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'TIP O'NEILL' | A review Book on big man is sympathetic



Published: Sun, May 6, 2001 @ 12:00 a.m.



O'Neill was an entertaining and powerful man.

By ROB STOUT

SPECIAL TO THE VINDICATOR

& quot;Tip O'Neill and the Democratic Century, & quot; by John A. Farrell (Little, Brown and Company, $27.95).

From the Age of Roosevelt to the Contract with America, anyone even vaguely associated with national politics has crossed paths with the legacy of Thomas Philip ("Tip & quot;) O'Neill Jr., generally regarded as one of the greatest post-war Speakers of the House and all around vanguard of Democratic ideals.

And as Boston Globe reporter John A. Farrell enjoyably reminds us in this colorful, hefty and intensely researched biography, O'Neill was the last in a line of shrewd, gregarious Irish politicians who worked his way up from Boston ward boss, making no secret of the political back slapping he mastered along the way.

& quot;All politics are local & quot; became his 50-year mantra, and Farrell shows us a man who, while often in the center of national and international debate, never strayed far from his working class Cambridge constituency. O'Neill clung to the idealism of Roosevelt-era New Deal programs aimed at the poor and disenfranchised, even after many of his fellow Democrats moved away from social largesse.

Detailed: While O'Neill's life story is widely known, it is again retold here in often stultifying detail. However, a large portion of the author's work centers on O'Neill's tenure as Speaker from 1977 to 1987, which encompassed relationships with both Presidents Carter and Reagan, and is studded with pieces of new information accessed from previously untapped sources.

Carter, who ran as an outsider to Washington politics, saw O'Neill as the ultimate insider, a typical back room big city pol whose reputation did not sit well with the former Georgia governor. The men would never see eye to eye. Carter constantly overlooked the Democratic majority in Congress, and O'Neill thought him inept for doing so. However, as the loyal Democrat, the Speaker did his best to shore up support for Carter, even during the final, painful months of the administration.

In the clash with fellow Irishman Ronald Reagan over both domestic and foreign policy, one feels a sense of doomed heroics built into the narrative. O'Neill becomes more isolated (and thus more outspoken), as the & quot;Reagan Revolution & quot; inched the entire political spectrum to the right of the stalwart Speaker.

Ambushed by Reagan: Clearly ambushed by this sudden shift, he became the administration's chief punching bag until the Iran-Contra scandal late in Reagan's second term took off much of the heat.

As a biographer, Farrell is obviously sympathetic toward his subject, leading to such descriptions as, & quot;His heart matched his bulk, & quot; or in his account of O'Neill's passing: & quot;Words of the great man's death were passed through a series of late night telephone calls. & quot;

During his lifetime, no one ever accused Tip O'Neill of being a bore. He was naturally entertaining (among his many one liners, he loved to refer to Reagan as & quot;Herbert Hoover with a smile & quot;). Farrell manages to establish a balance between the anecdotal and more extraneous information such as O'Neill's IRA (that is Individual Retirement Account) rollover or the intimate details of his Weight Watchers meetings.

At over 700 pages, the book requires a certain degree of dedication.




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