Tip in Charge: Photos of Speaker O’Neill from a not so distant era of bipartisanship in Washington

Take one glance at any of the programs on cable news networks and you’ll conclude that we live in a time of unprecedented political polarization. The Pew Research Center confirms that this has been a growing trend for over two decades, and the divide between those with conservative and liberal viewpoints is the greatest it’s been since the early 1990s.1 Nostalgia can guide us back to a time of political cooperation and mutual understanding of shared national interest, when Ronald Reagan and Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill were two leading Washington figures.

Monan, J. Donald at O'Neill Testimonial Dinner with Ronald Reagan, Garrett Fitzgerald, and Tip O'Neill,

Monan, J. Donald at O’Neill Testimonial Dinner with Ronald Reagan, Garrett Fitzgerald, and Tip O’Neill, Boston College faculty and staff photographs, BC.2000.005, John J. Burns Library, Boston College, http://hdl.handle.net/2345.2/BC2000_005_ref1265.

While Ronald Reagan defines 1980s conservatism, Tip O’Neill’s avid defense of liberal positions on the national stage is unsurpassed. As Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, O’Neill’s tireless advocacy for causes benefiting the marginalized Americans often countered many of Reagan’s stated political objectives.2 Famously, Reagan thought that the most terrifying words in the English language were “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”3  O’Neill viewed the government as not only capable of helping, but obligated to do so. Prior to his long political career, Tip O’Neill was a Boston College undergrad. O’Neill’s ties to Boston College run deep, and it is no small wonder that the University currently has numerous remembrances of one of the giants from a not so bygone era.

Burns Library holds the Thomas P. O’Neill, Jr. Congressional Papers and, while much of the material was generated by the Speaker’s staff, O’Neill’s personality is apparent throughout the collection. O’Neill’s identification with the common man and his generous sense of humor are preserved in the papers. Photographs featuring the Massachusetts statesman and Washington stalwart are available to the public from the collections of John J. Burns Library, Boston College, and a selection has been digitized for online access. These images strongly indicate why Tip O’Neill rose to and stayed at the heights of political power in Washington for over two decades. A few photographs of particular note will be highlighted here in order to offer a glimpse into the collection and the man at the center of it.

Born and raised in North Cambridge, Thomas Philip O’Neill Jr. graduated from Boston College in 1936  and immediately entered state politics while also working as an insurance agent and realtor. In just over a decade, O’Neill was the Speaker of the Massachusetts House of Representatives before moving on to the U.S. House in 1953 to represent northern Boston. There he remained until 1987 when he chose to not run for re-election and finally faded from political life after a half century of service.4

Official portrait painting of Thomas P. O'Neill

[Official portrait painting of Thomas P. O’Neill], Thomas P. O’Neill, Jr. Congressional Papers (Tip O’Neill Papers) photographs, CA.2009.001, Boston College, Burns Library, http://hdl.handle.net/2345/7769.

O’Neill was on the national stage as Speaker of the House (1977-1987), and the photograph collection captures the personality of the man during this pivotal time. His official portrait, by Robert Vickrey, known for over a dozen Time magazine covers during the 1950s and 1960s, is a good starting place for perusing the collection. Hung in 1986, the rendering of O’Neill features “a glint of good humor in the expression,” and his pride in  his alma mater through his class ring and tie adorned with in-flight golden eagles. Vickrey stated that O’Neill was “utterly charming, invariably affable” and the only portrait he enjoyed painting.5 Tip’s warmth also shows in a 1984 St. Patrick’s Day celebration where he was, once again, a proud representative of the Irish-American community, not just in his native Boston but across the country.

A number of photographs pre-date O’Neill’s time as Speaker of the House. A bowling alley photo dated sometime in the 1960s shows the future speaker’s sporting side. The smiling crowd behind him are elegantly dressed, indicating this may have been a fundraiser back home in Boston. In a photo from the 1948 Massachusetts state re-election campaign, a fresh-faced O’Neill gazes beyond the camera and perhaps to opportunities ahead . There are also some quintessentially Boston images such as O’Neill bundled up and walking Cape Cod as well as conversing with captivated former Boston mayors.

Many of the photos in the collection were captured by Dev O’Neill—no relation to the Congressman—an Irish-born World War II veteran with ties to both the Royal Canadian Air Force and the U.S. Army Air Corps. Placed in Washington DC on a news service assignment, he became a full-time photographer at the U.S. House of Representatives in the 1950s, and, by the time Speaker O’Neill took the majority post in 1977, the photographer O’Neill was the head of the office of photography.6 There are many additional strands worth exploring in these photographs, many of which are one-of-a-kind.

Was the time of Reagan and O’Neill a more harmonious political climate with mutual understanding and the national interest trumping individual self-promotion and partisanship? Perhaps. In an op-ed penned for the New York Times in the wake of a 2012 Obama-Romney Presidential debate that saw each man invoke the relationship between Reagan and O’Neill as indicative of a more consolatory time, Tip O’Neill’s son faults the “misty aura” around that era that “obscures some hard truths.”7

Whichever side you fall on, come in and explore the era for yourself through the lens of the O’Neill Papers. Place a request online ahead of time or drop by Burns Library to see the Tip O’Neill Congressional Papers with these and other photographic gems.

  • James Rynne, Reading Room Assistant, MA Candidate in the Department of History

Works Cited:

1 “Political Polarization in the American Public,” Pew Research Center. Retrieved on 12/1/18 from http://www.people-press.org/2014/06/12/political-polarization-in-the-american-public/.

2“Thomas P. O’Neill, Jr., American Politician“ from Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 12/1/18 from https://www.britannica.com/biography/Thomas-P-ONeill-Jr.

3 “August 12, 1986” in Reagan Quotes and Speeches, Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation & Institution. Retrieved 12/1/18 from https://www.reaganfoundation.org/ronald-reagan/reagan-quotes-speeches/news-conference-1/.

4 “O’Neill, Thomas Philip, Jr. (Tip),” History, Art and Archives from the U.S. House of Representatives website. Retrieved 11/14/18 from https://history.house.gov/People/Detail/19187#biography.

5 “O’Neill, Thomas Philip, Jr. (Tip),” History, Art and Archives from the U.S. House of Representatives website. Retrieved 11/30/18 from https://history.house.gov/Collection/Detail/29652?ret=True

6“A. Dev O’Neill, Photographer For U.S. House for 22 Years” from the Washington Post, April 5, 1979. Retrieved 11/14/18 from https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/local/1979/04/05/a-dev-oneill-photographer-for-us-house-for-22-years/de2da602-3db6-4654-aad5-b78acc50c9b0/?utm_term=.d44b32ac6f18.

7 “Frenemies: A Love Story” from the New York Times 10/5/2012. Retrieved on 12/1/2018 from https://campaignstops.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/10/05/frenemies-a-love-story/

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