New & Noteworthy

Tip ONeill

I read this book through a six-hour delay at LaGuardia followed by a transcontinental flight, and as my plane made its descent into San Francisco, I wished I were continuing to Hawaii. A longtime Democratic congressman from Boston, speaker of the House during the Carter and the Reagan years, Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill (1912-1994), on John Farrell's prodigious showing, was among the great public men of the postwar era. He was easily the most beloved: "O'Neill's heart matched his bulk" (which could swell to 300 pounds). Meeting with reporters early in 1981, when Reagan aides were casting him as big government made flesh, he spoke emotionally of having slipped $45 million into the budget to raise the height of dwarfs and $12 million for turned-in ankles. "I remember putting in eighteen million dollars for knock-knees," he said, to guffaws. "There are a hundred and fifty thousand dwarfs in America. Does anyone have an obligation? Is it the obligation of the federal government? I think it is." House Democrats loved him as much for the toughness revealed in that comment as for his liberalism. Appealing to their loyalty, he led them into a historic confrontation with Ronald Reagan that, Farrell argues, saved the programs of the New Deal and the Great Society (and that provides Farrell with the drama of speaker and President facing off). The aura of office did not stay O'Neill's tongue. "Don't give me that crap," he snapped after Reagan complained about loafers on welfare. "The guy in Youngstown, Ohio, who's been laid off at the steel mill and has to make his mortgage payments—don't tell me he doesn't want to work." It hurt him that the Democrats, whose programs had helped to create the middle class, had lost the vote of the guy in Youngstown. (Last year George W. Bush carried white men earning less than $75,000 by 23 points.) The success of the Democrats, O'Neill thought, had made America safe for the Republicans. Success? Failure, more like: the Democrats programmatically abandoned the Youngstown steel worker in the 1970s, just as his real wages began an almost thirty-year decline. Starting in the 1980s—and, tragically, with O'Neill's blessing—congressional Democrats used their incumbency to pry campaign-finance money out of corporations, to whom they then became beholden, and whose interests clashed with those of working families. The party forgot, as O'Neill said of Reagan's advisers, "from where [it has] come," losing its heart to a cash register.