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Hall of Fame: The Case for Tip O'Neill

Is Tip O'Neill (right) a Fix Political HOFer? Photo by James K.W. Atherton / The Washington Post

Tip O'Neill, the legendary Massachusetts Democratic pol who spent a decade as Speaker of the House in the 1970s and 1980s, is the third and final nominee for admission into the Fix Political Hall of Fame.

Today we make the case for O'Neill's inclusion.

(Make sure to read our case for and against Richard Nixon and our case for and against Franklin Delano Roosevelt. A vote on which of the trio should be our next inductee in the Fix Political HOF will be next week.)

A Politician's Politician

From the time he campaigned for Al Smith's presidential campaign at age 15 (in 1928) to his retirement from the U.S. House in 1986, O'Neill lived and breathed politics.

Unlike many modern politicians who decry the inside game of Washington to bolster their populist credentials, O'Neill embraced the game of politics -- rising to leadership posts in the Massachusetts state House before spending a decade as speaker of the U.S. House. (He was the youngest speaker -- at 37 years old -- in the history of the Massachusetts legislature and was the first Democratic Speaker in the Bay State since the Civil War.)

"Of all the people I have known, Tip O'Neill knew best how to enjoy politics," said former President Jimmy Carter, not exactly an O'Neill loyalist, when the former Speaker died in 1994.

Truer words were never spoken. O'Neill studied under the masters -- Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn (Texas) as well as House Majority Whip John McCormack (Mass.) who functioned as O'Neill's congressional mentor and helped set him on the leadership track.

And, over time, he eclipsed them all -- with the possible exception of Rayburn -- turning the Speakership into a powerful pulpit by which to fight President Ronald Reagan on the national stage.

The Anti-Reagan

While O'Neill was elected Speaker in 1976 and spent his first four years in the post fighting with Carter over the direction of the Democratic party, he came into his own as Speaker during the presidency of Ronald Reagan.

O'Neill and Reagan were oil and water. O'Neill was raised with a firm belief in Roosevelt's New Deal and the power (and necessity) of government to make a difference in average peoples' lives. Reagan's entire governing philosophy was an implicit rejection of the New Deal. Clashes, predictably, ensued.

Reagan's victory heralded the end of Democrats' vice grip on Congress and began nearly three decades in which Republicans held the White House for all but eight years.

As Democrats sought to dust themselves off from the 1980 electoral defeat, it was O'Neill who stepped in the leadership void to take on Reagan day in and day out -- ensuring that his party's vision was represented in the national debate.

Prior to O'Neill's elevation of the role of Speaker, even the greatest of those who ruled the House -- Rayburn, Carl Albert -- saw the post in a relatively narrow scope: to control the legislative processes of the chamber.

O'Neill moved the speakership from the back rooms of Congress to the television sets of the country by installing himself as Reagan's prime antagonist. (Republicans also used his high profile against, him but more on that in the case against O'Neill.)

"O'Neill transformed the speakership from a political and parliamentary post to a bully pulpit that he used in his many battles against President Reagan," wrote the Associated Press' Anne Thompson in an obituary of O'Neill.

O'Neill's ability to see a bigger national role for the speaker of the House has heavily influenced those who followed him in the job -- particularly Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

A Man Ahead of His Time

Although O'Neill sat at the precipice of power in Congress, his "little guy" mentality led him to push for a diminution of power in the speakership and for significant ethics reform in the wake of the Watergate scandal.

As majority leader under Alpert, O'Neill played a central role in de-centralizing power from the speakership and committee chairman, a move that allowed many backbenchers to play more active roles in the inner workings of Congress.

Then as Speaker, O'Neill was widely credited with saving an ethics reform package from sure defeat with an impassioned defense of the legislation as a necessity to restore the American public's confidence in politicians following Watergate.

Ethics reform and the emboldening of younger and less powerful members were two ways in which O'Neill was far ahead of his political time. Though the product of the Boston machine political system, O'Neill was able to see beyond his own nose to what the future of politics would be -- a more transparent process in which merit, not just seniority, led to advancement.

By Chris Cillizza  |  July 15, 2009; 3:35 PM ET
Categories:  Hall of Fame  
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I didn't know him personally, but from what I have heard he definitely deserves to be in the Hall of Fame.

Posted by: clonas | July 22, 2009 1:14 PM | Report abuse

Tip O'Neill was the citizens' politician. There is no question that he belongs in the HOF.

Posted by: Nance999 | July 22, 2009 9:58 AM | Report abuse

Tip O'Neill was a brilliant politician. I definitely urge that he be included in the Hall of Fame.

Posted by: roisdubh | July 20, 2009 3:57 PM | Report abuse

Tip O'Neill was a brilliant politician. I definitely urge that he be included in the Hall of Fame.

Posted by: roisdubh | July 20, 2009 3:57 PM | Report abuse

Tip O'Neal is to be highly commended for serving as a foil to Ronald Reagan. I remember that time well, and I admired O'Neal almost as much as I admired Franklin Roosevelt.

However, he made one horrendous mistake which we are still suffering from today. Because of Tip O'Neal we have the Mandatory Minimum Sentencing Law, and the State laws (such as "Three Strikes You're Out")that were inspired by it.

When basketball player Len Bias OD'd on cocaine in O'Neal's district, O'Neal felt pressured to "do something." In great haste he ordered his people to produce a drug law, which one of them later described as "put together with bailing wire and chewing gum." It was not vetted by those who could have seen its flaws, and it was signed into law before the November 1986 election.

This law and its offspring have reduced judges to clerks, many resentful that an uninvolved entity (Congress) has pre-sentenced cases it has not heard, based soley on the amount and type of drug involved. It has sentenced minor players to shockingly long sentences, filled our prisons with small time pot smokers, and done nothing to minimize drug use. The black market we created continues to enrich the world's master criminals, few of whom will ever see the inside of our prisons.

The War on Drugs was a horrible idea. Tip O'Neal made it worse.

Posted by: jmanning1 | July 16, 2009 7:28 PM | Report abuse

Unless I am missing something, Woodrow Wilson is NOT one of the three nominees we will vote on next week.

Posted by: Lisa421 | July 16, 2009 3:28 PM | Report abuse

I still struggle with what criteria one should use to evaluate someone for the HoF, but I'm beginning to think it is political skill. On this basis, I think Woodrow Wilson far outdoes FDR, Tip O'Neill, and Richard Nixon.

Consider his accomplishments: the Federal Reserve Act, the first Federal income tax, the Federal Trade Commission, the Clayton Antitrust Act, the Draft Act of 1917, National Women Suffrage, the League of Nations. He also promoted segregation, suppressed anti-war acts, and promoted the idea of the US to go to war to promote democracy and progressiveness. Indeed, our current national policy is an outgrowth of Wilsonism.

President Wilson was a brilliant and complex person. His positions do not map cleanly into today's sensibilities. Think of what the U.S. was like under Taft - before Wilson - and how contentious Coolidge has been because he tried to undo the changes Wilson put into place.

Posted by: Kili | July 16, 2009 12:56 AM | Report abuse

"CC wrote: "And, over time, he eclipsed them all -- with the possible exception of Rayburn..." Possible exception? No. Absolute exception. Posted by: mark_in_austin"

Mr Sam really needs to be there, but hey, Mr Sam has his monument. Sitting there, in all its immensity, just South of the capitol.

When they name monstrousities like that after you, you ARE your own hall of fame.

But, yeah, after FDR, Sam goes next.

Posted by: ceflynline | July 15, 2009 8:58 PM | Report abuse

"I think it is Herb Alpert and Carl Albert. I wonder who Chris Matthews ranks highest.
Posted by: hamp"

You got to it first. But the thought of Carl Alpert and the Tijuana Brass doing the Immigrant Shuffle, or Tijuana Taxes, or the New Mexican Road race...

Dah DAH DAH didi dahdit!

Posted by: ceflynline | July 15, 2009 8:48 PM | Report abuse

Jimmy Breslin referred to Tip as "a warm spring rain of a man."

Gawd, I miss Tip.

Posted by: SGfromMudville | July 15, 2009 7:28 PM | Report abuse

FDR and Nixon both had a wind at their backs, the public was eager for what they were selling after years of depression and war respectively. Tip O'Neill was fighting the wind and a heady wind at that, who doesn't like tax cuts? And Tip was dealing with the mismatched democratic caucus of southern conservatives, new dealers and liberals. Tip certainly wasn't done any favors by Johnson, who's HOF worthiness I still question.

While Regan clearly moved politics in his direction and away from Tip, I say that Tip deserves a spot for holding the line at all against such daunting odds. It took nearly 30 years for the public backlash against Reganomics to start, but the steam is building. Regan couldn't win today but Tip could be house speaker.

By fighting in such a harsh landscape, I think Tip ranks higher then eternal underdog Nixon. But I still think FDR ranks higher. Tip kept the coalition together but FDR forged that coalition in the first place. While a democratic victory was certain in '32, an enduring democratic political ascendency was not. Democrats like Garner, FDR's main rival in '32 could even have returned the democrats to minority status. For creating the greatest political legacy since Lincoln, FDR ranks higher then Tip.

Since nomination time will be returning to, I'm going to give my two cents for next time:
Tip O'Neill deserves his second shot.
Martin Luther King while not a politician was an incredibly influential figure. We might think that the moment was right for civil rights, but civil rights had been waiting for 100 years and the moment was always right. By changing politics more then any other american in the 20th century, MLK deserves a spot.

Posted by: theamazingjex | July 15, 2009 6:16 PM | Report abuse

Did the Democrats really have a "vice" grip on congress before Reagan was elected?

How did that work? With Gov. Sanford, Senator Ensign and Larry Craig, is it the Republicans that now have a "vice" grip?

Posted by: JohnDinHouston | July 15, 2009 5:10 PM | Report abuse

CC wrote:

"And, over time, he eclipsed them all -- with the possible exception of Rayburn..."

Possible exception? No. Absolute exception.

Posted by: mark_in_austin | July 15, 2009 4:55 PM | Report abuse

I think it is Herb Alpert and Carl Albert. I wonder who Chris Matthews ranks highest.

Posted by: hamp | July 15, 2009 4:40 PM | Report abuse

An important point that CC is leaving out was Tip's bipartisanship. He ruled the House during a more collegial time when R's and D's actually socialized together after hours and the attacks were political, rather than personal. Too bad those times have passed!

Posted by: NMModerate1 | July 15, 2009 4:36 PM | Report abuse

I really like and respect Tip but probably will have to vote for FDR. This is a hard one because I really do admire Tip and his biography surely places him in the hall of fame but when in conflict with the only president to be elected to four terms in office I think tip will have to wait for second wave balloting.

Posted by: iketheyeti | July 15, 2009 4:34 PM | Report abuse

Yeah a hot-eyed anti-communist and a crook

Posted by: chrisfox8 | July 15, 2009 4:32 PM | Report abuse

I'm voting that RMN was a better politican than either FDR or TPO.

Posted by: Lisa421 | July 15, 2009 4:23 PM | Report abuse

@mnteng: I've gotta agree, as much as Tip deserves a spot, Roosevelt has to be a first ballot HOFer.

Posted by: KRDuffy | July 15, 2009 4:20 PM | Report abuse

Speaker O'Neill was the last and one of the finest of a breed of politician that's also a steward, a statesman, and a leader - but yet, still, one of "us".

Posted by: molsonmich | July 15, 2009 4:12 PM | Report abuse

At his passing, President Bill Clinton actually said it better "Tip O'Neill was the nation's most prominent, powerful and loyal champion of working people ... He loved politics and government because he saw that politics and government could make a difference in people's lives. And he loved people most of all."

The Speaker's oldest son and namesake, Thomas P. O'Neill III, a former lieutenant governor of Massachusetts, works in public relations in Boston. Another son, Christopher, is a Washington lawyer, the third son, Michael, is deceased. One daughter, Susan, has her own business in Washington, the other, Rosemary, is a political officer for the U.S. State Department.

Milldred O'Neill died on October 6, 2003. In addition to their children, they are survived by eight grandchildren.

The Thomas P. O'Neill Jr. Tunnel, built through downtown Boston as part of the Big Dig to carry Interstate 93 under Boston, is named after him.

(Just so that chrisfox8 doesn't accuse me of anything nefarious too, I got that from

Posted by: Lisa421 | July 15, 2009 4:05 PM | Report abuse

Tip's got a lot going for his PHoF candidacy, but I suspect he'll have to wait several ballots while the POTUS wing of the PHoF gets filled out.

Posted by: mnteng | July 15, 2009 3:56 PM | Report abuse

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