Tip O'Neill Shares St. Pat's Big Day : Speaker Is Toasted--and a Bit Roasted--at D.C. Dinner

Times Staff Writer

It was the biggest St. Patrick's Day bash in the city for the biggest Democrat of all: retiring House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill.

How big is he?

Tip O'Neill is so big, his longtime friend Bob Hope said, that when Hope plays golf with O'Neill and spray-shooter Gerald Ford, "at least you've got something substantial to hide behind when Ford's hitting."

O'Neill is so big, again according to Hope, that "he's a big man in lots of ways: House speaker, party leader, and fifth stop on the Gray Line tour of the city."

O'Neill is so big that 2,200 people--ranging from President Reagan to a green-haired Cicely Tyson, from Lee Iacocca to Supreme Court Justice Warren Burger and Gerald Ford--plunked down $1,000 apiece to be at a formal dinner to salute O'Neill's half-century of public service and to fatten the funds of his alma mater, Boston College.

'Into the Sunset'

"Tip has announced he's retiring. He's going to ride off into the sunset," Hope said. "That should be a hell of a collision."

Although O'Neill, 74, a member of the House of Representatives for 34 years, recently has weathered some rebellion on the part of young Democratic House members who consider him too much of an old-school, smoke-filled-room pol, there was no lack of glorifiers in the packed ballroom of the Hilton.

He made a grand entrance flanked by Reagan and Ireland's Prime Minister Garret FitzGerald.

FitzGerald made O'Neill and his wife, Millie, honorary citizens of Ireland, and the President thanked his longtime adversary for "the honor of calling you my friend."

In the last five years O'Neill has spared the President almost no slur, and even Nancy Reagan has taken a shot from him. "He (Reagan) could quit tomorrow," O'Neill once said, "and she (Mrs. Reagan) would be queen of Beverly Hills."

And on it went.

"It's true Tip and I have had our political disagreements," Reagan said at the dinner. "Sure, I said some things about Tip and Tip said some things about me. But that's all history. And anyway, you know how it is. I forget."

Laughter, and more conciliation.

State of the Union

"To be honest," Reagan said, "I've always known Tip was behind me--even if it was only at the State of the Union address. As I made each proposal I could hear Tip whispering to George Bush, 'Forget it. No way. Fat chance.' "

O'Neill returned Reagan's compliments.

"I must tell you how much I admire your ability, your talent and your leadership, even though I'm opposed to it," O'Neill said. "You did a magnificent job with the Philippines and Haiti.

"Americans love your charm, your humor, your wit. Sometimes when I get up in the morning, I say, 'Don't let it get you, old boy.' "

The room was a sea of green bow ties, green lapel carnations, rustling gowns and familiar faces. From the world of business there were Lew Wasserman, August A. Busch, Michael Deaver and many more.

Lane Kirkland, head of the AFL-CIO, was there, as was former Boston College quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Doug Flutie.

Ted's Turn on Tip

From Congress, there were powerful Republicans: Senate Majority Leader Robert Dole (Kansas), House Minority Leader Robert Michel (Ill.) and Sen. Paul Laxalt (Nevada), to name a few. Sen. Edward Kennedy (Mass.) led a large contingent of Democratic members, and spoke for his slain brother, President John F. Kennedy, a contemporary of O'Neill's.

"Jack loved you," Kennedy said. "And if he were here tonight, he'd be so proud of you."

On a lighter note, Kennedy said, "Personally, I owe Tip a lot. He lent me his diet."

O'Neill was elected to his House seat when John Kennedy gave it up, and now Robert Kennedy's son, Joe, is running for it. Joe was at the party with his mother, Ethel, using the occasion to pump hands and flash his ample set of Kennedy teeth.

"Where do you live? Are you registered?" he said to a woman from Massachusetts. "Do I get it?" he asked, referring to her vote. She smiled and walked away.

"There is no way anybody is going to fill those shoes," young Kennedy said of O'Neill. "But I will do the best I can."

Ford reminisced about calling O'Neill to invite him to his swearing-in and how they chatted about how much fun they'd just had playing golf together, and also about a public statement O'Neill had made saying their political philosophies were diametrically opposed.

For the Little Guy

Everyone praised O'Neill for remembering his humble roots and fighting for the little guy all his life.

"He's the champion of the underdog," Hope said, "the poor, the unemployed, the New England Patriots." His reference to New England's disastrous loss in the Super Bowl drew boos from the many people from Massachusetts.

Referring to another Patriots' crisis, Hope added, "They've asked the Patriots, 'Will you go for drug testing?' And they said, 'Hell, yes, we'll test any drug you have.' "

Guests received a set of two Irish crystal glasses engraved with O'Neill's signature and the date, plus a program that included many old pictures of O'Neill. Among them was his 1936 graduation picture from Boston College and the caption that had appeared in the yearbook--the last sentence: "He intends to go to engineering school and to keep active in politics until he is mayor of Cambridge."

There were bagpipers, Irish singers and Irish dancing. And, bidding his friend goodby, Hope borrowed a line from an Irish prayer: "May the wind be at your back on all the par fives, Tip."

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