A Look at “Tip O’Neill and the Democratic Century” by John Farrell.

Tip O'Neill and the Democratic CenturyTip O’Neill and the Democratic Century by John A. Farrell
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Bumped into this book in my library, so I read it the old fashioned way, and I am very happy I did. Thomas P. (Tip) O’Neil is a name that many recognize, especially in Massachusetts. For me Speaker O’Neil most certainly was a giant of Massachusetts politics, but I really was not versed in his career, and how he managed to achieve such political success. This book does, in my estimation, a great job of giving us a good look at that career, from start to finish. While the book is about Speaker O’Neil it is fully titled “Tip O’Neil and the Democratic Century,” and it provides us with a history touching some of the giants of the national Democratic Party, along with the interactions with some of the greats of the national GOP.

Speaker O’Neil represented a Congressional District in Cambridge that has a storied history, with John F. Kennedy beginning his political career by representing the district. James Michael Curley also represented that district. Farrell takes us through how a young Tip O’Neil ended up winning that seat, but before we get there we see Tip O’Neil winning a Massachusetts House race in Cambridge, and building a political organization that would serve him for the rest of his career. Just that part of the story makes the book worthwhile, as we get a pretty good look at Massachusetts politics, with State Representative O’Neil rising to become Speaker of the Massachusetts House. We get a pretty good look at some of the give and take with the Kennedy family, including the massive resources that Ambassador Joseph Kennedy was willing to bring to the table to support the political aspirations of his son Jack.

Tip O’Neil’s move to Washington as a Congressman was not easily achieved, as he had to twice defeat Michael Lopresti of East Boston, a very formidable opponent. (The Lopresti family remains politically prominent in Boston) We get to see some of the interactions with political giants like Sam Rayburn, John McCormack, and Lyndon Johnson. McCormack was a political patron, with Representative O’Neil benefitting from McCormack’s political acumen and influence. The story on the O’Neil influence on the Boston Herald loss of the Boston Channel 5 broadcast license (and how they got it) is a remarkable piece of Massachusetts history which reverberates to this very day. Watching the O’Neil climb in Washington, in addition to showing us some of the outsized personalities of the era, brings us some understanding of the importance of how the House works. (The Rules Committee) O’Neil’s fundamental ability to read people, to partially camouflage his ambition behind humor, his dedication to doing the hard work of networking with the members, understanding their needs and districts, allowed him to rise through the ranks. At a pivotal moment O’Neil was in the right place at the right time when Rep. Hale Boggs was lost in a tragic air accident.

O’Neil’s turn away from LBJ and the Vietnam war, and how that change mirrored the changes occurring in his Cambridge district, is covered. He took that stand in spite of the tension it created with John McCormack, a steadfast ally of LBJ on the Vietnam war. We get a look at how Tip O’Neil was an important player in the eventual impeachment hearings on Richard Nixon, managing the floor for Speaker Carl Albert and trying to manage Peter Rodino. O’Neils role in the selection of his pal Jerry Ford as Nixon’s Vice President is covered, and brought one of my favorite quotes from the book. As his friend Jerry Ford was about to assume the Presidency he had a conversation with O’Neil.
“‘Christ, Jerry isn’t this a wonderful country?’ O’Neil said. ‘Here we can talk like this and you and I can be friends, and eighteen months from now I’ll be going around the country kicking your ass in.’”
Farell, John “Tip O’Neill and the Democratic Century” (pg 380) Little Brown

Speaker O’Neil interactions with the Carter Administration are also a very important, in my view, part of the book. O’Neil was a New Dealer, and the Carter Administration desire to approach things differently, and often times clumsily, led to some less than harmonious relations between a Democratic President and Speaker. His relationship as Speaker, and his famous battles and accommodations, with President Reagan, are covered. Really great stuff. The O’Neill interaction with a rising Georgia firebrand named Newt Gingrich is also covered, and that period began the change in the GOP that started the hyper-partisan atmosphere that exists today.

The author, in writing this book, covered Speaker O’Neil fairly. He did not gloss over some of the things that might today be considered deficiencies, but despite that Tip O’Neil comes through this book as an honest man who reached great heights, and was involved in some of the monumental issues of the day. He was underestimated by many, and considered by the GOP to be the perfect foil for President Reagan. But Tip O’Neil knew how to play the game, and President Reagan understood that O’Neil was a formidable opponent. Times may have been a changing but Thomas P. Tip O’Neil never forget his roots in the New Deal, and how government could help the less fortunate. He should be considered in the upper echelon on the Massachusetts list of political giants, and that is a quite a testament to him. This book, even today, is a great read. I am glad I looked through my library.

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