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Irish Eyes

January 07, 1994

Tip O'Neill was the very image of the portly, cigar-smoking (Cuban, preferably) back-room politician. He cared more about cutting the deal than writing legislation, and was an Irish American from a state where ethnicity once defined politics.

When he succeeded John F. Kennedy in the House in 1952, the conventional wisdom was that the Massachusetts legislator, though locally powerful, was merely keeping the "Kennedy seat" warm. What an underestimation.

O'Neill never practiced the politics of division; Irish to the core, he cared passionately for the common weal. "All politics is local," declared the man who would be a House Speaker equal to Sam Rayburn. On his retirement in 1986, his blessing mattered as a Kennedy from a new generation successfully ran for the seat.

Another person of Irish extraction, Virginia Kelley, nee Cassidy, was once a young widow struggling to find a way to support herself and her infant son, William, in Arkansas. Through this and other hard times, her expectations of life always were high. She, too, defied the odds--by raising a President who saw her as his pillar and friend.

O'Neill and Kelley, who no one would have thought to pair in life, were thrown together this week in the propinquity of their deaths, each within hours of the other. One changed the world in his own right, even defying a President of his own party in opposing the Vietnam War; the other passed on to her elder boy an optimism and tenacity that propelled him to the White House.

A mover and a mother, they left legacies deserving of our heartfelt appreciation.

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