A book review on Page 2 of today's Book World, printed in advance, gives an incorrect date for the Massachusetts primary race between Edward M. Kennedy and Edward McCormack. The correct date is 1962. (Published 9/6/87)
MAN OF THE HOUSE The Life and Political Memoirs Of Speaker Tip O'Neill By Thomas P. O'Neill with William Novak Random House. 387 pp. $19.95
HIS JOWLS are cocked to windward, his tuberous nose sniffing the salt air, a yellowed shock of hair ruffling in the sea breeze beneath an antic sun hat, while his rolled-up trousers reveal a full set of unstatesmanlike toes. All over the country this past summer, magazine readers have examined the extremities of the retired speaker of the United States House of Representatives, courtesy of American Express.
Indeed, everywhere one turns these days the distinctive physiognomy of Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill has been on display: from the Tercentenary Theater at Harvard University, where he received an honorary degree last June to a new ad for Hush Puppies in which those now-famous toes are encased in a shiny pair of brown wing-tipped cordovans. In the months since he left office, O'Neill has become not only the latest darling of America's advertising industry, but a full-blown national icon, a potent symbol of politics as it was practiced in a more exuberant, presumably more candid era.
Now comes the capstone to this ballyhoo, the memoirs for which Random House paid a cool million dollars, crafted by the acknowledged master of as-told-to-autobiography. But sadly, if not surprisingly, Man of the House fails to capture the true tang of this American original, not to mention the full reach of his astonishing half-century in public life.
These failings can scarcely be laid at the speaker's door. A renowned storyteller -- his grand Celtic tales have entranced chicken pot pie diners from Dorchester to Duxbury -- O'Neill is no writer. He has relied here on the narrative skills of William Novak, the man who brought you Lee Iacocca and Sidney Biddle Barrows (the "Mayflower Madam"), but that may be precisely the problem. Once the aromatic blend of O'Neill's personality has been strained through the all-purpose filter of Novak's prose, the result is a watery brew which one trusts would never be served in the House dining room.
The opening chapters -- recounting O'Neill's Irish-American heritage and early years -- are further flawed by a broad streak of sentimentality. If sentimentality is the enemy of feeling, it is also the enemy of truth, and no people are so badly served by blarney as Boston's Irish. There are too many lines here like: "When the good Lord made James Michael Curley, He broke the mold," too many stock figures like Up-up Kelly, Beef Stew McDonough, Whispering Johnny Hynes, and Knocko McCormack. It is an old story now, growing brown around the edges.
But beneath the bathos one detects the shape of a compelling portrait -- a rumpled, overweight, out-of-fashion figure who offers no apologies for a political credo adopted five decades ago. Ever since the early Depression years, when he managed a friend's campaign for the Cambridge City Council, Tip O'Neill has dedicated himself to work and wages. An unabashed "bread and butter liberal," he still believes that "every family deserves the opportunity to earn an income, own a home, educate their children and afford medical care." In an era when political positions are frequently reshaped over night to fit the latest poll results, there is a stolid consistency and integrity about this man which many Americans plainly find attractive.
There is also a vein of curmudgeonly combativeness which frequently breaks through his air of cracker-barrel geniality. He accuses John Kennedy's staff -- notably Kenny O'Donnell, whom he plainly disliked -- of "freezing" him out of the White House. He labels Congressman Howard Smith of Virginia, longtime chairman of the House Rules Committee, "an arrogant son of a bitch," calls Senator Eugene McCarthy both "mean" and "lazy," says Jimmy Carter's congressional liaison man, Frank Moore, "didn't know beans about Congress," and denounces columnists Roland Evans and Robert Novak as sleazy operators whose company he was "ashamed" to be in.
But it is his recollections of the presidents whom he has aided and battled over the years which will undoubtedly draw the most comment. He tells a story -- new to me -- of the Kennedy family's determined efforts to buy Edward McCormack out of the 1964 senatorial primary against Ted with an ambassadorship or substantial funds to settle his debts. O'Neill communicated this offer to McCormack, who ultimately turned it down.
He recounts a surreal meeting at the White House in October 1973, when Richard Nixon revealed the strain he was under. As Henry Kissinger briefed congressional leaders about the Arab-Israeli war, then in its fifth day, the president broke into those solemn deliberations with remarks like, "We had a lot of trouble finding Henry. He was in bed with a broad," and -- a minute later -- "Which girl were you with?"
His harshest assessments are reserved for Ronald Reagan. At least on the surface, he notes, the two men have a lot in common: "We're roughly the same age (he's two years older). We're both of Irish ancestry. We're both sports buffs. We're both sociable and outgoing. We both come from modest backgrounds and had FDR as our hero as we came of age in the 1930s."
So how does one explain their very different visions of America? Tip's answer is simple: "One of us lost track of his roots while the other guy didn't." And his final judgment is just as unequivocal: "I've known every President since Harry Truman, and there's no question in my mind that Ronald Reagan was the worst."
This, like much of the book, is less analysis than iconography. In the political coinage of the 1980s, Ronald Reagan's beaming visage adorns one side of the currency, while Tip O'Neill's corpulent figure is emblazoned on the other. Two images of our time. For my part, I'll take Tip.
J. Anthony Lukas won a Pulitzer Prize last year for "Common Ground: A Turbulent Decade in the Lives of Three American Families."