A towering figure of the postwar Democratic Party, Tip O'Neill was one of the last of the great political warhorses, a man who cared as much about his family and neighbors as he did about the issues, someone who knew how to have a good time and do a good deed. This garrulous legislative titan fought Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and Newt Gingrich and prevailed because he never forgot where he came from.
Tip came from the third floor of a three-decker in a neighborhood of Irish immigrants in North Cambridge, Massachusetts. His father was a leader in the local Democratic Party machine and instructed his son in the ways of precinct captains, organization politics, and patronage jobs. You can read the chapter about his childhood by going here: http://www.nytimes.com/books/first/f/farrell-tip.html Tip graduated from Boston College, entered politics, and won a seat in the state legislature, where he risked his new career by challenging the Red Scare tactics of his colleagues. His constituents believed in him, and the other pols came to respect him. In 1948, Tip became the first Irish American, the first Roman Catholic, and the first Democratic Speaker of the Massachusetts House of Representatives.
In 1952, Tip arrived in Washington, where he was an early soldier in the civil rights struggles. He had a surprisingly complex relationship with the Kennedys and split with Lyndon Johnson over the Vietnam War.
It was Tip who bridged the gulf between the old and new wings of the Democratic Party during the Vietnam era, Watergate and the post-Watergate reforms.
The man who believed "all politics is local" now found his stage to be national. He was elected Speaker of the House in 1977 but watched his party crumble during the Jimmy Carter years and the Reagan Revolution.
Battered at first by the charismatic Reagan, Tip patiently waited until the Republicans overplayed their hand. Then he led a fierce Democratic defense of Social Security, Medicare and other New Deal and Great Society innovations.
Americans came to recognize that Tip O'Neill represented a set of political values - justice, generosity, loyalty - as important as the conservative ideals espoused by Reagan.