Monday, June 11, 2007

Flashback: Huh? The Idea of Quaker Helping to Finance a Tip O’Neill PBS Film Documentary? Well Let’s Give it a Bit of a Thought.

More than fifty years of politics for my kids and grandchildren.

The evening at the Durgin Park ended with me getting a ride home from my friend at WGBH and turning things over in my mind as he chatted about the television business. A documentary about Tip O’Neill funded partially by Quaker Oats. What are the negatives? They are six. First, the CEO is a Brahmin Republican…highly principled, a Boy Scout, a kind of country-club preppie to whom O’Neill the whiskey drinker, bon vivant and blue-collar labor union rabble-rouser is anathema. No, it can’t work and to even suggest it would be a bad idea from the standpoint of my own corporate career, such as it is. Second, the company as it’s broadly perceived is non-political. A big mistake to support with its foundation dollars a vehemently partisan speaker of the house. Third, with his company paying for an O’Neill laudatory film, the Republican National Committee to which Bob Stuart belongs might give him a lot of heat—and he’ll come to regret the decision to fund it…and regret I ever came up with the idea.

Fourth, a documentary on a house speaker might be acceptable if O’Neill was a kind of pattern-breaker, like Andrew Young who was the first black man in a century to represent a Deep South district in Congress, But he’s an old pol, a hack. O’Neill holds JFK’s old House seat in a solidly Democratic constituency and there’s no pattern-breaker in that. Fifth, , if O’Neill was a kind of independent voice or, say, an historic figure like Walter Judd (the leader of a band of Republicans to support Harry Truman on creation of NATO or foreign aid), it might be acceptable. But O’Neill is a savagely anti-Republican partisan with a long history of rapping conservatism and Republicans: no, a bad deal for us.

Sixth, the year was 1977. The next year would be a congressional election and there’s no doubt that the film will be spliced up or used in some way as Democratic party ammunition to show what a great regular fellow O’Neill is…which would be an embarrassment to our CEO. Conclusion: No, the idea of us co-sponsoring it is ridiculous.

Then when I got to my apartment and got into bed I examined the pluses. First, the title of my job is corporate lobbyist. I had a sheaf of priority items to advocate for the industry. To myself I said: Are you telling me that not getting to meet the speaker of the house and his key staff is not going to be an advantageous to my industry—are you seriously maintaining that it will not…when all my colleagues…from General Mills, Pillsbury, General Foods, Nabisco…would be giving their eye-teeth for this opportunity? You know they will. Second, if I say forget about it before I run it by Chicago, why wouldn’t O’Neill’s people go to Pillsbury, General Mills, General Foods, Nabisco and leave us sitting around with the CEO saying ruefully, “if Roeser didn’t just peremptorily turn it down but let me consider it. Why didn’t he do this?”

Third, , during the exercise with the “con” side, you assumed that the documentary would be larded with O’Neill praise. But there will be no narrator. The schema of the film will be just O’Neill, no intro, no conclusion…just O’Neill gripping hands, walking around the Capitol. That is a very pallid production. Fourth, do you realize, you dummy, that if you follow through with this thing you will know not only the second ranking potential successor to the presidency in entire country but his staff, his allies and people in the White House which is the nature of your job?

Fifth, and the kicker. Why don’t you ask the guy from WGBH to get you to visit with O’Neill anyhow…regardless of what the ultimate decision would be from your company…and get a personal feel of O’Neill’s position is on this? That decided it. This I would do. Brilliant idea!

So the next morning when I got to my Harvard office, I called the WGBH guy and said, “Rob, I’ve been thinking. I have no idea whether the powers-that-be at Quaker will go for this. A good many reasons tell me they won’t. But wouldn’t it be a good idea for me to sit down with the Speaker and kinda get his view of what he expects the documentary will do?”

And Rob said: “Sure. As a matter of fact, he’ll be coming into this very studio tomorrow because he can’t wait to see the rushes. Why don’t you get over here and meet him when he’ll be here from about 10 to noon?”

This I couldn’t do because of a class I had to teach at 9:55 a.m. and a class to go to that I was looking forward to…John Kenneth Galbraith, then a mere stripling Keynesian of 70, speaking on “The Age of Uncertainty.” So in the late afternoon when I got back to my office…at about 5 p;m. or so…the phone rang and a snippy female voice said—a statement I was to hear repeatedly for many months—“Mr. Roeser? Hold the line for the Speaker.”

He spoke as if we had known each other a long time, saying that he had seen the rushes and was enthused. Then he said he was disappointed we couldn’t meet at WGBH but asked, in a deferential way, if it were possible that I would be coming to Washington soon…if so he would like to take me to lunch. He gave me his personal number so I wouldn’t have to go through the formality of having to introduce myself to his staff—just his secretary. Okay with me.

When the second man in line for the presidency asks this, you agree and within a day I was winging to Washington, someone taking my class. I didn’t know where we were going to have lunch but I strolled into the Speaker’s Reception room, a grand and ornate series of chambers. Once I gave the minion my card, it seemed that the great doors swung open and I found myself in his personal office just off the House chamber. The House had just convened. I walked in, greeted this enormous, great white-haired bear of a man with his famous red bulbous nose and I saw the table was set for two beside his desk.

Ah, said I, for an ex-reporter for the “St. Cloud Daily Times” whose last raise had him earning $67.50 a week and told he would not earn a farthing more so long as I stayed there…not bad. Here I am age 49, never went to a classy school until now where Harvard pays me and, in addition, I am to sit down with Thomas P. O’Neill, Jr. While my animosities against this liberal didn’t vanish, I began to examine him critically. As he poured a glass from a bottle of red wine while the procedural orders were being read outside in the House chamber, I began to figure out how I could sell this Tip O’Neill film to the company whose CEO was such a regnant Republican.

“Ah,” said Tip O’Neill as he sipped it and smacked his huge lips. “Water of life.”

He explained with a joyous chuckle: “That’s what my old father would say before he took his drink at the start of supper.”

My Irish grandfather, the marble layer, Thomas Francis Cleary would say it as well. And the next time I heard that self-same phrase, it would be uttered at lunch at the O’Hare Hilton two years later—by another Irishman, Ronald Reagan. I thought: I’ll give this the old college try in Chicago.

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