Man of the House

The Book of the Week is “Man of the House” by Tip O’Neill with William Novak, published in 1987.  This is the career memoir of Tip O’Neill, politician from Massachusetts.

O’Neill had a leg up in politics because his father controlled thousands of civil service jobs as a member of the Cambridge City Council and superintendent of sewers in the very early 1900’s.  Born in December 1912, O’Neill himself was elected to the Massachusetts legislature at just 24 years old. In 1977, he was named Speaker of the House.

In the 1940’s, members of the federal government made numerous, important deals behind closed doors. Secrecy prevailed with regard to the federal budget. When the author protested that a pork-barrel project for his state had been omitted after approval in 1949, a colleague reassured him, “We’ll just put it back in… After all, nobody knows what the figures were.”

Conflicts of interest also abounded, but were considered business as usual in the early to mid-twentieth century.  For example, all Congressmen’s expenses of a 1950’s annual leisure event at the Cleveland Indians’ spring training camp in Daytona Beach, Florida were paid for by local merchants: every Easter break, the two major political parties played a baseball game against each other. The purpose was to promote the area as a vacation destination. According to the author, the Democrats always won. However, he remarked that one Congressman alone usually cannot push through legislation and that is why bribery of one House member doesn’t work.

Another memorable, one-time, traumatic event for the author was when a shooting spree took place on the House floor in March 1954. The five gunmen from Puerto Rico injured several people but no one was killed. Fatefully, just prior to the incident, O’Neill had been called outside by a Boston Globe reporter.

In September 1967, O’Neill informed his constituents that he was changing from hawk to dove on the Vietnam War. This was a politically unpopular action, as the press and most of the Democrats still favored the war. Various members of the CIA and the military had secretly agreed with him. His reasoning was that, because President Lyndon Johnson was refraining from using aggressive firepower, the Americans could never win militarily. Johnson feared that mining harbors, disabling bridges and power plants in Vietnam would spark involvement by the Russians and/or Chinese. So, inefficient guerrilla warfare continued for years, taking many lives needlessly.

Additionally, the author showed that there’s nothing new under the sun. In the 1970’s, Evans and Novak, a well-known pair of political journalists, were nicknamed “Errors and Nonfacts” around D.C. “They’re also known for publishing negative stories about members of Congress, stories often leaked to them by people who don’t have much knowledge and aren’t much respected on Capitol Hill.” Besides, O’Neill wrote that a power-hungry Chief of Staff working for a president who likes to delegate is a “formula for disaster.”

On another topic, the author commented that President Jimmy Carter was the one who actually implemented deregulation in various industries and drew attention to the ballooning federal deficit. Nevertheless, in 1977, Carter’s energy bill would need to be reviewed by as many as seventeen different committees and subcommittees in the House, and each group would object to portions of the document. Read the book to learn how O’Neill was instrumental in getting the package passed; the evils that Presidents Nixon and Reagan perpetrated; what Lee Iacocca did; how the attitude of Americans has become mean-spirited starting under Reagan, and much more.