June 1, 2011
Posted by Joan V. Gallos
The late Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill, former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, was a master politician. Political skills for him were all about enjoying and connecting with people.
Every interaction, O’Neill noted in his autobiography, is an opportunity to leave a positive impression, connect with another around common interests, show respect, and learn something about someone and what he or she holds dear so as to someday be able to meet that person’s need in exchange for his or her support in advancing a larger goal or agenda. Sounds like the work of every good leader to me.
O’Neill passed along a wealth of suggestions for how to make sure that happens: avoid bunk, remember names, don’t forget the people who got you where you are, keep speeches short, keep your word ("in politics, your word is everything") – and never get introduced to a crowd at a sporting event.
My favorite tip from Tip: memorize poetry and use it to elevate issues – and O’Neill was not the only successful political leader to appreciate the power and possibility of poetry.
Less than a month before his assassination, President John F. Kennedy spoke at Amherst College to honor the late poet Robert Frost.  His assessment of the functional nature of poetry:
“When power leads men towards arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the areas of man’s concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of his existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses. For art establishes the basic human truth which must serve as the touchstone of our judgment.”
If classical poetry has never been your thing, try contemporary writers. I love National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize winning poet, Mary Oliver for her clean and poignant observations on nature. Her “Wild Geese” tops my list.
Dana Jennings in the New York Times recently recommended the pleasure of catching a good poet midcareer and suggests five whose work would be “a bracing warm-weather antidote” to thriller novels and those ultra-light summer movies.
My beach reading this year is University of Texas professor-poet Dean Young’s “Fall Higher.” High energy. Great use of language. Imaginative. Humorous. Irreverence wedded with deep respect for the complexity of contemporary life. Powerful exploration of relationships. To wet your appetite, Young’s commentary on risk taking and the book’s title: “hark, dumb [expletive], the error is not to fall/but to fall from no height.”
 O’Neill, T. (with William Novak). (1997). Man of the house: The life and political memoirs of speaker Tip O’Neill. New York: Random House
 O’Neill, T. & Hymel, G. (1994). All politics is local: And other rules of the game. Holbrook, MA, p. 125.
 John F. Kennedy’s speech on October 26, 1963 can be read or heard at http://arts.endow.gov/about/Kennedy.html I’m sure Kennedy would have not used the historical term “man” to represent the experiences of both men and women had he been writing in more contemporary times.