US Democratic politician, speaker of the House of Representatives 1977–86. An Irish-American ‘New Deal’ liberal, he was the last Democratic leader from the old school of machine politics. An insurance man when elected to the Massachusetts state legislature in 1936, he became its youngest Speaker in 1947 before going to the US House of Representatives in 1952.
O'Neill pushed liberal legislation while protecting his working class constituents from budget cuts. In 1968 he supported Eugene McCarthy's antiwar candicacy and as majority leader in 1973 he voted to cut off funding of the air war in Vietnam. Elected Speaker (1977–87), he failed to muster an uneasy Democratic alliance of aging Southern committee chairmen and impatient young liberals to resist President Reagan's conservative agenda.
O'Neill was born in a working-class district in Cambridge, Massachusetts; his political thinking was conditioned by the Great Depression. He entered the Massachusetts state legislature in 1936 and the US House of Representatives in 1952, taking over a seat vacated by John F Kennedy. Through a mixture of stalwart partisanship, legislative shrewdness, and skilful alliance building, O'Neill ascended the Democrat Capitol Hill hierarchy. As speaker from 1977, he took charge of a House that was becoming more atomistic and difficult to control. From 1981 he worked with Republican president Ronald Reagan. O'Neill abhorred Reagan's ‘New Right’ policies and described him as ‘the least knowledgeable president’ he had ever met. On retirement from Congress in 1986, O'Neill became something of a media celebrity, writing a best-selling autobiography, Man of the House; the Life and Political Memoirs of Speaker Tip O'Neill (1987), and being paid handsomely for advertising endorsements.