Book Review  

Tip O'Neill and the Democratic Century by John A. Farrell. 
Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 2001. 784 pp. $29.95

Twenty years ago the historian Ronald Steele published Walter Lippman and the American Century, in which he offered the great journalist's life as a template for his times. Lippman, through the power of his thought and words, was cause and consequence of the America that he interpreted. Comes now from Massachusetts an alternative perspective on America in the Twentieth Century, Tip O'Neill and the Democratic Century. Making the American century into the Democratic century, in Farrell's view, was the work of politicians like Tip O'Neill.

This book is like its subject: oversized and full of stories, many of which are no doubt true. Tip O'Neill was, of course, a famous storyteller, and one challenge for his biographer is to sort fact from fiction among the many stories told by and about him. Farrell undertook this biography, which is not authorized, after O'Neill passed away, and so Farrell had no opportunity to interview O'Neill. Instead, he has cobbled together from published sources and interviews with O'Neill family members, staff, colleagues, cronies, adversaries, and observers a montage of O'Neill's life grounded in the faith that what respondents can agree upon is in fact what occurred. 

On the whole the effort is successful. While we are regaled with the mythology of O'Neill's early career and rise to power, the narrative is grounded in historical events. Moving forward in time, it obtains better footing in memories more recent and in a greater variety of sources. The main contours of O'Neill's political career and role as party leader and Speaker are, in general, accurately portrayed.

Still, this biography suffers from being too centered on its subject, if such can be said of a biography. We see the world through Tip O'Neill's eyes. He is the sun. The satellites that surround him are allowed here to reflect their light back upon him rather than on the universe they jointly inhabit. For example, the heart of this story is O'Neill's rapid rise from the Rules Committee in 1970 to Speaker of the House in 1977. This was the period of Vietnam, Watergate, and the reform movement in the House. Readers are led to understand that O'Neill played an essential role in each of these dramas: but not for him things would have happened differently. The story is told entirely from O'Neill's point of view. With respect to Watergate, a full understanding would present O'Neill's perspective in relationship to that of other participants such as Speaker Albert and Judiciary Committee Chair Peter Rodino, who were both convinced that impeachment required cautious and consensus-building approach. On Farrell's account, they were timid and O'Neill was not; but the final outcome suggests that they were right.

Similarly, Jim Wright served as O'Neill's majority leader for ten years. The story of O'Neill's battles with Reagan, which did more than anything else to make him an icon, brush by Wright's role and his relationship with O'Neill. Farrell had access to Wright's diaries. If they do not reveal a man often chafing in the role of a subordinate party leader, they do not reveal the person known to Capitol Hill observers during the mid-1980s. Farrell presents O'Neill as shrewdly steering his way through a mine field in the Democratic Caucus. Unmentioned is Wright's consistent demand for firmer leadership of the sort that he implemented in the 100th Congress as Speaker. 

In both of these instances the world looks a bit different from Tip O'Neill's point of view than from that of others. This biography would offer a fuller composite were it informed to a greater degree than it is by alternative perspectives. In part, the problem may lie in the range of persons interviewed and sources consulted. Tip O'Neill would have served in the House with hundreds of Republicans; yet among several dozen interview sources only five Republican members of the House are listed. In comparison, many persons who were close to O'Neill - family, friends, colleagues, and staffers - were interviewed. The Tip O'Neill that emerges is the one they knew.

Farrell's account is not, however, an encomium. He has scoured O'Neill's surface and found some warts. This was not a perfect man, and he made mistakes in his political and personal life. Farrell dutifully reports them. Underneath, however, O'Neill was a fundamentally good man who wanted to do the right thing and had strong convictions about what that meant personally and politically.

Among O'Neill's strongest convictions was his belief that government was a force to do good. The New Deal and the Democratic Party program that flowed from it was the embodiment of that belief. Tip O'Neill took to his grave the unshaken belief that the Democratic Party had built America. It had created the middle class. It had stood for civil rights, for economic opportunity, for the neediest among us. 

But it is not in this philosophy of governance that the true story of Tip O'Neill is to be found in the pages of this book. O'Neill was not a philosopher; he was a politician. Walter Lippman might have evoked the greatness of America as an ideal and as an actor on the world stage, but it was men like Tip O'Neill - a pork-barreling, logrolling, ward-heeling politician - who made America, and not the ideologue or the intellectual. And this is why the big man deserves a big biography: he exemplified something that is central to the American experience.

That, at least, is the aspiration of this biography. It seeks, in the end, to make of O'Neill something more than just a good politician or an effective Speaker of the House. It portrays him as the icon of an age. Was he? The story told in this book is that of a shrewd, colorful, and effective politician who by dint of calculation and good luck ended up rising to the top of the heap in the House of Representatives. Once he got there, circumstances elevated him to an unusually prominent role as Speaker of the House. He performed that role capably. For those, like myself, for whom the House is an end in itself, this is quite enough. For us, this book might have been called simply, Speaker Tip O'Neill.

-- Ronald M. Peters, Jr.



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