Hundreds of Boston College students pass through O'Neill Library every day, most likely without stopping to think about the significance of its name. The library has been featuring a special exhibit this year to remember the influential politician, Thomas Phillip 'Tip' O'Neill. Today would have been O'Neill's 100th birthday. Gavel Media reflects on his legacy and why BC should be thankful for O'Neill.
O'Neill was born on December 9, 1912 and grew up in North Cambridge, Massachusetts. He became interested in politics at an early age, and attended BC when the school was still mostly a commuter school for sons of Irish immigrants. BC was originally founded as a school for Catholics who were excluded from other private schools at the time.
While at BC, O'Neill's interest in politics grew. He was voted "Class Politician" by his senior class because of his gregarious personality and ability to relate to many people. While he was still a senior, O'Neill ran for a seat on the Cambridge City Council, and lost. This would be his only political defeat, and did not deter him from pursuing politics.
The philosophy of politics he developed would be one of his trademarks. "All politics is local," a statement he inherited from his father, became his mantra. This is arguably O'Neill's most famous quote, and is an idea that is still relevant to U.S. politics today. It is a reminder that although politicians in Washington are making decisions for the whole country, their loyalty ultimately belongs to their constituents. O'Neill never forgot that he should remember the people who he was really representing and never take them for granted.
He was elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives in 1936 after graduating from BC, and stayed in this position until he ran for the U.S. House of Representatives in 1952. He replaced John F. Kennedy in the House, and served there for 34 years. In 1977, he became the Speaker of the House.
He was a fighter for liberal causes. He went against the Democratic president at the time, Lyndon Johnson, to be one of the first politicians to come out in opposition to the Vietnam War. He was an advocate for the New Deal policies of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and believed in the government's role in combating poverty and injustice. He was Majority Leader during the Watergate scandal, and was the most prominent Democrat in the House to call for the impeachment of President Richard Nixon. O'Neill was an important force in the Northern Ireland peace process, referred to as one of his biggest accomplishments as Speaker.
O'Neill also serves as an example of a politician working with the opposite party to further national goals. Ronald Reagan was the president for a majority of the time that O'Neill was the Speaker, while the Senate was also controlled by Republicans. O’Neill said that although he and Reagan clashed during the day, they were great friends after 6 p.m., prompting Reagan to answer the phone with “Tip, is it after 6 p.m.?”
Although O'Neill said he opposed many of Reagan's policies and once called his presidency "one big Christmas party for the rich," they remained friends outside of politics.
He has been praised by leaders of both parties as a hard-working politician dedicated to his constituents' needs. President George H. W. Bush awarded him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1991 for his dedication to serve the public for 50 years, "while maintaining his humor, humility and touch with the people.”
O'Neill died in 1994 at age 81. President Bill Clinton referred to him as "the nation's most prominent, powerful and loyal champion of working people... He loved politics and government because he saw that politics and government could make a difference in people's lives. And he loved people most of all."
"Speaker O'Neill was large-hearted in his every approach to the world around him...He was large-hearted in his compassion and in his humor; large-hearted in his understanding of people; large-hearted in his love of all things human, from family and friends to work and politics and sports," said Rev. J. Donald Monan, then president of BC, at O'Neill's funeral.
In November, Congress voted to approve the naming of a federal building after O'Neill. "In naming a federal building after him, we will honor his decades of service on behalf of progress for all Americans. He uniquely understood and believed in the ability of government to improve people’s lives and was a master at using the levers of power for the common good,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi said about O'Neill.