Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Flashback: The Tip O’Neill 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) O’Neill and having no particular affection for him, I became for a time about as close an intimate to him as it was possible to be—since 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 day—if 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 cleaner’s.

As I elbowed through the crowd, I asked a guy what had happened—a hold-up or break-in or what. He said, “no, nothing like that. Speaker O’Neill is taking his clothes to the cleaner and this film crew from WGBH-TV is doing a documentary on him…so it’s rather interesting.”

I nosed around and found the project director, squatting down with headphones gauging the sound level from inside the cleaner’s. 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 FDR’s 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, “You’ll be interested in this since Quaker has been a longtime friend of public television. This documentary will just follow O’Neill around and will have no narrator. We have microphones on his coat lapel and just record his conversations, coming and going. In fact that’s going to be the entire show. Now, granted if he has an important conversation that bears upon national security or something like that, we’re 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. We’re 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. It’s 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 Ford’s Theatre).

He remembered the Ford’s Theatre premiere—not me.

“Hey,” he said, “you put that thing together? That was a great evening!”

I said, no I didn’t 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 Speaker’s 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 you’d 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 O’Neill 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 Ford’s 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 we’re looking for a private sector sponsor—and the Speaker is very choosy about who we get. We can’t get Exxon, we can’t get Mobil Oil. We can’t get this one or that one. But he thinks a grant from The Quaker Oats Company would sound terrific—for, as he says, who can think there’s any kind dirty politics from Quaker Oats?”

Very nice, I said, but number one I’m on a leave from Quaker through the coming summer. I live here. And I hardly think that the company’s CEO, Bob Stuart who is also the Republican National Committeeman for Illinois would be interested in funding a laudatory documentary on Tip O’Neill.

“It won’t necessarily be laudatory,” he said.

Don’t kid me. WGBH is a great station but nobody ever accused it of turning out conservative product—especially when the subject is Tip O’Neill 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 don’t you let me take you to dinner tonight anyhow since the Speaker asked me to do it. It’d help me a lot.”

Listen, if you’re buying, I’m 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 you’re not prepared for it, you may be offended. When I walked in, the maitre d’ looked at me and said, “well, fatso—what’ll 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. O’Neill, Jr., liberal Democratic Speaker of the U. S. House of Representatives.