Thursday, June 14, 2007

Flashback: “Hold the Line for the Speaker”…That Delicious Phrase.

[More than 50 years of politics for my kids and grandchildren].

Every so often at Cambridge, the phone in my office would ring with the nasal stenographic voice saying, “hold the line for the Speaker.” It always had to do with the film, which, it was plain to see, was his baby. Once he called to say that he was putting me in touch with a scholar who would write a précis of the film and the role of Speaker—assuring me that I had final say for Quaker Oats over what it should say. Why he didn’t have a staffer call I don’t know except that every detail of the film was gone over with loving care. Once he called and said that one of his press flacks would call me to go over a news release from WGBH on the film which he was dissatisfied with…the flack had made some minor changes (the flack was Chris Matthews who had earlier worked for Carter).

I enjoyed the calls because the very snooty liberal secretary of our Harvard department was impressed that the Speaker was calling someone whom she had earlier regarded as distinctly inferior—a gasp Republican but even worse, a gag, corporation lobbyist. So in order to further impress her once in a while when he called I told her insouciantly, “get his name and number and I’ll call back!”…this to drive her out of her liberal mind.

But that didn’t happen very often because even I…jaded as I was…was quite thrilled. One day “hold the line for the Speaker” came and he said, “I got somethin’ to talk over with you when you next come to dinner with me.” Not like that was frequent; only once did it happen which I have related. So I dealt with his secretary and in a day or two I flew in there…the great mahogany doors opening wide…through the anteroom doors…passing echelons of clericals, intense young liberal Ph.Ds and overweight Boston pols into the sancto sanctorum.

The minute he poured his and my scotch…brim-full with a dash of soda…and I began this way, I knew what was up.

“Millie [his wife] is on the board of Ford’s theatre.”

O.k. Both of them had been to two separate events at Ford’s that Quaker ran…one a documentary on the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and the second—more important to them—the documentary on the election of Andrew Young. I knew what was coming. He wanted to have a premiere of his film…a day or so before it would be shown on public television…shown at Ford’s. That would involve some corporation undergoing the cost of the reception—drinks, a brochure on the movie…and what corporation but mine?

As he unfolded the story which I knew was coming, I wondered: since I escaped with my head on my shoulders in a discussion with my CEO where he very reluctantly gave approval for the film, what in the world would he say if I were to go back and say: now that you’ve ponied up dough for the film for this old fat liberal Democratic hack, I wonder if you would spend more for a gala night at Ford’s where his pals could clap him on the back…and you, too…and tell both of you that you have made a great contribution to the upbuilding of the Democratic majority in Congress.

But, of course, the more he talked the more I thought it was a great idea. The President would come, undeniably. The last time we hosted an event both the president and vice president were out of town—but this was for a very junior, first-term member of Congress. This would be for the Speaker. Obviously the entire House…the leadership of both sides…would come. The Supreme Court. Cabinet officers. How could the CEO resist? Well, maybe he could. Maybe he would first fire me and then go to the reception himself.

“So,” said the Speaker in conclusion, “that’s the story. The reason Quaker Oats appeals to me is, as I told you before, it’s not Exxon, not Mobil. What’s cleaner sounding than Quaker Oats? Hell, it’s a piece of the American flag.”

That phrase—“a piece of the American flag”—stuck with me. It was an unique way to describe a distinguished old company which made oatmeal and other healthful products.

Well, I said, what do you think it would cost? (But I knew since it had not been that long before when we hosted the Andrew Young film).

He handed over an estimate that Millie had got from Ford’s.

Let me do this, I said. Let me go to Chicago and give it a try.

“If it’s a no-go,” he said, “maybe I can find a roundabout way for Ford’s to do it but I don’t want to since it would involve a good deal of--.”

I understand.

So the next morning I flew to Chicago. I talked first to Bob Thurston, the executive vice president in whom the CEO reposed all kinds of trust. He and I had worked together on the two earlier presentations at Ford’s.

He thought it would be a go. I asked if he would float it by. I don’t remember now…did he do it before I went in…or did he go in to the lion’s den with me? But I do remember a great surprise that greeted me when I talked to the CEO.

It must have been a better day than the earlier one because he said, “well, we’ve gone this far. Keep the expenses reasonable.”

So, under the view that it is always politically advisable to personally deliver good news to the second man in line for succession to the presidency, I flew back to Washington…the great mahogany doors opening wide…through the anteroom doors, passing the earnest young clericals, the frowning Ph.Ds studying issue positions…into the sancto sanctorum. As he had had word that it was good news, once again there was a table set, steaks medium-rare and the inevitable bottle of scotch.

We toasted the good news and as we were lifting our glasses, the door to the House floor opened and the man who had been presiding in lieu of O’Neill strode in…worried, frowning, his hands stuck dejectedly in his pocket—Dan Rostenkowski…who had always been too busy to either see me or take my calls on Quaker business.

Rostenkowski started, “Tip—fer Chrissake…” and stopped bug-eyed. He had not paid much attention to news of the forthcoming documentary. Bug-eyed.

“You know Tom Roeser from Chicago, Danny? Quaker Oats is doing my movie.”

Hmmm. A damp handshake…then as he thought about it, it became firmer and finally enthusiastic.

“What’s up?”

“Well,” said Rostenkowki, eying me, but then obviously deciding if O’Neill was okay with me listening, he would be, “I gotta problem presiding over this thing because Ulmann [Al UIlmann of Oregon, Ways and Means chairman] is bringing it up on the floor and as you know I was opposed to it in committee and he’s out of order but I don’ wanna make it appear that I’m screwin’ him because we had that argument that I told you about so I think it would look better all around if you would go out there and take the gavel and handle it—it’ll take five minutes—rather than me because…”

“Okay, I’ll be right back. Don’t touch that scotch now, Danny.”

He left whereupon there was an uncomfortable silence.

“That movie sounds like it’ll be good.”

Yeah, I said. By the way I called you a few weeks ago but we never connected.

“Oh yeah? Damn! Let me get to you tomorrow. I’m sorry about that; damn sorry.”

Well, the issue is moot now. But maybe sometime you and I could--.

“Any time…any time!”

O’Neill came back, nodded curtly to him and said, “go get `em.”

He took a healthy swig and said: “Where were we?”

Right at the point where I tell you that the Ford’s thing is on! The budget is—and I told him.

“Tommy…what can I say? Excellent! I want to have” he named an aide whose name I have since forgotten, “to come over to you in Cambridge and work out the details.”

That should have been…by all odds… the felicitous conclusion of a happy experience. It was decidedly not. The happy experience was consummated but before that, there was a further unpleasantness at Ford’s theatre (not as great as happened April 14, 1865 but severe enough to produce troubles for both of us)…and from a source neither one of us could predict.

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