Hall of Fame: The Case Against Tip O'Neill
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.
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.
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.
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?
July 16, 2009; 4:25 PM ET
Categories: Hall of Fame
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