House Speaker Tip O'Neill works a crowd like nobody else. He knows your wife, your kids, your strep throat. Listen to the technique, in high form, at his first reelection fund-raiser last night:
"God love ya, old pal," O'Neill was saying to Robert Duncan, the former Democratic congressman from Oregon, "that stuff is working. Christ, I had a torn Achilles' tendon, and I went to the hospital, and I had an X-ray, and they couldn't do anything. So I used that stuff you gave me -- what was it . . . ?"
"DMSO," said Duncan.
"Yeah," said O'Neill. "My wife says it smells like garlic."
"It smells like the tidal flats in Bayonne, New Jersey." said Duncan.
"But it's working," said O'Neill. "It's working!"
He moved on.
"Tip, I want you to meet another social worker," said an earnest young woman. "This is Sheldon Goldstein."
"SHELDON, how are you?" bellowed O'Neill.
Near the door was Bob Strauss, former chairman of Jimmy Carter's reelection campaign. "I understand you're a candidate for president," O'Neill said to him.
"Same way you are," shot back Strauss, who knows a room-worker when he checkmates one.
So it went. The fund-raiser at the Sheraton-Carlton was the first tangible proof that O'Neill will run next year and, at $500 a head, was expected to raise $175,000. More than a few fellow Democrats were calling for Tip O'Neill's resignation during the height of Reagan's popularity last spring, but the expected $109 billion deficit this fiscal year makes things look a lot rosier for O'Neill and his Democrats. The mood at this party was glee, although no one would be so crass -- or politically naive -- as to say so on the record.
"The chickens are coming home to roost," was as far as Democratic National Committee chairman Charles Manatt ventured.
The party was composed almost entirely of middle-aged men wearing gray suits, white shirts and red ties. There were at least a hundred of them among the approximately 300 guests. They ate shrimp, mini-quiches and roast beef in little rolls. Many were lobbyists, prompting one O'Neill aide to remark: "These are basically people who bet on the people who are going to be running the show. This isn't exactly a roomful of liberals."
Among the liberals were House Majority Leader James Wright (D-Tex.), Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Joseph Califano, the former secretary of health, education and welfare and a current Washington attorney.
"Joseph!" called Kennedy. "I had lunch at your old dining quarters. It's not quite so chic now."
"I'll call you -- we'll have lunch," said Califano, proving that one could write the script for certain Washington conversations before they occur.
Generally, the 6 to 8:30 p.m. party seemed to percolate along without a hitch, although there was one mix-up. O'Neill's wife, Millie, didn't turn up until the party was half over.
So O'Neill, not missing the chance to tell a story, told one. "I gotta tell you what happened tonight," he said to the crowd, Millie on his arm. "I called Millie and I said, 'It's a holy day . . .' " Well, it's a long story, but what happens is that Millie goes to church and waits for Tip. And waits.
"I came here," said O'Neill, "and I had forgotten to pick up my wife."