In a recent issue of National Review — December 31 — I had a piece called “Good Ol’ Tip: Thomas P. O’Neill Jr. and national myth.” I propose to do a blowout, here in Impromptus — an expansion of that piece. About O’Neill and myth, there’s plenty to say . . .
You may have missed this, but, at the end of November, the House decided to name a building after O’Neill — a building on Capitol Hill. Everyone was nice and proper. John Boehner, the Republican Speaker, called the late Speaker “a giant in the history of the House.” The Democrats’ leader, Nancy Pelosi, called him “a legend in Congress and a bona fide American hero.”
O’Neill had a building on Capitol Hill named after him before — but it was razed in 2002. Many things are named after him in the Boston area, where he came from. When I lived up there, I played a nice little nine-hole track called Fresh Pond Golf Course. Shortly thereafter, it was the Thomas P. O’Neill Jr. course.
What a comedown, I thought. You might expect a Reaganite like me to think that. But I wouldn’t have wanted the course renamed for Reagan, or any other favorite of mine. Hard to improve on “Fresh Pond.” And why introduce politics into it?
“Tip,” as everyone still refers to him, was Speaker of the House from 1977 to 1987. The way we’re supposed to remember him now is, affable Irishman, big heart and big red nose, liked his liquor, hoisted a few with Reagan, buddied with that president to get things done for America.
In the 2012 campaign, one and all — Republican and Democrat — talked about how Reagan and O’Neill worked together to “save Social Security.” What they had in mind was the deal struck in 1983. This was the deal that resulted from the Greenspan Commission.
I have a little story for you — a personal story. In 1984, I was working as an intern in the office of Senator Robert J. Dole. He was chairman of the Finance Committee (soon to become majority leader). He was showing a visitor around, I believe, and pointed to a picture on the wall — a picture of Reagan and O’Neill at the 1983 signing ceremony (as I remember). “Yep,” said Dole, “Ron and Tip made that happen. That’s what people say, anyway.”
The senator, I believe, thought that “Ron and Tip” had basically shown up for the ceremony. He often made tart remarks, true — remarks tinged with bitterness or resentment. But that doesn’t mean those remarks were wrong.
As there was a deal in 1983, there was a deal in 1982 — a budget deal. Democrats will tell you that Reagan teamed with O’Neill to raise taxes and save the day. Again, hurrah! I give you President Obama: “If Ronald Reagan could compromise, why wouldn’t folks who idolize Ronald Reagan be willing to engage in those same kinds of compromises?”
Here’s what “folks” know, some of us, at least: O’Neill and the Democrats promised three dollars in spending cuts for every dollar in taxes raised. The taxes were raised; the spending cuts never came. Reagan kicked himself, hard, for that deal.
What’s true for individuals is true for nations: Better to remember the good and let the bad fade away, probably. Comity is better than enmity. O’Neill had a saying about the D.C. culture: “Before 6 o’clock, it’s all politics, but after 6 o’clock, and on weekends, we’re friends.” Reagan used to call him up, on some weekday morning or afternoon, and say, “Is it after 6 o’clock?” His other trick was to push the clock after 6 o’clock, when O’Neill came to visit.
Reagan and O’Neill had some friendly moments — particularly when O’Neill saw Reagan in the hospital, after the latter had been shot. The two said the Lord’s Prayer together, I believe.
But look: By and large, O’Neill was a nasty piece of work, who constantly slandered and defamed Reagan as a hater of the poor, a warmonger, and an idiot. O’Neill may not have been a warmonger, but he was as ugly a class warrior as we’ve ever had. He was one of the most partisan men who ever lived.
Nixon used to say, “Let’s flick the scab off that wound.” Probably not a good idea — but let’s.
If I heard O’Neill say it once, I heard him say it a thousand times: Reagan may have started out poor, sure, but then he started to make big money in Hollywood — and he resented the taxes taken out of his checks. Plus, he had not “grown” in office. You’re supposed to grow when you get to Washington — i.e., accept big and ever bigger government — but Reagan was clinging to the same stupid beliefs he had arrived with.
O’Neill said, “He has no concern, no regard, no care for the little man of America, and I understand that: Because of his lifestyle, he never meets those people.” Reagan, according to O’Neill, was “callous,” “a real Ebenezer Scrooge,” “a cheerleader for selfishness.” His administration had “made a target of the politically weak, the poor, the working people.” His policies were just “one big Christmas party for the rich.”
As the Reagan tax cuts were being passed in 1981, O’Neill gave a speech declaring it “a great day for the aristocracy of the world”: Charles and Diana were getting married in London, and the hoity-toity were getting a tax cut in America. The late journalist Robert Novak, in his memoir, wrote, “I recall that speech whenever I hear romantic nonsense about the Reagan-O’Neill ‘friendship’ in an era of golden bipartisanship.”
He also wrote that “the news media made over the mean-spirited O’Neill” — so true.
Listen to O’Neill in 1984: “The evil is in the White House at the present time. And that evil is a man who has no care and no concern for the working class of America and the future generations of America, and who likes to ride a horse. He’s cold. He’s mean. He’s got ice water for blood.”
Like everyone else of his ilk — there’s a Novak word! — O’Neill was a believer in the nuclear freeze, and he decried almost every move Reagan made in the area of defense. Reagan’s “evil empire” speech, O’Neill scorned as “Red-baiting.”
His view of the Sandinistas was that they were patriotic Nicaraguans who had come to power to undo the harm that America had wreaked on their nation. He fought tooth and nail to block even humanitarian aid to the contras. To him, they were nothing but “bandits,” “butchers,” “maimers,” and “murderers.”
For O’Neill’s role in the Nicaraguan drama — and everything else concerning that drama — consult Robert Kagan, A Twilight Struggle.
When the United States invaded and liberated Grenada, O’Neill compared this action to Soviet adventurism. Just like the Soviets, he said, we were “trampling on another nation.” He said that Reagan had ordered the action only because he wanted Americans “to forget about the tragedy in Beirut” (where people we would later call “jihadists” had blown up barracks full of Marines and others).
“My greatest fear about Reagan’s foreign policy is that 10 years from now we’ll look back on the Grenada incident as a dress rehearsal for our invasion of Nicaragua.”
O’Neill wrote those words in 1987. I knew professors, grad assistants, and undergrads who talked the same way — in fact, almost all of them did. But they weren’t Speaker of the House. They were just Marxist ding-a-lings on campus.
I could spend all day quoting O’Neill’s invective and nonsense, but let me give you just another slice or two. O’Neill said of Reagan, “He only works three to three-and-a-half hours a day. He doesn’t do his homework. He doesn’t read his briefing papers. It’s sinful that this man is president of the United States. [That’s a weighty charge, coming from a faithful Catholic.] He lacks the knowledge that he should have, on every sphere, whether it’s the domestic or whether it’s the international sphere.”
Finally, this, from O’Neill’s memoir: “I’ve known every president since Harry Truman, and there’s no question in my mind that Reagan was the worst.”
Actually, one more thing — you may enjoy this. In 1983, O’Neill said, “A group of old-timers came by yesterday: ‘You’ve been too harsh on our president.’ Boy, I haven’t been too harsh on him. I don’t know whether I’ve been tough enough on him.”
For his part, Reagan never responded in kind. He was “not vindictive,” as his aide Jim Kuhn wrote in a memoir. In this memoir, Kuhn took note of the “sinful” remark — O’Neill’s charge that it was “sinful” that Reagan ever became president. (O’Neill made this charge more than once.) Not many comments about Reagan were worse. But even this one, said Kuhn, Reagan let “roll off his back.”
In 1983, Reagan sent a letter to an old friend, A.C. Lyles, who had produced some kind of film about him. “Now I remember that Hollywood truism that you should never get in a scene with a child and there I was with a group. But I thank you. It’s going to be harder for Tip (you know who) to convince the citizenry that I eat my young.”
Reagan always responded to a portion of mail from ordinary citizens, and in 1984 he wrote back to a man named Jerry Granat. This citizen was upset that the president was treating O’Neill jovially, despite the speaker’s viciousness toward him. Here’s Reagan:
Dear Mr. Granat:
Thank you for writing as you did and for giving me a chance to reply. I understand your concern. I’ve never quite been able to accept rival lawyers in a trial having lunch together during a recess.
I don’t think you’ve seen me embracing or being embraced by Speaker O’Neill recently. And yes I find some of his personal attacks hard to forgive. He’s an old line politico. Earlier in my term and before recent events he explained away some of his partisan attacks as politics and that after 6 p.m. we were friends. Well that’s more than a little difficult for me to accept lately.
But Mr. Granat there are certain things I cannot do if I’m to carry out my responsibilities. I can’t publicly refuse to be civil nor can I show anger and resentment. What we say to each other when the cameras aren’t turning or the press listening in is a different matter.
I am responsible for the death of any man in uniform in the pursuit of his duty because I assign that duty. It has to be the most difficult burden for any president. [O’Neill must have said that Reagan was eager to send boys to fight and die or something.] But please don’t think refusing to stoop is turning the other cheek.
The roughest Reagan ever got with O’Neill was when he made a fat joke (and I, personally, wish he hadn’t, for it was unbecoming of him). Out on the campaign trail, Reagan said he got his exercise by “jogging three times” around the portly Speaker.
Everyone is sweet about Reagan now. In a way, I liked it better when they were vilifying him. Looking at the Republican field last spring, Obama said that Reagan “could not get through a Republican primary today.” Because Romney et al. are so extreme, you see, and Reagan was a moderate, a lamb.
But in his 1995 memoir, Dreams from My Father, Obama shot straighter. Why had he gone into community organizing? For change — beginning with “change in the White House, where Reagan and his minions were carrying on their dirty deeds.”
That’s more like it!
Let me take you back to the 1992 conventions — the Democratic and the Republican. At the former, the Democrats’ nominee, Bill Clinton, said, “We have won the Cold War.” At the Republican convention, former president Reagan took the podium. He said, “I heard those speakers at that other convention saying, ‘We won the Cold War.’ And I couldn’t help wondering, ‘Just who exactly do they mean by ‘we’?”
The Democrats were stalwart in the Cold War, right up until . . . 1972? From then on, pure McGovernism, baby. (And no, you don’t get to count Scoop Jackson — a party of one.)
For many Democrats, the only good Republican is a dead Republican, or a retired Republican. The present ones are always intolerably extreme; later, they will be sweet moderates, in the Democrats’ telling.
People used to say of Bush 41, “Why does he have to be such an awful right-winger, unlike his sweet moderate father?” (Senator Prescott Bush of Connecticut.) In the 1988 debates, Bush actually had to defend himself against the charge that his father would be ashamed of him. “I think my dad would be pretty proud of me,” he said.
When Bush 43 became president, people said, “Why does he have to be such an awful right-winger, unlike his sweet moderate father?” Just wait until one of 43’s daughters becomes president . . .
Back to this business of naming things — Capitol Hill buildings, golf courses, airports. I was as Reagan-loving as they came. Some classmates, teasingly, called me “Gipp.” But I was against the renaming of National Airport after Reagan. Certainly so soon. I thought it was rude to the Reagan-hating Democrats. I wouldn’t have wanted it done to me — Bill Clinton Airport or something. (That’s in Little Rock.)
We are supposed to forget the worst parts of politicians, and others, and that is to the good, surely. The most prestigious Senate office building, I believe, is the Russell building — named after Senator Richard Russell (1897-1971), a Georgian, a great defense hawk — and an inveterate seg.
In our country, we honor Democrats and we honor Republicans, just as we should: We are a country of Democrats and Republicans. They put up with our heroes, we put up with their heroes. Some even become heroes of us all — Lincoln, FDR, maybe Reagan?
Where Tip O’Neill is concerned, Republicans have done their part. In 1991, the first President Bush hung the Medal of Freedom around his neck. (At the same time, he hung it around the necks of Friedrich von Hayek, Vernon Walters, and William F. Buckley Jr.) Now there is this building — the second O’Neill building on Capitol Hill.
Memories ought to be allowed to fade, yes, and national myths are useful. Remembering can be very important; but so can forgetting. Maybe it should be after 6 o’clock, forever. Maybe the scab should never be flicked off a wound.
But is it of no importance that O’Neill was wrong about virtually everything that mattered? That he tried his utmost to block what Reagan was doing, both at home and abroad? That one man was essentially right, about the economy and the Cold War, and the other man essentially wrong?
When O’Neill died in 1994, President Clinton said, “Tip O’Neill was the nation’s most prominent, powerful, and loyal champion of working people.” Reagan will never be called a champion of working people, even by Barack Obama at his most disingenuous. But who put people back to work? Who tamed inflation (with Paul Volcker, the Democratic Fed chief)? Whose policies led to a rising, dynamic, opportunity-filled economy?
I remember visiting Les Invalides, shortly after reading Paul Johnson’s life of Napoleon. I wrote to him — Johnson, that is, not Napoleon — saying, “I stared hard at his tomb, trying to make sure the old monster was really dead.”
But, oh, how they love him, not just in France but the world over.
A further word on the importance of forgetting — or of not letting memory engulf us: How in the world did America recover, and reunite, after the Civil War? Northerners stand solemnly before Confederate memorials; southerners stand solemnly before Union memorials.
There is a southern section — a Confederate section — in Arlington. One of the most moving of the entire cemetery. (Maybe because they lost?)
A final word on O’Neill, and O’Neill and Reagan. It’s a very interesting experience to see a myth formed in your own lifetime. If people want to think of Tip and Ron as a happy, cooperative pair of Irishmen, fine with me, I guess. But, to borrow language from Bob Dole (his 1996 convention speech), “I say you’re wrong. And I know because I was there. . . . And I remember.”
To order Jay Nordlinger’s book Peace, They Say: A History of the Nobel Peace Prize, the Most Famous and Controversial Prize in the World, go here. To order his collection Here, There & Everywhere, go here.