Tip O'Neill, 55th Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives

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Thomas Phillip "Tip" O'Neill, Jr.

Birthplace: Cambridge, MA, United States
Death: January 05, 1994 (81)
Boston, MA, United States
Place of Burial: Congressional Cemetery, Washington D.C.
Immediate Family:

Son of Thomas Phillip O'Neill, Sr. and Rose O'Neill
Husband of Mildred Anne O'Neill
Father of Thomas Philip O'Neill, III
Brother of William O'Neill and Mary Rose O'Neill

Managed by: Private User
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About Tip O'Neill, 55th Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives


Thomas Phillip "Tip" O'Neill, Jr. (December 9, 1912 – January 5, 1994) was an American politician. O'Neill was an outspoken liberal Democrat and influential member of the U.S. Congress, serving in the House of Representatives for 34 years and representing two congressional districts in Massachusetts. He was the Speaker of the House from 1977 until his retirement in 1987, making him the second longest-serving Speaker in U.S. history after Sam Rayburn, and the longest consecutive-serving Speaker.

Early life and education

O'Neill was born to Thomas Phillip O'Neill, Sr., and Rose Ann (Tolan) O'Neill near Barry's Corner in the Irish middle-class area of North Cambridge, Massachusetts, known at the time as "Old Dublin." The third of three children, his mother died when he was 9 months old, and he was largely raised by a French-Canadian housekeeper until his father remarried when he was 8. O'Neill Sr. started out as a bricklayer, but later won a seat on the Cambridge City Council and an appointment as Superintendent of Sewers. During his childhood, O'Neill received the nickname "Tip" after the baseball player James "Tip" O'Neill. He was educated in Roman Catholic schools, graduating from St. John's High School in 1931, where he was captain of the basketball team. From there he went to Boston College, from which he graduated in 1936. He lived on Orchard Street in Cambridge.

Entry into politics

O'Neill first became active in politics at 15, campaigning for Al Smith in his 1928 presidential campaign against Republican Herbert Hoover. Four years later, he helped the campaign for Franklin D. Roosevelt. As a senior at Boston College, O'Neill ran for a seat on the Cambridge City Council and lost; his first race and only electoral defeat. This campaign taught him the lesson that became his best known quote: "All politics is local."

After graduating in 1936, O'Neill was elected as a Democrat to the Massachusetts House of Representatives, aided by tough economic times among his constituents; an experience that made him a strong advocate of the New Deal policies of Roosevelt, which were just then coming to an end. His biographer John Aloysius Farrell said his background in Depression-era working class Boston and his interpretation of his Catholic faith led O'Neill to view the role of government as intervening to cure social ills. O'Neill was "an absolute, unrepentant, unreconstructed New Deal Democrat," Farrell wrote.

In 1949, he became the first Democratic Speaker of the State House in Massachusetts history. He remained in that post until 1952, when he ran for the United States House of Representatives from his home district.

Congressman O'Neill

Quick rise in the House leadership

O'Neill was elected to the congressional seat vacated by Senator-elect John F. Kennedy in 1952. During his second term in the House, O'Neill was selected to the House Rules Committee where he proved a crucial soldier for the Democratic leadership, particularly his mentor House Majority Leader, fellow Boston congressman and later Speaker John William McCormack.

After wrestling with the issues surrounding the Vietnam War, in 1967 O'Neill broke with President Lyndon B. Johnson and came out in opposition to America's involvement. O'Neill wrote in his autobiography that he also became convinced that conflict in Vietnam was a civil war and that US involvement was morally wrong. While the decision cost O'Neill some support among older voters in his home district, he benefited from new support among students and faculty members at the many colleges and universities there. In the House of Representatives itself, O'Neill also picked up the trust and support of younger House members who shared his anti-war views, and they became important friends who contributed to O'Neill's rise through the ranks in the House.

House Majority Whip and Majority Leader

In 1971, O'Neill was appointed Majority Whip in the House, the number three position for the Democratic Party in the House. In 1973, he was elected House Majority Leader, following the presumed death of Congressman Hale Boggs (D-LA) in a plane crash in Alaska. As Majority Leader, O'Neill was the most prominent Democrat in the House to call for the impeachment of President Richard M. Nixon because of the Watergate scandal.

Speaker of the House

O'Neill replaces Carl Albert

As a result of the Tongsun Park influence peddling scandal, House Speaker Carl Albert retired from Congress and O'Neill was elected Speaker in 1977, the same year Carter became President.

O'Neill's work with President Jimmy Carter

With substantial majorities in both houses of Congress and control of the White House, O'Neill hoped that the Democrats would be able to implement Democratic-favored legislation, including universal health care and jobs programs. The Democrats, however, lacked party discipline, and while the Carter administration and O'Neill started out strong with the passage of ethics and energy packages in 1977, there were major stumbles. Troubles began with Carter's threats to veto a water projects bill, a pet project of many members of Congress. O'Neill and other powerful Democrats were also irked by Carter's appointments of a number of his fellow Georgians, whom O'Neill considered arrogant and parochial, to federal offices and White House staff.

O'Neill was also put off by Carter's frugal behavior in cutting executive staff and reducing the scale of White House entertaining. Carter, who is a Southern Baptist, even ended the practice of serving alcohol at the White House. As Carter's term began in early 1977, Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill were invited to the White House for a breakfast with the new President, where Carter served them sugar cookies and coffee. O'Neill, a man of expansive appetite, expected the until-then-traditional eggs and sausage. He looked across the table at Carter and said, "Mr. President... you know, we won the election." Carter was a reform-minded executive who often clashed with O'Neill on legislation. The Speaker wanted to reward loyal Democrats with pork barrel projects at a time when Carter wanted to reduce government spending. A continuing weak economy and the Iran hostage crisis made prospects bleak for Carter and the Democrats in the 1980 congressional and presidential election.

Republicans target O'Neill in 1980

Republicans made O'Neill a target of their 1980 campaign, portraying him as a washed-up old politician with liberal ideas. The National Republican Congressional Committee produced a television commercial that had an actor who resembled O'Neill laughing off warnings that his vehicle was low on fuel, until the vehicle finally ground to a halt. The announcer then proclaimed, "The Democrats have run out of gas." Although the Republicans made significant gains in the House in 1980, coinciding with the election of Republican Ronald Reagan, similar efforts to target O'Neill in the 1982 elections backfired and the Democrats remained firmly in control of the House for more than a decade.

O'Neill at odds with President Ronald Reagan

O'Neill was a leading opponent of the Reagan administration's domestic and defense policies. Following the 1980 election, with the U.S. Senate in Republican hands, O'Neill became the leader of the congressional opposition. O'Neill called Reagan the most ignorant man who had ever occupied the White House.[8] O'Neill also said that Reagan was "Herbert Hoover with a smile" and "a cheerleader for selfishness." He also said that Reagan's policies meant that his presidency was "one big Christmas party for the rich." Privately, O'Neill and Reagan were always on cordial terms, or as Reagan himself put it in his memoirs, they were friends "after 6PM." O'Neill in that same memoir when questioned by Reagan regarding a personal attack against the President that made the paper, explained that "before 6PM it's all politics."[9] Reagan once compared O'Neill to the classic arcade game Pac-Man in a speech, saying that he was "a round thing that gobbles up money". He also once joked he had received a valentine card from O'Neill: "I knew it was from Tip, because the heart was bleeding."

Working for peace in Northern Ireland

One of O'Neill's greatest accomplishments as Speaker involved Northern Ireland. He worked with fellow Irish-American politicians New York Governor Hugh Carey, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Massachusetts, and Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-New York to craft a peace accord between the warring factions. Beginning with the "St. Patrick's Day declaration" in 1977 denouncing violence in Northern Ireland and culminating with the Irish aid package upon the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985, the "Four Horsemen" as they were called convinced both Carter and Reagan to press the British government on the subject.


After retiring from Congress in 1987, O'Neill's autobiography, Man of the House was published. Co-written with author William Novak, it was well reviewed and became a best-seller. The book also helped turn the former Speaker into a national icon, and O'Neill starred in a number of commercials, including ones for Quality International Budget Hotels, Trump Shuttle, Commodore Computers, and one with Bob Uecker for Miller Lite. He confided to friends, however, that he missed being in Congress.

On November 18, 1991, O'Neill was presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by president George H. W. Bush.

Later on in retirement, O'Neill, who suffered from colon cancer, made public service advertisements about cancer in which he joined athletes and movie stars in talking candidly about having the disease.

In popular culture

O'Neill's emergence as a cultural figure was not restricted to commercials. Four years before his retirement he had a cameo role in the February 17, 1983 episode of Cheers entitled "No Contest," which featured him ducking into the bar to escape a woman who pestered him on the street about his political ideals. The show, which was ranked 60th in the Nielsen ratings at that time jumped 20 places the following week. O'Neill also made a brief appearance in the 1993 film Dave (as himself) assessing the work of the fictional American President in the movie. He also did narration for a segment of the Ken Burns series Baseball in which O'Neill, a lifelong Red Sox fan, read the Boston Globe from the day the Red Sox won the 1918 World Series. Some critics objected to what they perceived as cashing in on his political career. He also appeared in an episode of the NBC sitcom Silver Spoons as himself.

Death and legacy

O'Neill died from cancer on January 5, 1994, survived by his wife, Millie, Mildred Anne Miller (O'Neill) and their children. At his passing, President Bill Clinton said: "Tip O'Neill was 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."

The Speaker's oldest son and namesake, Thomas P. O'Neill III, a former lieutenant governor of Massachusetts, works in public relations in Boston. Another son, Christopher, is a Washington lawyer, the third son, Michael, is deceased. One daughter, Susan, has her own business in Washington, the other, Rosemary, is a political officer for the U.S. State Department.

Milldred O'Neill died on October 6, 2003. In addition to their children, they are survived by eight grandchildren.

The Thomas P. O'Neill Jr. Tunnel, built through downtown Boston as part of the Big Dig to carry Interstate 93 under Boston, is named after him. Other structures named after him include a federal office building in Boston, a golf course in Cambridge, and the main library at his alma mater, Boston College.

On June 22, 2008, the play "According to Tip" debuted in Watertown, Massachusetts, produced by the New Repertory Theatre. The one-man biographical play, written by longtime Boston sportswriter Dick Flavin, features O'Neill telling stories of his life, from his childhood to after his retirement in politics. Tony-Award winner Ken Howard played the title role in the premiere production.

Tip O'Neill

Thomas Phillip "Tip" O'Neillwas an American politician and Speaker of the United States House of Representatives. O'Neill was an outspoken liberal Democrat and influential member of the House of Representatives, serving for 34 years representing the northern portion of Boston, Massachusetts. He served as Speaker of the House from 1977 until his retirement in 1987, making him the only Speaker to serve for five complete consecutive Congresses, and the third longest-serving Speaker in U.S. history after Sam Rayburn and Henry Clay.

  • Tips grandparents emigrated from Mallow County Cork Ireland to America
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Tip O'Neill, 55th Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives's Timeline

December 9, 1912
Cambridge, MA, United States
September 20, 1944
Cambridge, Middlesex County, Massachusetts, United States
January 5, 1994
Age 81
Boston, MA, United States
Congressional Cemetery, Washington D.C.