DURING one of the frequent lulls in campaign '88, former House Speaker ``Tip'' O'Neill came to the aid of the Democratic Party by denying George Bush's charge that Michael Dukakis is a ``liberal.'' ``Absolutely not,'' O'Neill was quoted as sputtering. ``He's progressive.'' After this rather dubious defense by ``Tip,'' the following dialogue between generations took place:
``Grandfather, what's a liberal?''
``Hush, son! Don't let your mother hear you use that word. She'll wash out your mouth with soap.''
``I thought the dirty word was c-o-m-m-u-n-i-s-t, Grandfather. The only thing wrong with being a liberal is that you're soft on communism, right?''
``No, no, son. You're young, but you're behind the times. In the '70s President Nixon made it OK to be soft on Chinese communists. Now President Reagan's made it OK to be soft on Russian communists. The only people you're not allowed to be soft on are liberals. Even communists aren't soft on liberals - they don't want Dukakis to win, either.''
``Were liberals always out of fashion, Grandfather?''
``Let me tell you, son - being liberal used to be as American as, well, pledging allegiance. You hear all this talk about the mainstream? Liberal was the mainstream. Everybody was a liberal. Why, you even had liberal Republicans - Nelson Rockefeller, Charles Percy, George Bush.''
``George Bush? You've got to be kidding, Grandfather.''
``No, sir! You could look it up. Twenty-five years ago the only conservative Republican was Barry Goldwater - and people thought he was on the `lunatic fringe.' Those were the words.''
``Gosh, Grandfather, that's what people say about liberals nowadays. Are you sure you're remembering right? You know how mixed up you get when you try to name the Detroit Tigers' lineup in the 1934 World Series.''
``Hank Greenberg on first, Charlie Gehringer on second, Bill Rogell, shortstop, Mickey Cochrane behind the plate...''
``All right, OK, Grandfather. To get back to the subject, what did liberals believe in the good old days?''
``Son, I'll throw you a quote that'll answer your question - and prove my memory's intact as well. Here goes: `With riches has come inexcusable waste. We have been proud of our industrial achievements, but we have not hitherto stopped thoughtfully enough to count the cost, the cost of lives snuffed out, of energies overtaxed and broken, the fearful physical and spiritual cost to the men and women and children upon whom the dead weight and burden of it all has fallen piteously.' Woodrow Wilson said this.''
``Is that what's meant by a `bleeding-heart liberal,' Grandfather?''
``I guess so, son. When I was your age, the `bleeding-heart liberal' was Franklin D. Roosevelt. He and the New Deal initiated social security, low-cost public housing, government aid to the farmers, the first work-welfare program, a policy of land conservation...''
``Wait, Grandfather. What's so wrong with that?''
``It softened the national character. Led to bureaucracy. Threatened - can you believe it? - to unbalance the budget if the Republicans hadn't taken over just in time and done the job themselves. Sort of a preemptive strike.''
``You're joking, Grandfather. I can tell. Do you think `liberal' will ever be anything but a dirty word from now on?''
``Arthur Schlesinger says the liberals - if any are left (no pun intended) - will come back in the '90s, 60 years after the New Deal, 30 years after the Great Society. He thinks these things run in 30-year cycles.''
``Do you believe him, Grandfather?''
``I don't know, son. But just in case, I'm having a T-shirt made, reading: `The last Liberal, or the First Neoliberal.' In the meantime, if anybody asks, be a good boy and tell them I'm a progressive.''
A Wednesday and Friday column