Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Flashback: So the Upshot is, I Go to Chicago with a Request to the Republican CEO—Fund the O’Neill Film Project…Tossing My Hat in First.

[Fifty plus years of politics written for my kids and grandchildren].

Dear Children and Grandchildren: If you seek to perpetuate an enduring life in the modern corporation, my advice is not to go about trying to convince a Republican CEO to allow his corporation to fund a documentary on PBS favoring a liberal Democrat whom the CEO believes is a distant relative of the anti-Christ.

This foolhardy act did not cut short my corporate career because I had a very genial, broad-minded and understanding CEO. The mold was broken when he retired…as there was a major acquisition coup, a major gaffe, a firing of a venal CEO successor and a hustle by corporate vultures to sell the company to Pepsi and make a killing—but all in the future).

My meeting with Tip O’Neill led me to decide to visit my CEO in Chicago to gain permission for the venture. First, I visited with a few of his colleagues who were on a higher corporate level from me and obtained their approval. Then I tackled the big boss himself. And it was just my luck to approach him in his office when something or other had gone wrong and he confessed in his gentlemanly way that he was “grumpy.” Grumpy!

Were I in his position, finding out that some marketing plan which was highly extolled had turned sour and now to hear a proposal for the company’s foundation to support Thomas P. O’Neill, Jr., I would not have to feel ill at ease.

Instead he listened politely and expressed the opinion—originally made by me, actually—that Thomas P. O’Neill, Jr. was a hack, a bulbous-nosed, cigar chomping Massachusetts pol who had never done much of anything except run for office. His liberal views—wanton spending and taxation—were anathema. But there was one further thing. I braced myself wondering what it was. Did he know something about O’Neill I didn’t? Was it malfeasance, misfeasance, nonfeasance? None of these. Worse.

To the mind of this CEO (one of the finest men I ever met, whose generosity was legend and whose courage and diplomacy was faultless) of all the sins that modern man could contrive, the worst that could be hurled was this. Not that O’Neill was a Democrat, or liberal, or a vituperative anti-conservative, or anti-free market: no, none of these.

This CEO knew John Kennedy when both were young, was a good friend of Sargent Shriver, a good acquaintance of another Lake Forest denizen by the name of Bill Proxmire and stayed overnight at the gubernatorial mansion of Georgia governor Jimmy Carter. Collectively they were not conservative. But this was of no great consequence.

No, there was one thing O’Neill was that they weren’t.

O’Neill was fat!

In the board rooms of the time, in the executive committees, the baronial law firms, the patrician social milieu, the elite dining room of the Chicago Club (known as the CEOs’ “Van Buren street Y”), the abstemious Presbyterian churches, the civic philanthropies, the social salons and fixed indelibly in the mind of this CEO there was absolutely no countenancing one being fat. I remember this CEO looking askance at Herman Kahn, the great thermonuclear strategist who came to speak at one of our conferences. Kahn must have been 300 lbs. What he said about unthinkable nuclear options meant little. Being fat—as he was--was the great no-no. It smacked of over-indulgence, lasciviousness, gluttony and a dedication to decadence. .

That was the most mortal of mortal sins to this brilliantly trim CEO. Whenever he passed by, I instinctively sucked in my own gut. Being fat to this CEO…and I must say many others like him…was degenerate and remindful of bad character, a condemnation of excess and gluttony, failure to self-discipline.

Bigotry about weight has not always been in the ascendancy. Time was, from the 1890s to the 1930s, business leaders were ample and portly which they were proud of, since portliness was indication of robustness, a zing for life, boldness. J. P. Morgan, Cornelius Vanderbilt, James J. Hill, John Jacob Astor, Leland Stanford, Henry Clay Frick, Henry Flagler, James Fisk, James Buchanan Duke, Jay Gould and Jay Fiske. Were I born at their time and had proximity to them I, at 6 foot even and 230 lbs. would have certainly been included in their midst. The last portly successful CEO I remember after Henry J. Kaiser was John Swearingen of Standard Oil (Ind.).

Presidents and presidential candidates the same. The 22nd and 24th president, Grover Cleveland , 240 lbs and five-feet eleven, with a great bull neck, strong jaw and double chin which would wobble in anger and ham fists, would prop his ample girth behind his executive desk or at the rostrum, slightly open his vest buttons so as to allow him more breath. His successor, the 25th, William McKinley was an erect, statuesque, brawny figure well over 200 lbs. at five-feet-seven. He defeated William Jennings Bryan, a 6 foot one, 258 pounder, with McKinley relying on his sage campaign aide, Mark Hanna, 5 feet 11 and 238 lbs.

Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th, had purposely trained himself from a delicate, asthmatic youth to barrel chest, bull neck, devouring what he called “zesty meals” eagerly, striding into the presidency at more than 200 lbs. at five feet eight. William Howard Taft, the 27th 6 foot 2, 325 lbs., up to 340 lbs. Now we skip the trim but near-psychotic Woodrow Wilson, congenitally unable to compromise, five feet eleven and 175 lbs., Warren Harding who in his youth had a nervous breakdown and spent some time in the rubber room of the Kellogg mental clinic at Battle Creek, Michigan, 6 feet even and 190 lbs. Calvin Coolidge, my own political favorite but hopelessly skinny, five feet nine and 166 lbs., Herbert Hoover my decided un-favorite but nonetheless five feet eleven and 220 lbs.

FDR, about whom I have mixed feelings, was well over 200 lbs., at inauguration for the third term, 240, standing 6 foot one…then before death shrinking to 171, with pallor and sagging jowls and he gave thinness and gauntness a bad name. . But then he was a polio victim and was rarely seen standing (when he was, he was behind a rostrum and gripping it tightly to retain balance).

Since FDR, men’s styles have gone almost all trim (except for Lyndon Johnson and Bill Clinton pre-Monica) —Truman, 185 lbs. and five-ten; Eisenhower, five-ten and 178, JFK, 6-1/2 feet and 170; LBJ, six foot three, 210 at inauguration but expanded with the years to 240 lbs. at retirement; Nixon, five-eleven and 175; Ford, 6 feet, 195 lbs.; Carter who wears elevator shoes (which is all you need to know) an official 5 feet 9 (probably 5 feet 7) and 155 lbs.; Reagan 6 foot one, 185 lbs. Bush, Sr., 6 foot 2, 195 lbs.; Clinton 6 foot 2-1/2 with weight fluctuating between 200 to 220 lbs. Bush, Jr., six feet and 190.

The CEO studied me carefully.

“How much would you guess O’Neill weighs?”

I have no idea.


Oh (lying), about 210.

“Impossible. You’re at least that heavy and he’s got you by 50 lbs. Which reminds me: what did you clock in at when you were last on the scale?”

Eight pounds four ounces.

“Thomas, Thomas what are we going to do with you? What does Lillian say?”

Agrees wholeheartedly with you.

“You should weigh 180. You weigh 220 if you weigh an ounce.”

I suppose.

“Do you walk?”

Repeatedly, repeating the same trek through the night.

“Tom, I am unhappy with this O’Neill film —primarily because of your own good advice through the years…that business should not cave in, should not try to ingratiate itself with critics by shirking candor. I am an exponent of the same thing. What will our friends say when they see us cuddling up to…” he described O’Neill’s physique perfectly, followed by an accurate estimate of his irreconcilable liberal positions. “I cannot fathom why we should do this.”

I can only say that at this time when we are outnumbered…with the White House and two houses of Congress in the hands of the opposition, we would be wise not to foreclose building relationships that can conceivably allow us to make our case without selling out.

“I don’t buy any of it..”

Well, sir, I understand. Case closed then.

(But evidently not entirely!).

“How much is this boondoggle?”

$100,000 for which we get credit at the beginning: This program funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, station WGBH Boston, a grant from The Quaker Oats Company and viewers like you. The film will be a classroom masterpiece, showing how personalities affect the formation of public policy. With it will be a brochure for the students for which we’ll get credit.

“And we’re supposed to pay for this as well, are we not?”

Well, yes.

“Can you guarantee that this won’t be just a liberal propaganda piece, advocating higher spending, higher taxes, the Carter energy plan, windfall profits tax on oil, mandates for industry to convert from oil and gas to goal?”

Well, the documentary won’t touch much on issues, judging from the rushes I’ve seen but on the work of the Speaker which--.

“Including sipping a bit of the brew?”

As a matter of fact, that’s in it, yes.

“Bob Thurston…your old boss… has talked to me about it and thinks it’s a good idea. I value his judgment far more than anyone else’s including yours on this matter since you have obviously been captivated by this project. Bob has the level-headedness I depend on. And he says in his considered estimation, we should do it.”

He sat back and was thoughtful. Finally:

“Since he’s approved it, all right. Run it by him once again and if he has second thoughts, it’s over. Let me say, we no sooner agree to send you to Harvard than you come in here with a grant for Tip O’Neill. To make matters worse, I understand you are taking a course from Ken Galbraith on the economy. That right?”

No, just a one-time lecture on contemporary history entitled “The Age of Uncertainty.”

“He should be very good at that since he has been wrong on history and public issues as well as the economy for his entire career—always wrong, never in doubt, although a charming man, I must say. All right.”

As I walked to the door, he was writing at his desk.

“Do all of us and Lillian a favor and not try to match that old glutton forkful by forkful. You are 230 lbs. if you’re an ounce. Do not dig your own grave with a knife and fork.”

Thank you. The Speaker thanks you…



Now the fun: breaking the good news. From my Quaker desk, I called the Speaker’s secretary: I have good news.

“Just let me put him on”


“Tommy!”—that was a stunner. First name basis now. “You got good news!”

Yes, sir. The grant’s approved.

“Where are you?”

In Chicago. Going back to Cambridge.

“Can you stop by here? What time is it? Just after one. I have a Democratic leadership dinner starts at 7 but we won’t sit down until 8. I’d like you to join us. You’re not adverse to a few drinks and prime rib o’ beef are you, Tommy? All the committee chairmen and ranking Democrats will be there.”

(The same committee chairmen who were too busy to see me through the years. Foley of Agriculture; Rostenkowski who always gave me the fish-eye; not Ways and Means chairman yet but close. )

I’ll be there!

“It’s in a special room at The Monocle. Come in and ask for me. I want to introduce you to them. We usually go on until late so you might get a hotel room. Can my secretary help you get one? Where d’ye stay, the Madison?”


“We gotta celebrate. Millie [his wife] also wants to meet you but that’ll come later.”

Put this down definitely as a highpoint day. My diet will start immediately after the Democratic leadership dinner at The Monocle.

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