April 6, 2003
Massachusetts has been known for more than 225 years as the "cradle of American liberty." Only for about 50 has it been regarded as the natural habitat of big-spending, high-taxing, Democratic pols-for-life like Tip O'Neill, the late speaker of the US House of Representatives. So when it came time to name the main underground stretch of the new I-93, which runs beneath downtown Boston and has been a dozen years and $15 billion in the constructing, Governor Mitt Romney's proposal -- the Liberty Tunnel -- was gracefully in keeping with Bay State history and tradition.
But history, tradition, and grace count for little in the Massachusetts Democratic Party, where whiny voices are demanding that the tunnel be named for O'Neill, whom local Democrats revere for his many years of shoveling extra pork into barrels bound for Boston -- especially the one labeled "Big Dig."
Romney isn't suggesting that O'Neill's name go unmentioned. He merely wants to put it on a smaller piece of the enormous highway project: the new connector linking the Ted Williams Tunnel with I-90, the Massachusetts Turnpike. When Romney first unveiled that idea 10 days ago, the Democratic leadership in the State House was all smiles. Senate President Robert Travaglini pronounced Romney's plan "truly fitting" -- a fine way to honor those who sacrificed for liberty while also paying homage to "our beloved House speaker."
But other Democrats now declare that a mere Turnpike connector doesn't do O'Neill justice. "If it weren't for him," cries State Senator Robert Havern, "there wouldn't be a tunnel. There wouldn't be a project. We need to memorialize him."
And liberty? "To hell with that," grouses Michael Dukakis. "This is Tip's tunnel, as far as I'm concerned. Was, is, and will be forevermore. . . . Without Tip -- and he was a sainted man -- without Tip O'Neill, this thing wouldn't have happened."
(Which brings to mind the only good Big Dig joke: "If they really want to depress the Central Artery," the mordant George Keverian, a former legislative leader, used to say, "they should have Mike Dukakis talk to it.")
It's hard to know which of these notions is craziest -- that O'Neill was father and mother to the Big Dig, that Boston has never memorialized him, or that the speaker from Barry's Corner in Cambridge was a paragon of purity and virtue.
To begin with, O'Neill didn't create the Big Dig. He didn't move the dirt, didn't draft the blueprints, didn't do the engineering, didn't pour the concrete, didn't hire the contractors. He didn't think up the idea in the first place, and he sure as hell didn't pick up the tab.
Let us pause to note a truth that nearly always goes unvoiced: Working men and women across America paid for the new Central Artery -- paid for it through the nose, in fact, at a 90:10 federal-state funding ratio. O'Neill managed to shepherd the Artery bill through the sausage factory, and for that legislative achievement he deserves a round of applause. But Tip's Tunnel? Please. If Democrats want to name the new roadway for those who were really indispensable to its creation, let them call it the Taxpayers Tunnel.
Meanwhile, anyone depressed over the supposed lack of a monument to Tip O'Neill need only hail a cab to 10 Causeway Street. There the massive Thomas P. O'Neill Federal Building has hunkered down since 1987, one of those "Stalinist fortresses of stone and concrete," as the Boston Globe's architecture critic described it, "grim by day and deserted by night."
Long before ground was broken for the Causeway Street building, everyone knew it was going to be O'Neill's monument. The General Services Administration referred to it as "the Speaker's project." It was almost unheard of then for federal buildings to be named for people still alive and in office, but an exception was made in O'Neill's case -- a detail he noted with pride at the dedication.
Between the O'Neill building in Boston, the O'Neill Library at Boston College, and now -- if Romney is heeded -- an O'Neill Connector between the Pike and the new airport tunnel, the late House speaker is in no danger of being forgotten in his hometown. Democrats can rest easy.
Dukakis's characterization notwithstanding, O'Neill was no plaster saint. He was a tough, partisan Democrat, quick to pick a class brawl, not so quick to turn down a little "honest graft." He readily made friends with politicians and newspapermen, but -- as everyone learned during the "Koreagate" scandal -- he also made friends with corrupt foreign influence peddlers. And while his contemporary Ronald Reagan reserved words like "evil" for the Soviets, O'Neill reserved them for -- Reagan.
"The evil is in the White House," O'Neill thundered in 1984. "And that evil is a man who has no care and no concern for the working class of America. . . . He's cold. He's mean. He's got ice water for blood."
Yes, O'Neill took politics very seriously. But he also knew when it was time to drop the argument and share a drink. He understood, deep in his gut, that American liberty is an extraordinary gift, one we don't acknowledge nearly often enough. "The Liberty Tunnel?" he might have mused. "Yeah, I like that."