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BC Kicks Off Tip O'Neill Centennial Celebration

For The Heights

Published: Sunday, October 21, 2012

Updated: Wednesday, January 9, 2013 19:01

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Robyn Kim / Heights Staff

The late Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill, Democratic Speaker of the House between 1977 and 1987, would have been 100 years old this coming December. In the first of three events designed to commemorate O’Neill, political analyst Thomas Mann gave a lecture in O’Neill Library last Thursday tracing political change throughout O’Neill’s career.

“Tip O’Neill was around for two big transitions,” said professor R. Shep Melnick, the Tip O’Neill Professor of Politics at Boston College. “He was part of the destruction of the old order, the old conservative coalition, and the formation of the more unified Democratic party that could still work across the aisle.”

In the O’Neill Library reading room, as part of a new O’Neill exhibit, there now sits a photograph of O’Neill smiling with former Republican president Ronald Reagan and his wife Nancy Reagan. Beneath the photo, a note from Nancy Reagan to O’Neill reads, “It must be after six o’ clock–we’re all smiling!”

It was a mutual understanding between Ronald Reagan and O’Neill that before 6 p.m., all was politics, but Melnick said that Reagan and O’Neill often attended social events together. They were “not really friends,” according to Melnick, but “when they were in each other’s company, they really seemed to enjoy it.”

In his lecture, Mann said that O’Neill reminded him of the “heartwarming” side to politics.

O’Neill came from a modest, Irish background in Massachusetts. After graduating from high school, one of his teachers pushed him to invest in higher education at BC. He graduated in 1936 before launching his political career.

“Tip O’Neill really was a crucial part of the transformation of BC from a local, struggling college to a major national university,” Melnick said. “He really put us on the map.”

Susan O’Neill, one of Tip O’Neill’s children present at the commemoration, said that her father remained dedicated to his education at BC. “When we were growing up, going to the BC football games on Saturday was a ritual,” she said. “I can remember going to his 25th reunion.”

A 1968 BC graduate, Susan O’Neill is one of Tip O’Neill’s five children, all but one of whom attended BC.

Susan O’Neill is a member of the board responsible for the Thomas P. O’Neill, Jr. Scholarship Fund. According to her, the scholarship fund gives out about 20 scholarships per year to students in her father’s old congressional district, adding up to more than $4 million since its 1987 establishment.

“Tip clearly thought that social justice and the teachings of the Catholic Church were central to what his job was,” Melnick said. “His passion for the poor was central to what God demands.”

Of her father’s politics, Susan O’Neill said that he played bridge on Friday nights with Silvio Conte, the Republican congressman and BC graduate for whom Conte Forum is named. She said that although “they were certainly partisans,” they fostered a long-term friendship.

Tip O’Neill’s “back-slapping, glad-handing” political style, according to Melnick, was integral to his success on Capitol Hill. While living in Washington, D.C., said Melnick, Tip O’Neill rarely ate a meal at home, preferring to eat out and play poker with people from both sides of the aisle. “He learned how to read these people,” Melnick said. “When they were bluffing, when they were being straight.” In this way, Tip O’Neill was trusted by both the older conservatives and the younger liberals in Congress.

As Mann said in his lecture, however, such bipartisanship would change during Tip O’Neill’s tenure as speaker. “We have political parties that are deeply polarized on ideological grounds, and they are relentlessly oppositional and adversarial,” Mann said.

Modern politics, according to Mann, just “don’t live up to the good old days.”

The next event to commemorate Tip O’Neill will be a luncheon talk by Yale professor David Mayhew on Friday, Nov. 2.

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