"Third Rail of American Politics" (Social Security) (1982, Tip O'Neill?)

Benjamin Zimmer bgzimmer at RCI.RUTGERS.EDU
Fri Jan 14 08:55:43 UTC 2005

On Fri, 14 Jan 2005 00:51:16 EST, Bapopik at AOL.COM wrote:

>New York Times (1857-Current  file). New York, N.Y.:
>Sep 26, 1982. p. E4 (1 page) :
>But it is no secret at the White House that in the back of  everybody's
>mind there us another possible item for the agenda of a  lame-duck
>session--Social Security, an issue so hazardous that an aide to  Speaker
>O'Neill refers to it as "the third rail of American politics."  Anyone
>who touches it gets electrocuted politically.

That aide, according to many sources, was Kirk O'Donnell.  First explicit
attribution I can find to O'Donnell is in a 1988 Boston Globe column by
Thomas Oliphant.  This is from a 1998 Oliphant column that was read into
the Congressional record after O'Donnell died:

Just for the record, O'Donnell was more than enough of a city lover and
urban scholar to know about subway analogies in politics. But he was the
guy, in 1981, who called Social Security the third rail of American
politics; few lines have been ripped off more.

See also this piece by Lawrence O'Donnell, Jr.:

"Social Security is the third rail of American politics. You touch it and
you die." My cousin Kirk O'Donnell was the first to speak those words
twenty years ago, when he was counsel to the Democratic Speaker of the
House, Tip O'Neill.

--Ben Zimmer

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