Who Knew Tip O'Neill Could Sing and Dance?

Written by Aaron Goldstein


July 19, 2008
by Aaron Goldstein
During his two terms in the White House Ronald Reagan's most formidable political rival was Tip O'Neill, who served as Speaker of the House of Representatives for seven of the Gipper's eight years in office. But who knew Tip could sing and dance?

O.K. that's not actually Tip O'Neill crooning about his wife Millie or carrying a tune about Jimmy Curley, the mayor who dominated Boston politics in the first half of the 20th Century.  It's Tony Award winning actor Ken Howard.  But many locals with whom I was surrounded at the New Repertory Theatre in Watertown said it was the man from North Cambridge.
In According to Tip, Howard (with the help of writer Dick Flavin) gives depth to O'Neill's oft quoted adage that all politics is local.  It is an account of Thomas P. O'Neill's life growing up in North Cambridge where he entered local politics losing his first election by just over 200 votes.  From that loss came the Mrs. O'Brien Rule: People, even your neighbor from across the street, want to be asked for their vote.  O'Neill never lost an election after that as he got elected to Cambridge City Council, the Massachusetts State House (where he eventually became the first Democrat to be House Speaker; yes Massachusetts was once a GOP stronghold) and eventually Congress.
Howard might very well be the most underrated actor of his generation whose presence looms large in nearly all his work.  He is best known for his portrayal of basketball coach Ken Reeves in The White Shadow which ran on CBS from 1978 to 1981.  Television viewers of more recent vintage will more likely remember his portrayal of retired Boston Police officer Max Cavanaugh in Crossing Jordan, the NBC series which starred Jill Hennessy and aired between 2001 and 2007.  Howard played opposite Hennessy as her father in what made for perhaps the most complex father-daughter relationship in TV history.  They would frequently re-enact murders that took place earlier in the show asking each other if they wanted to be the victim or the suspect.   In her less lucid moments, Jordan would accuse Max of murdering her mother when she was a child.  Yet Max reacted with greater affront when Jordan once asked him if he was a New York Yankees fan.  Needless to say, Crossing Jordan was never quite as good once he left the series after its third season in 2004.  While he occasionally returned for guest spots the show did not have the same grit and world weariness as personified by Howard's portrayal of Max Cavanaugh.  No actor is better suited to portray the man who was once the third most powerful in the United States.  Ken Howard is Tip O'Neill - the voice, his mannerisms and not to mention the excessive use of the Speaker's gavel.
O'Neill came to national prominence in 1967 when he broke with LBJ over the Vietnam War.  In According to Tip, Howard dramatically recreates the speech in which O'Neill said, "It is a lot easier to get into a war than out of one."  Given the strong opposition to the War in Iraq this line naturally drew much applause.  This is Massachusetts after all.  Yet at the same time I didn't think the pop was as vigorous as it might have been a year ago.
While Harvard University students and the left wing intelligentsia might have supported O'Neill's Vietnam stance, he was no limousine liberal.  O'Neill marveled at the ability of the left wing to "come up with a cure for which there is no known disease."  There is a particularly funny moment in According to Tip recounted where Sargent Shriver orders a fancy drink in a working class tavern.  The bartender asks Shriver if he wants mustard with it.  Harvard might have been all of a mile from where O'Neill grew up but it was also "15 million light years away from North Cambridge."  The closest O'Neill got to the Ivy League was cutting the grass in Harvard Yard when he was a teenager.  Still, O'Neill lived a remarkable life even if he didn't edit the Harvard Law Review.

Despite his position on Vietnam or perhaps because of it, O'Neill's star rose in the 1970s.  He ascended from House Majority Whip to House Majority Leader when Hale Boggs' plane disappeared over Alaska.  He would serve as Speaker of the House for a decade beginning in January 1977 during the final days of the Ford Administration, lasting through the Carter years and nearly the entire Reagan era.

Guess which President the Speaker got along with the least?  According to Tip, Jimmy Carter "knew more about the issues and knew less about Washington, D.C."  Despite ideological differences with Reagan, O'Neill was on friendly terms with his fellow Irishman.  This was because of Six O'Clock Rule.  O'Neill and Reagan would spar during the day but at the stroke of six they were friends.  They could shoot the breeze while playing cards.  Could you imagine President Bush and Nancy Pelosi playing seven card stud?  I thought not.  O'Neill did not like Reagan's conservative world view but nonetheless thought he was "a helluva guy."

On the other hand, O'Neill cared little for Newt Gingrich.  According to Tip, the future Speaker was little more than "a turd that came floating by."  (Yes, the Massachusetts audience ate that one up.)  There was no room for the Six O'Clock Rule in the Republican Revolution led by Gingrich.

O'Neill died on January 5, 1994 at the age of 81.  Later that same year, the GOP took control of the House of Representatives for the first time since 1954.  To paraphrase former Major League Baseball Players Association Executive Director Marvin Miller's remark about United Steelworkers of America President Philip Murray, who died just days after Eisenhower was elected President, I suppose O'Neill preferred death to a Republican Congress.

According to Tip
might be the finest one man play about an American politician since Give ‘em Hell, Harry starring James Whitmore as Harry Truman. The play would eventually become a film for which Whitmore received an Academy Award nomination as Best Actor.  Whether Howard will be considered for such an accolade remains to be seen.  Having just ended its run in the Boston area, there are plans to mount productions in New York City, Washington, D.C. and even Dublin, Ireland in the coming months.
Tip O'Neill did play a small yet significant role in getting the first steps towards peace taken in Northern Ireland.  Along with several other Irish-American politicians, O'Neill spoke out against violence in Northern Ireland while supporting the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985.  O'Neill successfully pressed President Reagan to lobby Margaret Thatcher to get the negotiations moving with the Irish government.

While O'Neill did not live to see the Good Friday Agreement come to fruition, he is work in Northern Ireland was enough to prompt Reagan supporter Frank Sinatra to write the Gipper in 1987 to urge him to appoint O'Neill as Ambassador to Ireland.  Of course that did not come to pass.  After all, according to Tip, if he and Reagan agreed in public "it would ruin the both of us."  However, George H.W. Bush (who is referred to as "The Good George" in According to Tip; again it's a Massachusetts audience) actually offered O'Neill the ambassadorship but had to turn it down as his wife Millie had become ill.  Yet it demonstrates the high esteem in which O'Neill was held by Republican politicians and supporters.  O'Neill was a good liberal and, more importantly, a good American.

Whether you are a liberal or a conservative, you should enjoy Ken Howard's portrayal of an American political icon.
Aaron Goldstein writes about the things that pique his insatiable curiosity. In addition to politics, he is aficonado of baseball, poetry, music and ketchup flavored potato chips. Aaron satiates his various appetites in Boston.  

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