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Jewish World Review
July 20, 2006
/ 24 Tamuz, 5766
The crumbling legacy of Tip O'Neill
All politics is local, Tip O'Neill famously said, and it surely doesn't get any
more local than when a 6,000-pound slab from a project championed by the late
House speaker falls on a 38-year-old newlywed from the Boston neighborhood of
Jamaica Plain, crushing her to death as her husband drives her to the airport.
O'Neill died in 1994, but the political culture he epitomized is alive and well
and enshrined in the Big Dig, a slough of corruption, callousness, and cover-ups
that had become a synonym for government mismanagement long before it killed
Milena Del Valle on July 10.
It would be going too far to link O'Neill to the incompetent workmanship and
negligent oversight that led to the collapse of a 3-ton ceiling panel in the
Interstate 90 connector just as the Del Valles drove beneath it last week. But
the culture that he embodied is still solidly in place. Only one month earlier
the lords and ladies of Bay State politics had gathered to christen the longest
section of the Big Dig as the Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill Jr. Tunnel and proclaim
the immense and immensely expensive highway project his triumphant legacy.
"That project could never be complete until it bears the name of the person who
made it all possible," gushed US Senator Ted Kennedy. "So let us celebrate his
great legacy today . . . and remember that our job in public life is to improve
the lives of others." Valle's life was not improved by this troubled project. It
was ended by it.
Kennedy isn't the only one whose comments, in retrospect, were cringe-making.
"Whenever you have a monumental project like this, you're going to have . . .
inconveniences," lectured Boston Mayor Tom Menino just five weeks before the
falling ceiling shattered the Del Valle family. "Anybody who didn't think about
those inconveniences is not realistic."
The Rev. J. Donald Monan, the chancellor of Boston College, lauded the "human
foresight" that went into the Big Dig, while US Representative Barney Frank told
his audience (in the paraphrase of the State House News Service) that the
public's poor image of the project "had been manufactured by the media." And
then there was US Senator John Kerry, assuring one and all that "those who were
sometimes critical of this project, those who worried about its cost, are going
to look back and they're not going to see the cost. . . . The fact is, this
tunnel will be a bargain."
The fact is, only someone marinated in the political culture that produced the
Big Dig would say something so clueless. Granted, Kerry and his fellow preening
pols didn't know on June 5 that part of the connector tunnel was soon to come
crashing down on an innocent victim. But it wasn't exactly a secret that the
project was in many ways a bloated catastrophe, vastly over-budget and marred by
leaks, delays, and falling debris. For years news stories, outside audits, and
internal memos had been documenting a shocking history of failures and errors.
Just a few weeks earlier, in fact, six employees of Aggregate Industries, the
Big Dig's largest vendor of concrete, had been arrested for allegedly falsifying
records to disguise the poor quality of the concrete supplied.
Long before the dedication ceremony in June, the Big Dig had come to stink of
cronyism, corner-cutting, and deceit. The odor grew stronger with each passing
year, during Republican administrations no less than during Democratic ones. But
that didn't stop Kerry, et al., from singing hosannas to O'Neill and
pooh-poohing the critics' warnings. Only now that a woman is dead is Kerry
suddenly talking about how he, like "every citizen in this state, wants
accountability," and how there was "clearly a failure with respect to design and
certain levels of oversight." So good of him to finally notice.
The Big Dig is indeed a monument to O'Neill. It captures perfectly the costly
big-government sloppiness for which he was the poster child. Only in the public
sector, where market discipline is nonexistent and financial losses are the
taxpayer's problem, would such mismanagement be tolerated for so long. Only in
the public sector, where political considerations far outweigh the bottom line,
and where consumer satisfaction carries little weight, is such shoddiness and
lack of oversight routine. In the private sector, incompetent performance
generally means lost business, reduced earnings, or even bankruptcy. Only in the
public sector under Democrats and Republicans both are negligence and
failure commonly rewarded with ever-increasing budgets.
"Giving money and power to government," P.J. O'Rourke once observed, "is like
giving whiskey and car keys to teenage boys." In both cases, the results can be
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