF. Only one nominee gets in next week. Between FDR and Nixon, I vote Nixon. Watergate was, essentially, Nixon playing the game of politics to the hilt -- better than FDR -- there's obviously no banned list in that regard.

Posted by: JakeD | July 17, 2009 10:45 AM | Report abuse

"This political "hall of fame," sorry to say is a joke. In the real baseball "Hall of Fame," ethical issues delay or keep some players out indefinitely. They do not just select persons who played in the modern era."

Only two players are officially banned. With everyone else with ethical issues, judgment is left to the voters. I'm sure Mark McGwire probably gets in if not for the steroid scandal. He wasn't officially banned, but judgment was left to the voters.

Posted by: DDAWD | July 17, 2009 10:14 AM | Report abuse

Good point. You should definitely vote for the Speaker then.

Posted by: JakeD | July 17, 2009 9:20 AM | Report abuse

Republican gains in Congressional elections in 1980 had very little, if anything, to do with a voter reaction against Tip O'Neill. Any party will win a lot of seats when there is very high inflation, high unemployment, a recession and a national humiliation during a foreign policy crisis, as there was in 1980.
The Republican gains were an anti-Carter vote and a protest over the economic distress endured by tens of millions of people in this country.

This political "hall of fame," sorry to say is a joke. In the real baseball "Hall of Fame," ethical issues delay or keep some players out indefinitely. They do not just select persons who played in the modern era.

Tip O'Neill, though he had fewer important achievements, was more ethical and obedient to the Constitituon than the other persons Chris has selected: Franklin D Roosevelt, L. Johnson, Nixon, Reagan and Clinton. I guess these days ethics and respect for the Constitution don't count for much among most people anymore.

Posted by: Aprogressiveindependent | July 17, 2009 2:50 AM | Report abuse

George H.W. Bush was inaugurated on January 20, 1989.

Posted by: JakeD | July 16, 2009 11:12 PM | Report abuse

Posted by: anon99
"Heck, I doubt most voters today can recall a single event that occurred in 1999, much less 1989."

Posted by: anon99

I beg to differ. In 1999 they released the movie "Office Space".

Posted by: seemstome | July 16, 2009 11:00 PM | Report abuse

Chris - You forgot a sad part of Tip's legacy - his role in initiating our nation's idiotic war on drugs, which he and Reagan revved up after the Boston Celtics star recruit Len Bias OD'd and died at age 22 in 1986. That was the day the 4th Amendment died.

Posted by: fairfieldbuckhd | July 16, 2009 10:22 PM | Report abuse

"In that, O'Neill's relationship with Park was a piece of a broader puzzle that ultimately led to the Republican takeover of the House in 1994."

Kind of a stretch, don't you think? I really don't think that O'Neill's attendance at a birthday party 20 years earlier was really much on voters' minds.

Heck, I doubt most voters today can recall a single event that occurred in 1999, much less 1989.

Posted by: anon99 | July 16, 2009 8:11 PM | Report abuse

The only real case against Tip is that FDR and Mr. Sam belong in the hall ahead of him.

FDR, LBJ, Sam Rayburn were early Roman Consuls, expanding the pax Romana ever farther from Romes inner borders. Tip was Flavius AĆ«tius, Holding those borders right to the end. Defeating Attila, but not stopping him from his advances. The Three Mighty Men brought the New deal and its successors to fruition and the Nation to prosperity again. The last Viking on Stamford Bridge fought to the end, but he knew that he was holding the last string of defense before unseemly defeat. Tip did his best, and protected much from the depredations of the barbarian hordes, but the times were what they were, and Tip went down.

But put them in the hall in that order, FDR, Mr. Sam, and Tip, and seek another class to follow them.

And may the times to come again be such that we may see their kind again.

Posted by: ceflynline | July 16, 2009 7:10 PM | Report abuse

Chris,

As usual, you have both the pro- and anti- cases summed up perfectly. Kudos!

Posted by: sverigegrabb | July 16, 2009 5:34 PM | Report abuse

Tip would vote for FDR.

Posted by: nodebris | July 16, 2009 5:12 PM | Report abuse

Heh. Those "ethical lapses" cost Rosty 15 months in the federal pen for mail fraud, though I guess he was pardoned so he's not an ex-con anymore.

No disrespect to the Tipster, but next week's vote has to be between RMN and FDR.

Posted by: mnteng | July 16, 2009 5:08 PM | Report abuse

The comments to this entry are closed.

 
 
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