• Joe Pace

Favorite Non-Fiction Books, #23: All Politics is Local, and Other Rules of the Game


"Be old and white and male" isn't listed

On the day I'll be returning to my roots of municipal government here in NH and filing for a term on the Kensington Select Board, it seems wholly appropriate to write a little about one of the best political books ever written, with a title so absolutely accurate that it's become axiomatic. For the record, I adore Tip O'Neill's memoir "Man of the House" too - he was one of the old-time pols, a neighborhood shoe-leather and constituent service guy, and his career spanned the length and breadth of 20th century American politics. At 15, he campaigned for Al Smith in 1928. He campaigned for FDR. He was a contemporary of Jack Kennedy, elected in 1952 to the House seat JFK left vacant for his Senate run. His service in Congress would be a long one, including opposing LBJ on Vietnam, calling for Nixon's impeachment, and battling with President Reagan as Speaker. Now that's a career.

And yet his slimmer, breezier volume belies his national prominence and emphasizes some bedrock truths that remain worthwhile today - our current political "leadership" in Washington should go back and take a remedial look. The titular lesson of politics being local is a reminder that no matter how prestigious or important the media might make you feel, you still work for your constituents, and must never lose touch with where you came from. You have to ask people for their votes, and you have to earn them. His famous joke was that when he would ask his wife for her vote at election time, she'd always answer, "Tip, I'll give you every consideration."

There are a lot of other gems in this book - advice to tyro candidates to learn some poetry, staying away from labels, being willing to disappoint your friends if it's the right thing to do, and much more. I said above that O'Neill was an old-time pol, and I mean that with a mixture of judgment and admiration. Sure, there's a lot to look back on and cringe, but there's also something to be said for reps from both sides who could open a bottle together in the side room and get some things done. To me, Tip O'Neill will always be the argument against term limits. We've got an awful lot of bathwater, it's true, but this guy, and people like him, are the baby.

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