What would Tip O’Neil do?

by Diane Dimond on December 25, 2007

With apologies to Simon and Garfunkel …

Where have you gone Mr. Tip O’Neill?

Or more precisely where has the political style of long-time Democratic Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill gone?

I’m afraid the answer is: Gone and dead ~ just like the legendary Massachusetts pol who made it part of his job in leading the House of Representatives to work with and compromise with the opposition party to get things done for the good of the country!

Look, I don’t pretend to be an expert on O’Neill’s behind-the-scenes strategy. That is, perhaps, best left to his one time aide and my former MSNBC colleague Chris Matthews. I was just a rookie reporter on Capitol Hill back in the 80’s when Matthews escorted our rag-tag group of journalists into the ornate, ceremonial Speaker’s Office. He would be seated behind a huge mahogany desk and we would all gather and stand before him. The set-up must have reminded him of his Catholic school days and being called before the Mother Superior.

We would hear from the man himself what the day’s congressional agenda was going to be. After his main announcements O’Neill, often holding the longest (unlit) cigar I’d ever seen, would push his girth back from the desk and comfortably take our questions about pending legislation or the inner workings of the so-called People’s House. O’Neill was first elected to the 83rd congress in 1947 and by the time he was done he had served sixteen terms.

He was never robustly negative about the opposition party, he never resorted to public name calling or the finger pointing blame-game we see so much today. He often talked about his sometimes rowdy membership needing to get things done for the American people. He would keep the House in session or even call it back into session if important work was still pending. And it always seemed like there was work to be done, votes to be taken, arguments to be settled and important legislation to be written. Late night sessions were not uncommon. I remember distinctly, as a single mother, having to worry about calling in a last minute baby sitter to watch my young daughter.

Oh, Tip O’Neill was a partisan Democrat through and through and I’m sure after the media was ushered out of his office he had a few harsh Irish words to say about a Republican or two … maybe even a recalcitrant member of his own party. But at the end of the day he could be seen in any number of Washington, D.C. steakhouses breaking bread with a member from the other side of the aisle. That’s how the two sides co-existed back then. They found a way to work out their differences because what mattered most was doing the People’s Work.

Was it a perfect system? Not by a long shot but I always got the feeling that O’Neill truly felt it was part of his job – part of the Massachusetts mandate that continued to send him to Capitol Hill – to exhibit the leadership needed to pass the laws our ever changing country needed to keep running smoothly. He had to find a way to make it happen.

Unselfish leadership – now there’s a concept. Maybe I was just naïve back then, maybe O’Neill’s tenure wasn’t as rosy as remembered – but it was a damn sight more productive than today’s congress.

I’ve always been a registered independent, careful not to fully embrace either mainstream political party. But, as I read this column by George Will, in which he outlines what this 110th session of Congress has done and failed to accomplish, I began to mentally compile my own list. I wondered what Tip O’Neill would have done this year if he had been in his fellow Democrat Nancy Pelosi’s seat, facing our modern-day dilemmas. I believe O’Neill’s approach would have been very different.

So, all Americas are left to wonder -

Where was the 110th Congress on the crisis in housing and the apparent nationwide fraud in the mortgage industry?

Where’s the much needed legislation to staunch the flow of illegal aliens coming into this country? How about laws to govern what we do with the 12 million illegals already in the United States?

Why was there no concrete alternative energy plan to help Americans escape the inevitable $100.00 tank full of gasoline? Can’t anyone in Congress exercise the leadership needed to figure out how we can safely drill for oil right here in America?

Why can’t the leaders we’ve chosen – who by the way have great perks, benefits, pensions and make an annual salary of $165,200.00 dollars each (Pelosi’s salary is $212,100.00) come up with a legislative roadmap toward a real, responsive health care system? Other countries have done it. Why can’t America?

I guess today’s leadership is too consumed with posturing for the upcoming presidential election, too busy pointing fingers instead of practicing real leadership. In the meantime we, the American people, are paying a collective 88 million dollars to pay these lawmakers salaries each year. And that doesn’t include the legislators perks, pensions or expense accounts!

And so another session of congress comes and goes. Under the Pelosi regime the House did manage to pass 146 bills last session – most just extended existing laws or accomplished mundane things like approving the name for federal buildings.

And I keep wondering, What would Tip O’Neill have done?

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Paulie October 4, 2008 at 12:03 pm

Great post…my grandfather Met Leahy was an ole ward boss for Tip in East Cambridge…my grandfather owned a bar in Inman Square – Oaks Cafe where Ole Tip used to drink and get the Portuguese vote but was from North Cambridge where Tip was from and where I lived for 13 years..

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