One day soon, Thomas P. O'Neill Jr. of Massachusetts, a lock of silver-white hair plunging over his forehead, will pound his gavel for the last time and step down from the sprawling rostrum that is the domain of the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. From that day on, the House chamber will seem suddenly somewhat empty. A bear of a man, Tip O'Neill filled the rostrum with both his physical presence and his command of the legislative process. He could be a teddy bear at times, or a grizzly.
O'Neill, 73, is retiring from the House after representing Massachusetts' 8th District since 1953, and after serving the past decade as Speaker. Counting his previous experience in the Massachusetts legislature, O'Neill is ending a public career that spans half a century of American life. It was a career in which he always contended that "all politics is local." And of him, a colleague paid this tribute: "He never forgets the whole purpose of policy is to have a positive impact on human beings."
The past six years, O'Neill has been a defensive Speaker, guarding his people's programs against the onslaughts of the Reagan revolution. But of his adversary, President Reagan, he said recently, "Nobody in the history of America has ever had the affection that this man had." Perhaps not. But to O'Neill's many admirers, Tip is right up there.
The Speaker often was caricatured as a stumbling old-style pol. But he was never ashamed of being a politician. After all, the term is derived from the Greek word for citizen. Thank you for your service, Tip O'Neill, Citizen.