Hall of Fame: The Case for Tip O'Neill
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.
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.
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