MY FATHER raised me wary of priests and politicians. And life has taught me to put my faith in little said at funerals.
But it was the Rev. J. Donald Monan, then president of Boston College, who best captured Speaker Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill Jr., in a eulogy at the services at St. John the Evangelist on that cold day in 1994.
“Those of us who have lived through the decades since the 1930s, of dramatic change in the moral dilemmas that modernity brings . . . realize that Speaker O’Neill’s legendary sense of loyalty, either to old friends or to God, was no dull or wooden conformity,” said the priest. “It has been a creative fidelity to values pledged in his youth that he kept relevant to a world of constant change by dint of effort and imagination and at the cost of personal sacrifice.”
In my book on Tip, I spent 776 pages, groping, to convey what Monan captured in his incisive appraisal. His words were a testament to Jesuit artistry — as was, in no small part, the magnificent career of O’Neill (BC class of ’36). Many attributes made Tip a gifted politician; “creative fidelity” made him a great one.
He was born 100 years ago Sunday, the son of an Irish-American ward leader who, from the exalted office of sewer superintendent, ran a world of precinct captains, Christmas baskets, and patronage jobs. Thomas Sr. had hiked himself up by muddy red bootstraps from life as a brickyard laborer, and had more than his share of the glorious American faith in possibility: His son went to college. When Tip won a seat in the Massachusetts Legislature on FDR’s coattails in 1936, he represented old and new, a herald of a breed.
Thomas Jr. showed mettle from the start: risking his seat to stand against the cheapjack demagogues selling fear and bigotry in the red scares of those Depression days. He walked the sidewalks with his dad, defending and explaining his votes to his constituents, and when voters endorsed his actions at the next election, the experience left him with an incalculably valuable lesson — to face, not flee, your foes. A quick decade later, at age 36, he was speaker of the Massachusetts House, the first of his party and the first of his faith, as he always, quite proudly, noted.
O’Neill was a captain in the pack of postwar visionaries who molded modern Massachusetts. One typically artful adventure suffices: As speaker of the Massachusetts House, Tip helped plan and fund the old Fitzgerald expressway. Years later, castigating it as an ill-spawned monstrosity and a hideously designed roadway, he employed his clout in the US House to dock federal taxpayers for billions of dollars to replace it. Not for nothing is that tunnel named.
His creative fidelity was displayed again during the Vietnam War and Watergate. He was lucky to have kids, and advisers — and his own worried middle-class constituency — to alert him to the war’s dismal progress. He broke with Lyndon Johnson in the fall of 1967, one of the first Democratic regulars to do so. It led him to a unique role in ’60s politics — a bridge once more between old and new, trusted by both wings of his party. He adjusted to new ways, and ethical norms. In the end, with the necessary nods of fortune, it made him speaker.
Richard Nixon, whose theatric life is my current study, didn’t share O’Neill’s capacity to adapt. “He was not able to draw the right conclusions about a changing world and . . . like a tragic Shakespearean character . . . he went off-track,” said Tom Hayden, the ’60s antiwar leader. Many in the era shared the flaw, Hayden confessed. “We fell into the absolutism of the either-or, the good-or-evil categories ourselves.”
Ronald Reagan did not. For shrewd and principled pragmatism, whether pitted against Gorbachev or Congress, he was O’Neill’s match. Reagan’s 1980 triumph left Tip the leader of what one newspaper called, “the national Democratic Party, to the extent that it exists.” He was, an adviser told him, “the only person in a position to continue representing the ideals of justness and compassion.”
It was an elemental battle; hot lava meeting raging surf. O’Neill adapted. He added specialists to his already talented staff. He dropped 40 pounds, improved his wardrobe, and worked TV-land like the sidewalks of Mass. Ave. In the end, Americans recognized, and came to appreciate, his authenticity and empathy. He fought the conservative hero to a draw. Reagan stemmed the growth of the welfare state, but the kid from North Cambridge and BC saved the core of the New Deal and the Great Society.John A. Farrell is the author of “Tip O’Neill and the Democratic Century” and “Clarence Darrow: Attorney for the Damned.” A former Globe writer and editor, he is writing a biography of Richard Nixon.