BOSTON (AP) — Former House Speaker Tip O'Neill was honored Sunday on what would have been his 100th birthday by a panel of veteran journalists who remembered the Massachusetts Democrat as a national leader whose humor and accessibility belied his great political skill.
The panel of journalists gathered at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library as part of the Kennedy Library Forums, an ongoing series focused on public affairs.
‘‘Tip was a throwback. He was an American original,’’ said Charlie Gibson, the former ABC News anchor, who in the 1980s worked as the network’s Capitol Hill reporter. ‘‘It was an honor to cover him, even when you didn’t agree with him.’’
Between humorous anecdotes about the former speaker, who was known as much for his political incorrectness as he was for his liberalism, the journalists speculated about what O'Neill might think of today’s politics.
‘‘We would love to question him about what he thinks about the House of Representatives today,’’ Gibson said.
In recent years, as many in Washington have observed relations between the Democratic and Republican parties deteriorate, O'Neill’s ability to work with then-President Ronald Reagan, a Republican, has become almost legendary.
Steve Roberts, who wrote for the New York Times during O'Neill’s years as speaker, called it a myth that O'Neill and Reagan shared a friendship, despite their political differences. He said they had a functional relationship.
‘‘They were not really friends. But he (O'Neill) respected the fact that Reagan had won,’’ Roberts said. ‘‘He also respected Reagan’s political power ... I think it’s the respect that’s missing. That’s where I see the big change.’’
O'Neill represented his Boston-area district from 1953-1987, and served as Speaker from 1977 to 1987.
Chris Matthews, now host of Hardball on MSNBC, served as a senior aide to O'Neill in the 1980s. He recalled O'Neill as a man who respected the institutions and processes of government. Matthews speculated that, were O'Neill in the position of current Speaker of the House John Boehner, he would compromise more readily with President Barack Obama as the country faces the ‘‘fiscal cliff’’ next year, when taxes are to rise and government spending fall.
‘‘He would cut a tough deal, but he would respect that the other guy won,’’ Matthews said, referring to Obama’s re-election this past November.
Roberts’ wife, Cokie Roberts, who covered Congress for National Public Radio during O'Neill’s tenure, said the speaker would have appreciated being remembered for his quote ‘‘all politics is local.’’
‘‘To have that be his epitaph, I don’t think he would mind that,’’ she said, recalling O'Neill’s intimate knowledge of the residents of his Massachusetts congressional district.
Thomas P. ‘‘Tip’’ O'Neill Jr. died on Jan. 5, 1994.