Thomas P. O’Neill Jr. and national myth
At the end of November, the House voted to name a building after Tip O’Neill — a building on Capitol Hill. John Boehner, the Republican chief, called O’Neill “a giant in the history of the House.” The chief Democrat, 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. There is plenty 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. Can’t stop progress.
“Tip,” as people called him then, and call him still, was speaker of the House from 1977 to 1987. The way we’re supposed to remember him now is this: affable Irishman, big heart and big red nose, buddied with President Reagan to get things done for America.
In the recent campaign, everyone, Republican and Democrat, talked about how Reagan and O’Neill had worked together to “save Social Security.” This was a reference to the deal struck in 1983, following through on the Greenspan Commission. I have a personal memory to share (another one, I should say).
The next year, 1984, I happened to be an intern for Senator Robert J. Dole. He was chairman of the Finance Committee (soon to become majority leader). He made a tart remark about the 1983 deal: “Yep, Ron and Tip made that happen. That’s what people say, anyway.” The senator, I believe, thought that the president and the speaker had basically shown up for the signing ceremony. (He specialized in tart remarks, usually true.)
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. For instance, President Obama has said, “If Ronald Reagan could compromise, why wouldn’t folks who idolize Ronald Reagan be willing to engage in those same kinds of compromises?” I’ll tell you what “folks” know, some of us: that O’Neill and the Democrats promised three dollars in spending cuts for every dollar in taxes raised. The taxes were raised, of course; the spending cuts never came. Reagan kicked himself, hard, for that deal.
What’s true for individuals is true for nations: Probably better to remember the good and let the bad fade away. Comity is better than enmity. O’Neill had a saying about Washington: “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?” He and O’Neill had some friendly moments: particularly when O’Neill visited Reagan in the hospital after the latter had been shot.
But look: 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. To borrow language from another politician, Nixon, shall we flick the scab off the wound?
I heard O’Neill say something a million times: Reagan may have started out poor, sure, but then he started making big money in Hollywood, and resented the taxes taken out of his checks. Plus, he had not “grown” in office, but had clung to the same stupid beliefs he arrived in Washington with.
Said O’Neill, “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, said O’Neill, had “made a target of the politically weak, the poor, the working people.” Reagan’s 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 swells 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,” which they certainly have.
Here is 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.”
O’Neill was a believer in the nuclear freeze, of course, and decried almost every move Reagan made in the area of defense. Reagan’s “evil empire” speech, O’Neill scorned as “Red-baiting.”
He defended the Sandinistas as patriotic Nicaraguans who had come to power to undo the harm that America had wreaked on their nation. The contras, he said, were nothing but “bandits,” “butchers,” “maimers,” and “murderers.” He said that Reagan was an “imperialist” who would not be happy “until U.S. troops are in there” (i.e., in Nicaragua).
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 the country to forget about the tragedy in Beirut” (where people we would later call “jihadists” had blown up barracks full of Marines and others).
We could fill many pages with O’Neill invective, but let me offer just another slice or two: “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.”
For his part, Reagan never responded in kind. He was “not vindictive,” as his aide Jim Kuhn wrote in a memoir. About the “sinful” remark — O’Neill’s charge that it was “sinful” that Reagan was president — Kuhn said that his boss let even that comment “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. “Yes I find some of his personal attacks hard to forgive,” Reagan admitted. “He’s an old line politico. . . . 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.” He ended, “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): He 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 April, 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. 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!
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? Republicans have done their part, where O’Neill is concerned: 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.)
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 whatsoever that O’Neill was wrong about virtually everything that mattered? That he tried 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?
It’s an interesting experience to see myths form in your lifetime. If people want to think of Reagan and O’Neill as a happy and 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.”