Tip O'Neill, sticking up for the little guy

As the Monitor breakfast group was making plans to mark its 35th year of hosting public figures, I came across a story about a memorable breakfast of yesterday that I had almost forgotten. It involved the great Speaker of the House, Tip O'Neill. Let's let John A. Farrell, Washington editor of The Boston Globe, tell us what happened, as he does in his fine new book, "Tip O'Neill."

"The Christian Science Monitor breakfast was a Washington institution.... April 7, 1981, O'Neill was the featured guest. The Speaker was taking a plunge into the type of media politics at which Reagan excelled... His staff had prepared a six-page briefing packet with a suggested theme: 'Democrats in the House have their act together. They have adjusted to the new economic - and political realities.' "

Here I must break in to say that I had for a long time been trying to persuade O'Neill to come to the breakfast. But he wouldn't come. Finally, a top O'Neill aide said: "Tip just doesn't like to get up that early." I find in the Farrell book, however, that O'Neill simply didn't like to meet with the media.

But Farrell tells us that Tip had agreed to be the point man for the Democrats taking on President Reagan and his economic plan. That meant he would be fighting this battle in countless press and TV appearances. His visit to the Monitor group was, it seems, the opening performance of this new "media-here-I-come" Tip O'Neill.

O'Neill was supposed to say that the big-spending days of the Democratic Party were over - that Democrats had become watchful of how every penny was spent.

But, according to Farrell, and it fits into my own memory of what happened, Tip somehow "wandered off message." Anyway, after following this "frugality" script for a while, he suddenly moved into a defense of the Democratic spending of yesterday. "I've been one of the big spenders of all time," O'Neill blurted out. "Ah, I've been a big spender."

Journalists in attendance had, up to this point, been less than attentive. There had been yawns. But no more. O'Neill's audience leaned forward to hear more of this astonishing confession. And O'Neill would not disappoint them.

"I remember," Tip went on, "when a doctor came in and told us the average dwarf was 26 inches high. He said he could increase that to 52 inches.... Over the years I sneaked into the budget $45 million [for research on dwarfism]."

Warming up now to something he really wanted to say, Tip continued:

"There was the money [from me] for sickle-cell anemia. And $12 million for turned-in ankles. I put in $160 million for research for cancer of the breast. I put in money for research for spinal injuries. You used to be able to sneak these in. Nobody knew."

"But nobody is able to do that anymore," O'Neill lamented. "There are 150,000 dwarfs in America. Does anyone have an obligation? Is it the obligation of the federal government? I think it is."

Farrell tells us: "As the meeting broke up and the reporters rushed to their bureaus to write about Tip O'Neill and the dwarfs, he looked ruefully at his cold, hardly touched plate, and said, 'I want to thank you for that one piece of bacon.' "

Farrell writes that some of the reporters at that breakfast laughed when O'Neill told about what he had done for the dwarfs. I remember a few sniggers from the audience; but I couldn't then and I can't now understand why. To me O'Neill's words were a reflection of a man who is so ably described by his aide Ari Weiss: "One of the things that made him remarkable was that this was a person driven to large measure by his sense of compassion - his sense of trying to help people who were suffering for one reason or another."

This O'Neill confession, although "off message," stirred up a lot of stories. And O'Neill's appearance and performance at the breakfast was, according to Farrell, an important development.

The Speaker was fighting back, "and on Reagan's turf," he writes, "in a battle for popular opinion. The decision had been made [by the Democrats]; it was Tip O'Neill who would step out of the cloakroom to challenge Ronald Reagan.... O'Neill would not lead the Democratic Party from the confines of the Speaker's lobby. He would serve as its public spokesman and symbol."

So that Monitor breakfast marked the beginning of a "new" Tip O'Neill. spende

As the Monitor breakfast group was making plans to mark its 35th year of hosting public figures, I came across a story about a memorable breakfast of yesterday that I had almost forgotten. It involved the great Speaker of the House, Tip O'Neill. Let's let John A. Farrell, Washington editor of The Boston Globe, tell us what happened, as he does in his fine new book, "Tip O'Neill."

"The Christian Science Monitor breakfast was a Washington institution.... April 7, 1981, O'Neill was the featured guest. The Speaker was taking a plunge into the type of media politics at which Reagan excelled... His staff had prepared a six-page briefing packet with a suggested theme: 'Democrats in the House have their act together. They have adjusted to the new economic - and political realities.' "

Here I must break in to say that I had for a long time been trying to persuade O'Neill to come to the breakfast. But he wouldn't come. Finally, a top O'Neill aide said: "Tip just doesn't like to get up that early." I find in the Farrell book, however, that O'Neill simply didn't like to meet with the media.

But Farrell tells us that Tip had agreed to be the point man for the Democrats taking on President Reagan and his economic plan. That meant he would be fighting this battle in countless press and TV appearances. His visit to the Monitor group was, it seems, the opening performance of this new "media-here-I-come" Tip O'Neill.

O'Neill was supposed to say that the big-spending days of the Democratic Party were over - that Democrats had become watchful of how every penny was spent.

But, according to Farrell, and it fits into my own memory of what happened, Tip somehow "wandered off message." Anyway, after following this "frugality" script for a while, he suddenly moved into a defense of the Democratic spending of yesterday. "I've been one of the big spenders of all time," O'Neill blurted out. "Ah, I've been a big spender."

Journalists in attendance had, up to this point, been less than attentive. There had been yawns. But no more. O'Neill's audience leaned forward to hear more of this astonishing confession. And O'Neill would not disappoint them.

"I remember," Tip went on, "when a doctor came in and told us the average dwarf was 26 inches high. He said he could increase that to 52 inches.... Over the years I sneaked into the budget $45 million [for research on dwarfism]."

Warming up now to something he really wanted to say, Tip continued:

"There was the money [from me] for sickle-cell anemia. And $12 million for turned-in ankles. I put in $160 million for research for cancer of the breast. I put in money for research for spinal injuries. You used to be able to sneak these in. Nobody knew."

"But nobody is able to do that anymore," O'Neill lamented. "There are 150,000 dwarfs in America. Does anyone have an obligation? Is it the obligation of the federal government? I think it is."

Farrell tells us: "As the meeting broke up and the reporters rushed to their bureaus to write about Tip O'Neill and the dwarfs, he looked ruefully at his cold, hardly touched plate, and said, 'I want to thank you for that one piece of bacon.' "

Farrell writes that some of the reporters at that breakfast laughed when O'Neill told about what he had done for the dwarfs. I remember a few sniggers from the audience; but I couldn't then and I can't now understand why. To me O'Neill's words were a reflection of a man who is so ably described by his aide Ari Weiss: "One of the things that made him remarkable was that this was a person driven to large measure by his sense of compassion - his sense of trying to help people who were suffering for one reason or another."

This O'Neill confession, although "off message," stirred up a lot of stories. And O'Neill's appearance and performance at the breakfast was, according to Farrell, an important development.

The Speaker was fighting back, "and on Reagan's turf," he writes, "in a battle for popular opinion. The decision had been made [by the Democrats]; it was Tip O'Neill who would step out of the cloakroom to challenge Ronald Reagan.... O'Neill would not lead the Democratic Party from the confines of the Speaker's lobby. He would serve as its public spokesman and symbol."

So that Monitor breakfast marked the beginning of a "new" Tip O'Neill.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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