The truth is sometimes cruel. And sometimes, so was Albert L. "Dapper" O'Neil. On Tuesday, the 79-year-old Boston city councilor lost the seat he held for 28 years. Nostalgia for the good old days is already at work revising history and obscuring reality.
O'Neil is being described as a legend, a champion, and a precious link to Boston's past. The mayor's eyes filled with tears when he had to tell the legally blind old warrior his political career was over at last. The City Council president proclaimed that from now on, O'Neil would be treated "by friend and foe alike with enormous reverence."
I consider myself neither. Perhaps that is why reverence is easy to resist.
O'Neil's major claim to fame is longevity and a proclivity for saying things that outrage liberals, who are actually quite easy to outrage. He is known for attending Zoning Board of Appeal and Licensing Board hearings to stand up for local residents, a task which essentially amounts to opposing everyone else. And yes, he showed up at thousands of wakes and is said to be able to cry on cue.
Supposedly, he has a charming side. But mostly he saves it for people just like him and is more apt to be mean and snide to anyone different. I covered council meetings in the mid-'80s, and my main memory of Dapper is this: He spent a lot of time baiting his fellow city councilor, David Scondras, with crude comments about homosexuality.
If you do an archive search with the words "O'Neil and racist," articles quickly scroll up. Most recently, they report on his support of a white supremacist group and his refusal to support a statue honoring Martin Luther King Jr. In 1992, he made this comment, captured on a home video, after passing by a Vietnamese business district during the Dorchester Day Parade: "I just passed up there. I thought I was in Saigon, for Chrissakes.
For Chrissakes, it makes you sick, for Chrissakes. I told them I'd come back with the checks tomorrow."
News reports slobber on about O'Neil's relationship with "my Helen," a female companion of more than 50 years. But there is a less flattering side to his relationship with women. In 1990, when he ran for the obscure office of executive board of the Massachusetts Municipal Association, he made the race less obscure by announcing he would "bury the broad," a reference to his female opponent. (He did not.)
O'Neil also makes a habit out of publicly commenting on female derrieres, including Nancy Reagan's ("not a bad tush for an old broad"). City Councilor-at-large Peggy Davis-Mullen has also endured tasteless comments, compliments of Dapper.
The press invariably treated these situations lightly, and even female journalists were inclined to let him off the hook on the basis of age and infirmities. But the incidents became less comic over time. A City Council staffer filed a sexual harassment complaint against him. O'Neil also got into a vitriolic feud with two longtime secretaries, calling them "ingrates" and "unqualified," allegedly because they declined to drive him to funeral homes or clean his house.
And as he got older, O'Neil got meaner and cruder. A 1997 Boston magazine piece, written by columnist and radio talk show host Howie Carr - an O'Neil admirer - quotes the councilor greeting a bag lady who is described as an "old friend" with the words, "Good morning, my douche bag."
Is Dapper O'Neil as homophobic, misogynist, and racist as he often sounds? I don't know that truth. But I do know this one. Time and time again, he played to the audience that appreciated those sentiments and proudly won election doing it. As he used to boast, they once had to weigh his votes, not count them. Last Tuesday, the audience for this nonsense finally dwindled enough to deny him another term.
O'Neil's political life was essentially his entire life. He is a bachelor with few close friends, just hundreds, maybe thousands, of acquaintances. He went to a lot of wakes, after all. It may very well be that, without political office, he is a man left without a reason to live.
That is very sad. I would not wish that fate on him or on anyone. O'Neil's dignity in defeat is also worth noting.
But is it really so sad that when the Boston City Council convenes for the first time in the year 2000, Dapper O'Neil will no longer be on it? No. And that is also the cruel truth.
Joan Vennochi's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.