Wednesday, June 13, 2007
Flashback: Talking with ONeillImage and Likeness. Part I.
[More than 50 years of politics written for my kids and grandchildren].
Talking with Thomas Philip (Tip) ONeill 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. Thats 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, ONeill accepted his partys 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 ONeill told me in hours probably three hours in total of off-the-record stretched over the weeks:
Of course Im pro-life and have been from the day I was born. People give me enough leeway to understand my real viewsbut I gotta job here. The job is to keep an even keel. And dont give me that [explective] about not being true to my convictions by running this place which has a different view. If youre going to sideline yourself in this game because you believe one thing on one single issue which is different from the crowd, youre going to be a lonerand 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, didnt 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 doand he got it done because he had the skill to get elected. Thats 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 Vietnambut 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 metin 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 didnt trust me since I had been close to Jack [Kennedy]. But Carter is a [explective] preacher who acts like hes in a bawdy house when he deals with us. He does not belong in the process. Ive 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 hes not much good to me because hes on the outside looking in at the White House. Theres another thing. You cant get a drink at the White House. Thats bad in many ways. Very bad.
Its 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. Thats the trouble with the Carters, theyre all pretense especially the President.
Could you get a drink at the Nixon White House?
Yes, as a matter of fact. Ive 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: Hes a vicious no-good sonuvabitch and Ill 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 doesnt that go in line with your theory of surviving and keeping alive in politics so as to affect the outcome ala Lincoln?
The nuance wasnt there. You didnt catch Lincoln saying blacks were inferior, did ya? [Wrong: Lincoln did and always maintained it]. You dont catch me making a speech defending abortion, do ya? There are things you wont do. Not Carter. He niggered privately and publicly on race and do what he did. Its not worth it in this life. Im 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, theyre done by people who like to hear themselves talkor 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 whos up to here [indicates his neck] in issues and Ill show you one who is not going to be very effective in getting things done in Conference. Ive settled more deals in Conference than most men and Ive 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.
Youve taken to the floor to make political points.
For the express purpose of keeping my gang together. Youll 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, Tallulahs father, the same. Garner, Cannon from your state, although before my time, another. Joe Martin with the Republicans the same.
Id 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 Jerrys [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 nations 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).
I asked whether you tip your hat to Fr. Drinan, the Congressman from Massachusetts who unfailingly wears clericalsblack suit and roman collar.
This is off-the-record, is it not?
I cannot stand the sonuvabitch. But he does not know that or does anybody else. Hes not just a Democrat but from Massachusettsa part of the team I gotta lead. I dont expect to hear or see that anywhere, Tom, or Ill heatedly deny it and our movie wont see the light of day. (He had no power to block the movie).
Tip retired ten years after the interview in 1987 and died in 1994 at the age of 82. Maybe I didnt 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, Id write this since I wouldnt care if he saw this or not.