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Man of the house: the life and political memoirs of speaker Tip O'Neill.

Man of the House: The Life and Political Memoirs of Speaker Tip O'Neill.

Tip O'Neill, with William Novak. Random House, $19.95. Tip O'Neill's memoir is the kind of book you can imagine Ronald Reagan writing--informal, gossipy, full of funny anecdotes and reminiscences, short on detail and analysis. It covers 50 years of American politics, with some fascinating insights. But it should be read more for entertainment than enlightenment.

It is not a deeply philosophical book, but here and there O'Neill does set out his fundamental political philosophy. He comments, "I began my political career in 1936, on a slogan of "work and wages.' Today, more than half a century later, I'm still a bread-and-butter liberal who believes that every family deserves the opportunity to earn an income, own a home, educate their children, and afford medical care.' He describes a letter written to him early in his congressional career by his mentor, Sister Agatha, a former teacher from his parochial high school. She had learned that he wanted to leave Congress to run for governor of Massachusetts. She wrote him, "I don't think that's a good idea. You have a certain softness about you which would make it difficult for you to say no to anyone. That's a fine quality, but it would get you into a lot of trouble if you were governor. Washington is the place for you, where you can do so much good for people in need all over the country.'

Moreover, O'Neill does not describe in analytical detail how he ran the House during his ten years as speaker, what the O'Neill system was, or why he was a strong speaker. He does indicate his own operating style, in some ways similar to the president's: "The details of legislation have never been my strong suit, which is why I've always left them to other people. My own skills had more to do with powers of persuasion and with getting things done. While other members drew up the laws, I was like a shepherd who knew how to move legislation forward and get it passed. While I couldn't always cite chapter and verse, I always knew what a bill meant, what it stood for, and which members were most likely to support it.'

But if O'Neill does not provide the deep insight of the ultimate insider, he does provide more than enough interesting historical tidbits, observations about important political players, and good, pithy stories to make it a good read. Among the nuggets: He, in 1959, suggested to presidential candidate Richard Nixon, who was looking for campaign help in Massachusetts, "There's another guy you might look up. He's a lawyer in Boston, a sharp kid. His name is Chuck Colson.' O'Neill also tells a revealing story about his selection as minority whip in 1971 by Majority Leader Hale Boggs and Speaker Carl Albert--the decision that enabled him to become speaker six years later. After Albert vetoed Dan Rostenkowski for the post, Boggs and Albert reportedly settled on Hugh Carey of New York. But, O'Neill tells us, "little did I know that John Rooney and Jim Delaney, two senior and powerful members of the New York delegation, had been in to see Albert. "Don't pick Carey,' they told the speaker. "He's a troublemaker and a publicity seeker who takes credit for everything we've done. If you appoint him, don't ever expect any loyalty from us.''

The only guy that Albert and Boggs could then agree on was Tip O'Neill. Thus did Rooney and Delaney unwittingly shape both the leadership in Congress for more than a decade and the governorship of New York, which Carey later captured.

O'Neill also offers sharp and candid observations about politicians, from Robert Kennedy (they didn't get along; he saw and did not like the ruthless side of Kennedy's personality), to Richard Nixon (whom he viewed with particular disdain as a lousy poker player), to legendary Boston pol James Michael Curley (described with both awe and amusement), to Gerry Ford (unsurprisingly affectionate), to Jimmy Carter (surprisingly affectionate), and Ronald Reagan. While showing some fondness for Reagan and his personality, O'Neill attacks him and his philosophy with vigor and some animus. But the bitterness is even greater for Carter aide Hamilton Jordan, whom O'Neill referred to as "Hannibal Jerkin.' Jordan, of course, was aggressively ignorant about Washington politics and openly disdainful of the speaker (O'Neill says that Jordan believed a House speaker was "something you bought on sale at Radio Shack'), earning permanent ingratitude as a result.
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Author:Ornstein, Norman J.
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 1, 1987
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