Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Flashback: Talking with O’Neill—Image and Likeness. Part I.

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

Talking with Thomas Philip (Tip) O’Neill on and off for the several weeks in which the documentary was being made…and thereafter…brought into sharp focus for me the role politics had for this rough-and-tough player. Political mobilization and cheer-leading…essential for keeping party unity...far overshadowed issues. Issues were regarded for only one thing: of use to keep the party together and in the majority…not for the study of details of governance or clarification of thought. That’s why in the House he could, as majority leader, rip Bob Michel, the minority leader on the floor and go out and have a drink with him with both of them roaring with laughter…Michel understanding that with Tip the issues meant very little, hence there would be no need to take offense. Hence: The most important thing: issues were of surprising irrelevance to him.

Tip saw his role as that of manager…to keep the cohesiveness of his House majority…and his adopting issues was subordinate to his being able to keep that unity. This was as far afield from Hubert Humphrey and any politician I had ever covered as it was possible to get.

This came very clear with his view on abortion. An old-style conservative Irish Catholic, O’Neill accepted his party’s platform pronouncement and supported presidential candidates who were pro-aborts but he was to the day of his death, anti-abortion. Not just that; he would tip his hat as he would pass a Catholic church and would do so when he met priests in clerical attire.

He steered away from any serious pronouncement on the life issue, although he was cognizant of his role in keeping abortion rights secure. He managed to convince himself that it was a game like Scrabble…albeit a deadly game for the unborn…and that people understood his silent commitment. This, I am convinced, is that same way it is with many others (with the exception of Dick Durbin who has the ability to adapt to change by convincing his conscience to go along with pragmatism).

This is what O’Neill told me in hours…probably three hours in total…of off-the-record stretched over the weeks:

“Of course I’m pro-life and have been from the day I was born. People give me enough leeway to understand my real views—but I gotta job here. The job is to keep an even keel. And don’t give me that [explective] about not being true to my convictions by running this place which has a different view. If you’re going to sideline yourself in this game because you believe one thing on one single issue which is different from the crowd, you’re going to be a loner—and the job of leadership is to galvanize a kind of unity and get things done. You mean to tell me that Lincoln went down the line anti-slavery in running for the Senate in Illinois? He did not. He used nuance. When he was in the southern part of the state which was about as anti-slavery as Mississippi [irony] he bobbed and weaved, didn’t he…and when he was in northern Illinois he did the opposite. You have to do that. But in the end he did what he wanted to do—and he got it done because he had the skill to get elected. That’s what this job is here.”

I asked him about Vietnam. He had started off as a Vietnam War hawk when John Kennedy was president. Then as Massachusetts veered to the left, he became a public dove…but continued a private hawk. A marvelous separation of issues from reality. He continued as a strong anti-Communist who wished he could support an effort to win in Vietnam—but dare not do it because his party would flounder on the shoals of disunity. I asked him: so you became an overnight dove!

“Absolutely I did. The knack of this game is to represent your district and then use the nuance [that word again] to effect a satisfactory outcome. I told Johnson all the while [as a House leader] I was inveighing against the war to please Cambridge and Harvard and that I would get his appropriations through so as not to leave the boys without support…but please get us out of there so as to spare the party.”

The appropriations pledge of course was a slippery lie as eventually pressure was put on him by the liberals who took over his entire party to assure that appropriations were cut off…but I thought it politick not to challenge this.

“This guy Carter [the current president] is somethin’ else. He was absolutely born with no nuance, no political skills at all. Dealing with the Kennedys and even Nixon was a breeze for us except the impeachment thing of course next to him. Here we have a chance to pass universal health care and a jobs program, both very important with the economy the way it is. No sooner do we have that chance than he pledges to veto many water projects that his allies in the House have here, also many longstanding projects that have been worked on by his natural allies.

“He is the dumbest sonuvabitch I have ever met—in the presidency or out of it.”

How about other presidents?

“I told you about Jack and Bobby. Johnson was a little bit tougher because he didn’t trust me since I had been close to Jack [Kennedy]. But Carter is a [explective] preacher who acts like he’s in a bawdy house when he deals with us. He does not belong in the process. I’ve known and met `em all: Roosevelt, Truman, Ike, Nixon, Johnson, Jerry Ford…and of course Jack and Bobby who came from my backyard. This guy [Carter] is a darb [an old Boston term meaning a goof].

“The only good one in the administration is Joe Califano [secretary of HEW] and he’s not much good to me because he’s on the outside looking in at the White House. There’s another thing. You can’t get a drink at the White House. That’s bad in many ways. Very bad.”


“It’s not what you think. You can get a drink anywhere. But the White House is where you should be able to get one. Because it leads to a relaxed situation where you can drop the pretense. That’s the trouble with the Carters, they’re all pretense…especially the President.”

Could you get a drink at the Nixon White House?

“Yes, as a matter of fact. I’ve had a good many with Ehrlichman, the better man of the two [meaning Haldeman]. He watered his down quite a bit but we were able to deal pretty effectively in most of the cases until impeachment came along which was a separate case. I could get a drink from Mel Laird [the defense secretary] if I had to go over there [to the Pentagon]. Of course when Jerry Ford was in, it was no trouble. No trouble at all. God, I miss him.”

More on Carter personally: “He’s a vicious no-good sonuvabitch and I’ll tell you why. Did you ever study how he came up through Georgia? Huh? He started as a kind of liberal on race but then in running against Carl Sanders [a progressive Democratic governor of Georgia] he turned into the worst, absolute worst race-baiter there was and started to [patronize] George Wallace. Then when he gets in as governor he turns to the cameras and says the time for racial hatred is over. After what he did to nurture it.”

Now doesn’t that go in line with your theory of surviving and keeping alive in politics so as to affect the outcome ala Lincoln?

“The nuance wasn’t there. You didn’t catch Lincoln saying blacks were inferior, did ya?” [Wrong: Lincoln did and always maintained it]. “You don’t catch me making a speech defending abortion, do ya? There are things you won’t do. Not Carter. He niggered privately and publicly on race and do what he did. It’s not worth it in this life. I’m tellin’ you, this guy is a [expletive] loser and it was bad for the country when he got in.”

So to you the issues mean less and less.

“Very little. They keep the intelligentsia interested. But they usually are b. s. I never bothered much with the debating issues in the House because with few exceptions, they’re done by people who like to hear themselves talk—or talk for the record so as to make a point back home. My forays on the floor have usually been on the partisan side while we work in the back to arrange a conclusion satisfactory to all. Show me a guy who’s up to here [indicates his neck] in issues and I’ll show you one who is not going to be very effective in getting things done in Conference. I’ve settled more deals in Conference than most men and I’ve never been known as one who would take to the floor to respond to the fine print with `the worthy gentleman from Michigan this and that’.”

You’ve taken to the floor to make political points.

“For the express purpose of keeping my gang together. You’ll find all the great Speakers did that. Rayburn particularly. He hardly ever…I think hardly ever…went to the floor but he was big on keeping our gang together. Bankhead, Tallulah’s father, the same. Garner, Cannon from your state, although before my time, another. Joe Martin with the Republicans the same.”

I’d like to ask you something. You knew Jerry Ford well. When he was minority leader he led a crusade to censure Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas. What was that about?

[Laughter]. “That makes my point. They were saying…the conservative Republicans…that Jerry was goin’ high-hat, too liberal for the base of the Republicans. By the time he finished, Bill Douglas and I and everybody else knew it was all for show but it staved off a rebellion and saved Jerry’s [derriere].”

I notice you tip your hat not just when you pass a Catholic Church but also when you meet a priest in clericals. But do you also tip your hat to Father Drinan? (Fr. Robert Drinan, SJ, was the Jesuit who was elected Democratic congressman from the 4th district of Massachusetts, the Brookline, Newton area originally a Yankee preserve where the nation’s very first country club was located, Drinan, full-fledged liberal and pro-abort, ex-law professor at Boston College, who had to step down from Congress in 1980 when Pope John Paul II ordered all Jesuits holding political office to surrender them).

“Pardon me?”

I asked whether you tip your hat to Fr. Drinan, the Congressman from Massachusetts who unfailingly wears clericals—black suit and roman collar.

“This is off-the-record, is it not?”

It is.

“I cannot stand the sonuvabitch. But he does not know that or does anybody else. He’s not just a Democrat but from Massachusetts—a part of the team I gotta lead. I don’t expect to hear or see that anywhere, Tom, or I’ll heatedly deny it and our movie won’t see the light of day.” (He had no power to block the movie).

You won’t.

Tip retired ten years after the interview in 1987 and died in 1994 at the age of 82. Maybe I didn’t have much more respect for him when I started, but at last I understood where he was coming from. Hence I write it. Father Drinan died last January at 86 but even if he were still alive, I’d write this since I wouldn’t care if he saw this or not.

1 comment:

  1. Aren't they cut out of similar managerial cloth?