Review of “Tip O’Neill and the Democratic Century” by John A. Farrell

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Tip O’Neill and the Democratic Century
by John A. Farrell
776 pages
Little, Brown and Company
Published: Mar 2001

Published in 2001, John Farrell’s biography remains the definitive review of Tip O’Neill’s life. Farrell is a former correspondent for The Boston Globe and has written biographies of Clarence Darrow and Richard Nixon (which was a 2018 Pulitzer Prize finalist). Farrell is currently working on a biography of Ted Kennedy which is expected to be published in the fall of 2022.

Tip O’Neill (1912-1994) is a colorful, larger-than-life political figure and anyone interested in his brash, back room style of politics will find much to enjoy in this biography. During O’Neill’s five-decade political career, he served in the Massachusetts House as well as the U.S. House of Representatives (where he ended his career with ten years of service as Speaker).

Farrell invested five years researching his subject’s life and his knowledge of O’Neill often seems encyclopedic. From O’Neill’s ancestry to the last moments of his service as the 47th Speaker of the House of Representatives, every nuance of his public life seems to have been captured and memorialized.

Particularly fascinating is Farrell’s examination of O’Neill’s Irish heritage and his decision to join Boston’s turbulent political scene. Other notable moments include O’Neill’s decision to turn against the Vietnam War and observations relating to Tip’s famously fractious relationships with individuals working in the Carter administration. Also admirable is Farrell’s ability to objectively evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of his passionately partisan biographical subject.

But it is Farrell’s review of O’Neill’s relationship with Ronald Reagan – and the successes and failures of Tip’s efforts to protect the progressive agenda – that may be the most valuable portion of the book.

Readers lacking a serious interest in politics, however, are likely to find the narrative too “inside baseball” to serve as an ideal biography.  Rather than focusing on the major themes of his career, this book dives deeply into moments both large and small, following the ebb and flow of various pieces of legislation as well as back room discussions that will not always appeal to a broad audience.

More disappointing for me, however, is the lack of focus on O’Neill’s personal life. The context of his childhood is excellent, but the book offers relatively little concerning his family life. This includes his wife (about whom we learn virtually nothing prior to their wedding – and relatively little thereafter) and his five children (who probably saw less of O’Neill than does the reader).

Finally, there is no meaningful review of O’Neill’s legacy, no sweeping assessment of his life or impact on American politics. No one, it seems, would be in a better position to place O’Neill’s lengthy career into context than Farrell; it’s disappointing he didn’t take advantage of the opportunity.

Overall, John Farrell’s biography of Tip O’Neill will delight fans of the mid-to-late 20th century political scene as well as anyone interested in Democratic politics during O’Neill’s era. But this biography is likely to frustrate readers seeking a more personal, and less politically-focused, review of Tip O’Neill’s life.

Overall rating: 3¾ stars