TIP O'NEILL'S GREATEST charm was that he seemed completely out of date as a politician. In an age of media-savvy, blow-dried pretty boys, he was a cigar-smoking, card-playing, backroom kind of guy. He had an image that candidates pay political consultants to make over. Yet he understood that those same qualities gave him power because they made him real. At 6 feet 2 and weighing as much as 260 pounds, his Falstaffian figure symbolized a political girth that spanned five decades, from the New Deal and the Great Society to the Reagan retrenchment. He was the last Democratic leader from the old school, the longest-serving speaker of the House (1977-86) and easily the most beloved.
Thomas P. O'Neill Jr., who died in Boston last week at 81 of cardiac arrest, always knew why he was in Washington, and what he stood for. An unabashed liberal, he was a back-of-the-envelope Irish pol who trusted his instincts and didn't need polls to tell him what to do. He came of age during the Depression, arrived in Congress from Massachusetts in 1952 and came to power amid the plenty of the '60s and '70s (he once boasted that he'd put money into an appropriations bill to study knock-knees). Then in 1980. Ronald Reagan was elected president. Big government began to feel the pinch, and O'Neill's big-hearted liberalism was on the way out. In 1980 O'Neill found himself the target of a Republican ad campaign that pictured a rotund, white-haired fellow in a limo the symbol of a bloated, out-of-control Congress. But the ad backfired and catapulted O'Neill to folk-hero status. He was even invited to make a cameo appearance on "Cheers" a few years later.
Going up against Reagan, O'Neill knew how to wield power on everything from social policy to the MX missile. He wooed votes the old-fashioned way: he schmoozed for them. Whether it was on the golf course or over a beer, he lined up Democrats with unfailing persistence and good humor. Former House whip Tony Coelho remembers O'Neill's huge, beefy arm draped around him when he wanted something. "You just knew you were in the grip."
For 25 years in Washington, while his wife and family stayed back home in the district, O'Neill kept a bachelor apartment with another Massachusetts congressman, Rep. Edward Boland. All they kept in the refrigerator was orange juice, diet Fresca, beer and cigars. "He had an amazing constitution," recalls Christopher Matthews, a former aide who used to ride to the Hill in the morning with the speaker as O'Neill puffed away on a cigar with all the car windows closed. His idea of entertainment was a night of gin rummy with the boys. When a very handsome man introduced himself at an airport, O'Neill suggested he ought to be in movies. The man was Robert Redford. When O'Neill met Sophia Loren at a White House reception, all he could think to ask her was whether she was in "Bridge on the River Kwai," the only film he'd seen in years.
Welcoming newly elected President Reagan to his Capitol office, O'Neill pointed out that he had Grover Cleveland's desk. Reagan brightened and said he'd played the man in the movies. O'Neill was talking about a Democratic president; Reagan thought he meant Grover Cleveland Alexander, a legendary turn-of-the-century ballplayer. "Welcome to the big leagues," O'Neill told Reagan. Tip swore the tale was true.
He managed a cordial relationship with Reagan, and the White House made much of the two Irishmen putting aside their differences after sundown. But O'Neill's contempt for Reagan went beyond differences in ideology. He once called Reagan "the least knowledgeable" president he ever met and derided him for depending on three- by five-inch cards. When he watched Reagan at a White House meeting, taking a cue from Ed Meese on what to say about a tax proposal, O'Neill couldn't believe it. "Can you imagine a president asking a staff man? Right in front of everybody?"
Party discipline began to crumble under O'Neill's tenure. After he retired in '86, O'Neill said the only vote he ever regretted was the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in 1964, which gave Lyndon Johnson a green light to intervene in Vietnam. But that was an era when congressmen did what the leadership asked, and only a handful of Democratic lawmakers resisted the pressure. When it became his turn to strong-arm the vote, O'Neill, with his ever-present cigar, played the part better than anyone. So powerful was his image, even outside Washington, that he posed for American Express ads after he left office. California Rep. Bob Dornan, a Rush Limbaugh Republican, once said of O'Neill, "If aliens arrived from a foreign planet into the House chamber, they would know who the leader was." Tip O'Neill was cast just right for the role of Mr. Speaker.