Wednesday, June 6, 2007
Flashback: The Tip ONeill Film An Odd Couple and How a Controversy Grew.
[More than 50 years of politics as a memoir for my kids and grandchildren].
Every lobbyist cherishes the day when he can have direct access to a Speaker of the House for many reasons: for ego gratification, to get his advice on how to handle legislation of importance to his company, and to live a bit of U.S. history knowing the person second in line to the presidency of the United States. In a very complicated way, not having known Thomas P. (Tip) ONeill and having no particular affection for him, I became for a time about as close an intimate to him as it was possible to besince he and I were particularly entwined with a project that was near and dear to both of us.
Our association started this way. As the weather in Cambridge, Mass. was turning delightful long about April of 1977 and I was midway in both teaching and taking courses at Harvard as a John F. Kennedy Fellow at its Institute of Politics I was strolling down Mt. Auburn street one morning before class, carrying a laundry bag filled with dirty clothes (shirts, socks et al) as well as some badly wrinkled suits, on the way to a cleaning and pressing shop a few blocks from my apartment. It was a great place; I could dump the stuff there and pick all of it up after school the same dayif I got there no later than 8 a.m. As I rounded the corner, however, I saw a great crowd standing outside with a group of television cameras. I thought: oh-oh, the joint has either been held up or worse the manager (who had become a good acquaintance of mine) may have been killed. Pondering the human possibilities of a tragedy I also did reflect, I must confess, that the store would have to close and I would have to hike further down the street to downtown Cambridge to find another cleaners.
As I elbowed through the crowd, I asked a guy what had happeneda hold-up or break-in or what. He said, no, nothing like that. Speaker ONeill is taking his clothes to the cleaner and this film crew from WGBH-TV is doing a documentary on him so its rather interesting.
I nosed around and found the project director, squatting down with headphones gauging the sound level from inside the cleaners. I introduced myself and said that I was from Quaker Oats which caught his attention right away. Our company was known for funding documentaries and for its support of public television anyhow; our president, Ken Mason, was chairman of the board of WTTW-TV in Chicago. Under his leadership we had hyped up the contributions to public television including to WGBH which was and is the flagship public television station for the nation. I knew the chief of development for the station, Henry Morganthau, III., son of FDRs old treasury secretary, who was the chief fund-raiser for the station (Henry being the brother of Robert Morganthau, then and now at age 88, the elected District attorney of New York county including Manhattan). The director and I chatted about the documentary that was being produced.
He said, Youll be interested in this since Quaker has been a longtime friend of public television. This documentary will just follow ONeill around and will have no narrator. We have microphones on his coat lapel and just record his conversations, coming and going. In fact thats going to be the entire show. Now, granted if he has an important conversation that bears upon national security or something like that, were bound to follow his advice and edit it. But very little else. If he has a particularly eloquent string of cuss-words we may take it out but the audience will know what Tip means. We have his concurrence for all this. We just started doing this. Were going to take this camera into the White House next week when he has a meeting with President Carter; into the Democratic caucus where he will be laying down the law to some of his guys. Its going to be a real historic document.
Well, Tip finally finished turning his dirty clothes over to my suit cleaner and dryer friend and I got inside to do the same thing, shook hands with the Speaker (which was the second time I had met him, having met him once before when Quaker sponsored the Andrew Young documentary grand opening at Fords Theatre).
He remembered the Fords Theatre premierenot me.
Hey, he said, you put that thing together? That was a great evening!
I said, no I didnt put it together but I worked on the Young film and supervised the premier.
Believe it or not, I had somewhat of a hard time getting rid of him so I could turn in my dirty clothes and get on to my class; he was that interested. Finally, he took my card and trundled off with the TV crew following at his heels.
After my classes one where I taught and another class I was taking Constitutional History of the United States by the renowned James Q. Wilson I got to my office at the Kennedy Institute to find the secretary there saying that WGBH was calling. Almost simultaneously I got a phone call from my secretary at Quaker Oats in Chicago who said that someone from the Speakers office had called to ascertain where I could be found at Harvard. She said, what did you do that infuriated the Speaker? See, I knew when you took up temporary residence in Democratic Massachusetts youd get into trouble with the powers-that-be.
Very funny, I said. I called WGBH and it was the same guy who had been directing the ONeill film.
He said, The Speaker told me to call you. He was very impressed that you guys at Quaker had sponsored, financed and put on a reception for Andy Young in Washington at Fords theatre. He wants me to take you ought to dinner to see if you would be interested in helping to finance our film on him. We have a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and from our station of course, but were looking for a private sector sponsorand the Speaker is very choosy about who we get. We cant get Exxon, we cant get Mobil Oil. We cant get this one or that one. But he thinks a grant from The Quaker Oats Company would sound terrificfor, as he says, who can think theres any kind dirty politics from Quaker Oats?
Very nice, I said, but number one Im on a leave from Quaker through the coming summer. I live here. And I hardly think that the companys CEO, Bob Stuart who is also the Republican National Committeeman for Illinois would be interested in funding a laudatory documentary on Tip ONeill.
It wont necessarily be laudatory, he said.
Dont kid me. WGBH is a great station but nobody ever accused it of turning out conservative productespecially when the subject is Tip ONeill who is your own Congressman and where public funding of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting is involved. How dumb do you think I am?
Okay, I agree, he said. But why dont you let me take you to dinner tonight anyhow since the Speaker asked me to do it. Itd help me a lot.
Listen, if youre buying, Im on. Where do we meet?
He said: Durgin Park restaurant in Boston. Durgin Park it was, on Market Street in Boston, which for more than a century had been serving sumptuous American style dishes. It also had an ingratiating way of insulting you when you came in the door which has been part of the Durgin Park tradition. If youre not prepared for it, you may be offended. When I walked in, the maitre d looked at me and said, well, fatsowhatll it be tonight? Crab cakes?
Crab cakes my eye; we had steaks and ample adult beverages. But by the end of the evening, there came a seismographic change a great shaking and trembling in the ground equivalent to a political earthquake that ended up with me, a conservative Republican corporate lobbyist becoming for a fairly long time an ally and partner of Thomas P. ONeill, Jr., liberal Democratic Speaker of the U. S. House of Representatives.