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Tip O’Neill Dies at 81; Five-Term Speaker of House

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Former House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O’Neill Jr. (D-Mass.), the genial and shrewd Boston Irishman who came to be regarded as one of the most effective House leaders of the 20th Century, died Wednesday night. He was 81.

A spokeswoman for Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital said the cause of his death was cardiac arrest. Relatives told WCVB-TV in Boston that O’Neill went to the hospital Wednesday for a routine checkup and had the heart attack while there.

The former Speaker had had cancer surgery in 1987--the same year he retired at the end of his 17th term in Congress and fifth term as Speaker--and in 1990.

After hearing of the death, the White House released a statement saying: “Mr. O’Neill was a great American who served his country with distinction for many decades. He leaves behind a proud legacy of public service. Our hearts go out to the family and friends of this fine man.”

“Tip was a giant in every way, a giant of a man, a giant of a Speaker and a giant of a friend,” said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.). “He never lost the common touch, and our state has lost one of the greatest public servants it ever had.”

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O’Neill, known as Tip since his boyhood, was a man of formidable physical presence with his unruly thatch of white hair, bulbous nose and bulky 6-foot, 3-inch frame. Friends said he resembled a lumbering bear when he walked. With his deep voice, he also could sound like a bear when angered.

But for the most part, he was a man of easygoing charm who was devoted to poker, golf, cigars and good whiskey. And he was probably the single most popular man on Capitol Hill.

“Tip O’Neill has no enemies in this House,” Rep. Sam Gibbons (D-Fla.) said after he ran against O’Neill for majority leader in 1972 but had to withdraw for lack of support.

Yet for all his back-slapping geniality, O’Neill was a fiercely partisan Democrat. Franklin D. Roosevelt was his great hero and O’Neill remained a loyal New Deal disciple even when his brand of liberalism seemed to be going out of vogue.

“I’ve been one of the big spenders of all time,” O’Neill said without apology in 1981, when President Ronald Reagan’s new conservative Administration was at the height of its popularity and was waging a crusade against big government and big spenders.

O’Neill was an unabashed champion of big government and would argue passionately that government has a responsibility to care for the unfortunate and to spend billions for health, education, welfare, transportation, the environment and consumer protection.

This naturally put him on a collision course with Reagan, and they warred incessantly.

The Speaker once called Reagan “the least knowledgeable of any President I’ve ever met, on any subject. He works by three-by-five cards.”

Yet on personal terms, the two men--both gregarious Irishmen with a penchant for storytelling--got along famously and spent many an hour swapping yarns.

“I have a tremendous liking for him,” O’Neill said of Reagan in 1981 to Boston friends. “You people would like him, too. He’s got the charm; he’s got the grace; he’s got the humor. And he’s kicking the hell out of me.”

On Wednesday, Reagan praised O’Neill as “one of our nation’s most distinguished legislators,” and remembered their battles almost fondly.

“It is no secret that Tip and I often had differing political views,” Reagan said. “But as Tip once said during one of our fierce political battles: Don’t worry, when 5 o’clock rolls around, we’ll put business aside and just be friends. I must confess that on more than one occasion, Tip and I found ourselves turning our watches ahead to the 5 o’clock hour.”

Reagan’s first two years as President were probably the worst period of O’Neill’s life. His House Democrats suffered a net loss of 33 seats in Reagan’s 1980 election landslide and, combined with the defection of many “boll weevil” Southern Democrats, the loss gave Reagan a conservative majority on key fiscal votes.

In 1981, O’Neill’s beleaguered troops were steamrolled as Reagan’s supporters rammed through sweeping domestic budget and tax cuts. O’Neill protested, forcefully and sadly, but to no avail. Republican campaigners took to ridiculing him as a symbol of all that was wrong with what they called big government run amok.

One particularly acid-tongued young Republican described O’Neill as “big, fat and out of control--just like the federal government.” (To O’Neill’s delight, that young congressman, John LeBoutillier of New York, was defeated for reelection in 1982.)

Even some House Democrats, smarting from repeated defeats in 1981, began muttering that perhaps O’Neill had outlasted his usefulness.

Rep. Les Aspin, an outspoken Wisconsin liberal, said in a newsletter to constituents that O’Neill was “in a fog” and had “no idea where to go.”

A Boston Globe reporter wrote of O’Neill at the time: “Underneath his thin political skin there is the occasional look of a wounded caribou facing wolves.”

Then things changed. In 1982, with voters blaming Reagan and the Republicans for the nation’s staggering unemployment rate and the worst economic times since the Great Depression, the Democrats emerged from the elections with a net gain of 26 House seats. O’Neill won a good deal of credit, justified or not, because he had been in the forefront of those denouncing Reagan’s economic policies as being unfair to the poor and overly generous to the prosperous.

The election gave O’Neill a working majority again and his Democrats, although unable to reverse the Reagan tide, could at least avoid further humiliations. Of equal satisfaction to O’Neill was that criticism of his performance turned once again to praise.

A thoroughgoing political animal, O’Neill was never much interested in the details of legislation. His interest was in passing his party’s legislative program and in demonstrating his mastery of the mystique of leadership.

He displayed his deftness almost immediately when he was first elected Speaker in January, 1977. Jimmy Carter had been elected President, ending eight years of Republican administrations, and he promptly presented Congress with an extraordinarily ambitious legislative program.

Carter, the ascetic and introverted Georgia outsider, and O’Neill, the ebullient Boston pol, did not operate on the same wavelength and had frequent differences. But Carter, after all, was a Democrat and O’Neill, a loyal party man, was determined to do everything in his power to enact Carter’s program.

He did remarkably well, particularly on Carter’s highly complex and controversial energy proposals. Displaying his genius for legislative timing and parliamentary resourcefulness, O’Neill created a special ad hoc energy committee and superimposed it over the regular legislative panels that constantly warred with each other over jurisdictional turf.

The special committee, packed with O’Neill allies, sent to the House floor a bill that was much closer to what Carter had requested than the regular committees would have produced separately. Furthermore, the package went to the full House almost within O’Neill’s deadline of three months. The Senate, in contrast, took more than a year to dispose of its version of the measure.

Along with other accomplishments, O’Neill’s stewardship of the energy issue, engineered through a skillful blend of soft and hardball tactics, soon caused his colleagues and outside observers to rate him as the most effective Speaker since the late Democrat Sam Rayburn of Texas.

O’Neill was married to the former Mildred Ann Miller. They had five children.

Thomas Philip O’Neill Jr. was born Dec. 9, 1912, in a solidly Irish-American neighborhood of North Cambridge, Mass., where he early on developed a love for Democratic politics. His father, Thomas Sr., son of an Irish immigrant, was a bricklayer and later became head of the city’s patronage-rich water system.

By age 15, young O’Neill was a practiced campaign worker and helped ring doorbells to get out the vote in Democrat Al Smith’s unsuccessful 1928 presidential campaign against Herbert Hoover.

He won a seat in the Republican-dominated state Legislature in 1936. In 1949, at age 37, he became the youngest Speaker of the Massachusetts House and the first Democratic Speaker since the Civil War.

He was elected to the U.S. House in 1952.


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