He stands there on the golf course dressed in pants with enough plaid material in them to make a pair of curtains, and a white floppy hat plumped down on his head. He is the ultimate duffer, using half a dozen shots to get out of a sand trap. When it starts to rain, he interrupts the game to wrap his cigar in a piece of alumninum foil.
The man in this scene is Speaker of the House Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill, and the scene is from the hour - long PBS program called "Mr. Speaker: A Portrait of Tip O'Neill," which will be shown at 9 tonight on Channel 26.
As a serious documentary, the special, made by WGBH-TV in Boston, doesn't make it.
The producers chose to do it in a cinema verite style, simply letting the camera watch as the speaker moves through his days, politicking back home, meeting with his colleagues calling a bureaucrat on the carpet, chiding the president.
The style precludes analysis or even explanation, so there is little flesh on this picture of a political leader or the House he runs. Film snippets of meetings on the budget or the energy bill either what the appetite or leave one groping to understand what's going on.
Even within the limits of the cinema verite style, this is a totaly uncritical look, with no tensions or questions raised, as filmmaker Frederick Wisemen does in such works as "Hospital" or "High School."
We see O'Neill resolving the sticky problem of finding a new investigator (Leon Jaworski) for the House Ethics Committee after Phillip Lacovara quits in a huff because the committee is dragging its feet on looking into the involvement of House members in the Korean influence buying scandal.
But there's never a hint that O'Neill himself was involved, although he was given parties and gifts by the central figure in the investigation, Korean businessman Tongsun Park. O'Neill looks good, perhaps because the special was made by his hometown station, perhaps because he controlled access of the filmmakers.
Still the film is worth watching. What comes through is what is so often lacking in the public's view of politicians - their human side.
Tip O'Neill is a subject uniquely suited to illustrate this side. He is an unfailingly, human, likeable man - warm blunt, schmaltzy, not good on detail but decisive. There is grit to his character but no artifice. Perhaps it is the security of his Irish background, perhaps it is his nature, but for a politician, he is remarkably candid.
O'Neill doesn't hide the fact that he doesn't know and then can't pronounce the name of Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin. He forgets the name of constituents and House staffers. He chides the president. "The last time I was in here, Nion said no to keeping the Boston shipyard open," O'Neill tells Carter as they go into a White House room to talk Carter laughs weakly. He bluntly tells union leaders, upset at the defeat of a labor bill, that the defeat was their fault. "You don't take chances, you have winners," He dresses down a HEW bureaucrat, kisses the women, sings offkey and recites a poem.
He is at times bored, tired and he admits he has neglected his family. "When I look back I see a lot of sadness in my life - good times that I know other fathers have had with their families."
In addition to O'Neill the man, you can see what's wrong with the myth of power - that a man of importance can concentrate on weighty issues, thinking them through.
Instead, here's a man whose time is constantly nibbled at by matters great and small. Ten minutes for an interest group, a half hour on the energy bill, five minutes for this congressman, 10 for that. People pluck at his sleeve, complaining, warning, beseeching. Decisions are made on the run. There's a 50 percent chance you're wrong. Policy is a roll of the dice. Another crisis is always around the corner.
As O'Neill says at one point in the film: Despite being surrounded by people, "politics is a lonely life."