CLEVELAND -- After hustling to board USAir Flight 111 moments before its departure from Boston, Tip O'Neill is saying, he was settling into his seat when the young woman next to him spoke up.
"They said they were holding the plane for an important person," she told him. "Do you know who it is?"
"I have no idea," O'Neill replied.
A few moments later, his neighbor asked him what his business was.
"I'm a lecturer," he replied.
"What do you lecture about?"
"Salesmanship. How to sell books," said the former speaker of the House, kicking off his first national campaign.
Rested and restored and risen the next morning in a downtown Cleveland hotel, O'Neill is ready for the first day of a six-week promotional odyssey for his first book, "Man of the House," a collection of his favorite stories and pungent opinions from a half century in public life.
Standing on the sidewalk in a rancid mist are members of the O'Neill party for the day: independent publicist Helen Moise', without whose assistance and blessing authors on tour are probably doomed in north central Ohio; George Catavalos, the chauffeur of the stretch limousine; Janet Janjigian, a producer for "NBC Nightly News," trolling for footage to weave into a previously taped interview with O'Neill; Janjigian's cameraman and sound man; and a print reporter, also trolling for footage.
As O'Neill sinks into his seat, Catavalos closes the door with a whump -- and suddenly the Speaker is bathed in white light. The grinning NBC men, with an unobtrusiveness that would disgrace their trade, have slid into the jump seats, and are discreetly pointing camera and microphone in O'Neill's general direction.
"Where you from?" O'Neill asks. It is a tic.
"You a Dolphins fan?"
But enough pleasantries.
"Come on, put that away," O'Neill commands.
The grins and lights do not fade.
TheSpeaker has spoken. The lights are turned off. The grins do not have an "off" position.
The stretch slides through the drizzle of morning rush hour. As the loading dock of WEWS-TV looms into view, O'Neill takes pity on the faces frozen before him.
"Okay, you can turn on the camera," he says, heaving himself toward the door and the day.
As he strides into the airy studio where Cleveland's "Morning Exchange" originates, O'Neill is worried about his nose. He sat for a couple of hours the week before on the pier at Harwichport on Cape Cod, submitting to a lengthy interview with Charles Gibson of "Good Morning America," and the late summer sun turned his face the color of rare roast beef.
"Have you got a little powder for my nose?" he asks. But there is no time. A moment later he is lodged on a soft couch on the set, face to face with Fred Griffith, genial host of the only local morning program in the nation that preempts "Good Morning America" -- because its ratings are higher, according to producer Roni Poole.
"What's it feel like," Griffith begins, "to move away from this enormous seat of power and influence ..."
O'Neill looks humble. His hands are clasped between his knees. He begins to talk about his decision to retire, and his consultations with his wife Millie. "The decision was made while we were sitting in our living room watching television and reading and whatnot ... "
Time for a commercial break. A supermarket jingle thunders down from the studio rafters -- IGA knows what you want -- as pictures of green beans and pancake mix flash on the monitors.
The Speaker is asked if he wants coffee. He does. "Ronald Reagan says you need something warm in the morning to heat up your vocal cords."
"Stand by! Quiet, please!"
Back on the air, Griffith reminds O'Neill of an anecdote in the book, and then, just to get things going, Griffith tells the first part of the story, carefully setting up the punch line for O'Neill, and delivers the cue:
"So he says, 'By the way ...' "
Seconds pass. Griffith's mouth is open, waiting for O'Neill to finish the line. O'Neill's mouth is open, waiting for Griffith to finish the line.
" 'And by the way ... " Griffith says again. Still nothing. O'Neill's eyes seem to beg for an explanation: Is Griffith seizing up or something?
Finally, Griffith surrenders:
" 'And by the way, you're up for your taxes!'"
Oh, that story. O'Neill laughs heartily, putting everyone at ease again. When he laughs it sounds like uh-uh-uh-uh-uh.
Griffith then asks, as every interviewer will, about presidents O'Neill has known. O'Neill has a line about each one. How he was ushered into FDR's office and realized for the first time that "he was a cripple -- nobody in America knew." How Harry Truman's tough decision to drop the atomic bomb "saved thousands of lives." And so forth.
As the minutes tick by, and the O'Neill segment is coming to an end, a producer is kneeling out of camera range on the front of the stage, writing squeakily with a green marker: EVER WANT TO RUN FOR PRES. She scurries around the stage with this message and holds it up for Griffith, who nods discreetly.
"You know, your book is just wonderful to read," Griffith says, heading nowhere. Then, stroking his jaw in midsentence, he has a sudden inspiration.
"Did you ever aspire to be president yourself?"
"My highest ambition was to be speaker of the House ... " O'Neill has been asked this before.
Time is almost up.
"Let me hold up the book. That's what this is all about," Griffith says with a knowing smile. He reaches toward the coffee table, lifts the book into the air, and -- whoa! -- fumbles it. A dozen breaths are held. But Griffith has good hands. He recovers both book and composure.
"Understand America better by reading 'Man of the House,' " Griffith says, holding it up for the camera. The segment is over. The music booms down again: Robert Goulet will be appearing in Cleveland in the not-too-distant future. Tickets are still available.
Across town a few minutes later, the elevator doors slide open at WWWE and WDOK, an AM/FM operation. O'Neill is greeted by irrepressible talk show host Rena Blumberg, who tells him she's been planning her O'Neill strategy with "Mary Rose." This means she's on a first-name basis with Cleveland's woman in the House, Rep. Mary Rose Oakar. "We've written the whole interview," she says. Uh-uh-uh-uh-uh.
Sitting in Blumberg's studio, waiting for the tape to roll, Blumberg presents him with a box of chocolates. This makes O'Neill think of his diet: "I eat two fruits every morning." He has lost 50 pounds since he left office, he says, convincingly. "I'm going to bring Millie home something from Cleveland and it'll be your chocolates."
Blumberg asks O'Neill to autograph her book.
"What's your first name, darling?"
"Rena," she says, a little crisply, sliding her business card under his nose.
As the studio hands test them for sound, they fall into conversation about Elizabeth Dole's decision to resign as secretary of transportation in order to work for the presidential campaign of her husband, Sen. Bob Dole.
"She's a beautiful lady. But she couldn't stay," O'Neill says.
"In Washington, you think one way," Blumberg replies. "Out here, he's lost millions of votes."
After saying the same thing to each other a few more times, they decide to drop it. Blumberg is plenty wired, and it's time to start. She points to her business card again so O'Neill will use her name, and introduces him as "the biggest man, bigger than life."
"Well, Rannie ... "
Twenty minutes later, the interview is over. Blumberg asks O'Neill's indulgence to tape five "vignettes," one-minute teasers that will draw listeners to the main interview itself. He complies, repeating in abbreviated form answers he has just given her.
"Super!" Blumberg exclaims. "You don't even need editing! You are One-Take O'Neill!"
Down the hall a few minutes later, a voice rich in coffee and cigarette smoke growls into a microphone.
"Good morning, Ohio. We're coming up on 25 minutes before the hour ..." It's John Dayle, host of WWWE's popular morning call-in show, whose face bespeaks the impatience of a man who has heard everything. "... and if you want to talk to Tip O'Neill, I suggest you get on the lines right now, because our time is limited."
This turns out to be a lucky thing, because the calls do not pour in. Four or five people have the chance to query the former speaker of the House, and perhaps two or three people don't. As he waits for the first caller, Dayle has a question of his own -- a genuine hardball, given what O'Neill has faced and will face again this day.
"I've seen you banging that gavel," Dayle asks inquisitorially. "Why do you, most of the time, stand up? Man, that's got to be tiring."
A few moments later, a caller from Cleveland asks O'Neill if Ronald Reagan "really has no compassion for this country's average citizens." O'Neill launches into his Reagan homily. "God gave him a beautiful face and a beautiful voice and a handsome physique," O'Neill says, "but he forgot where he came from ... He lost his roots."
"You really don't like him very much, do you?" snaps Dayle.
"Well ... he's a ..."
"Let me rephrase the question," Dayle interrupts. "As a president, you don't like him ..."
As he leaves the studio, O'Neill makes a quick stop before yet another microphone. He is handed a piece of paper, which he scans, then reads fluidly. The piece of paper says:
"This is Tip O'Neill ... reminding you the uncensored comments on this program are made possible by our American Constitution ... words to live by ... here on Radio Eleven ... WWWE, Cleveland!"
Outside again in the mist, waiting by the limousine, two new figures have joined the entourage: Edward Rutherfurd, author of a new best seller called "Sarum: The Novel of England," and Andrew Martin, the Man Friday assigned by Crown Publishers to accompany Rutherfurd on his transcontinental promotion tour.
It so happens that O'Neill and Rutherfurd are beginning their travels together in Cleveland, and at the next stop -- Akron, 35 miles down Interstate 77 -- the two first-time authors will appear on the same stage.
Despite Martin's assurances, Rutherfurd, a polite young Briton with an MBA from Stanford, is a trifle nervous about the speech he will deliver an hour hence. He is also a little uneasy about the American political behemoth fate has put in his path, or vice versa.
Before O'Neill emerges on the sidewalk, Rutherfurd seeks guidance about the proper form of address for a former speaker of the House, even though just about everyone in Ohio feels perfectly comfortable calling him "Tip."
Inside the stretch, Rutherfurd and Martin deferentially take the jump seats for a backward ride to Akron. O'Neill settles into his seat and begins toying with a cigar.
"May I loosen my tie?" asks Rutherfurd, hesitating.
"Are you kidding?" O'Neill replies, grabbing at his own tie and pulling open his collar. Uh-uh-uh-uh-uh. Rutherfurd smiles and relaxes a little.
The Tipmobile, as Rutherfurd has christened it, rolls through the pinkish haze of exurban Cleveland. O'Neill asks Rutherfurd about "Sarum," riffling through its pages. The Speaker declares it "a rare talent, being able to put a book together," and goes on to tell stories about his experiences with William Novak, his coauthor. "We've got enough clippings on the floor to do another book," O'Neill says, "but I doubt we will ever do it."
As the limousine penetrates the Ohio countryside, Rutherfurd bends over a short stack of yellow note cards, mouthing phrases from his speech. "Ronald Reagan uses those," O'Neill says. Rutherfurd is only barely amused.
"Does this bother anyone?" asks O'Neill, as his lighter makes a flame at the tip of his cigar. Of course not, everyone says. Martin's eyes widen in deepest panic. O'Neill says Millie won't let him smoke in the house or in their car. Eyes watering, everyone smiles.
In time, farms turn to lawns. O'Neill bellows to Moise', who has been riding in silence in the front passenger seat. "Are we in Akron, honey?"
A few minutes later, the Speaker pronounces the city "well groomed." Then, apropos of nothing, he says, "I'll be back in Boston tonight. I'd rather be a lamppost in Boston than king of the universe."
This is a big day at Our Lady of the Elms, a girls' high school run by Dominican nuns. O'Neill and Rutherfurd are the first two author-speakers in a series that will eventually bring George V. Higgins, Marilyn French, Stephen Birmingham and Charlotte Fedders to "the Elms" -- and $20,000 into the scholarship fund of the school.
Standing by to greet the honored guests are administrators and teachers from the school, some of them in nuns' habits, and several hundred good burghers of Akron. As the Tipmobile climbs the hill to the main building, a phalanx of bagpipers loudly begins to herald its arrival.
"You know," remarks O'Neill over the din of the bagpipes, "the Irish gave the Scottish the bagpipes as a joke, and the Scottish took it seriously."
Inside, O'Neill and Rutherfurd engage in flesh-pressing and posing for snapshots with fragile ladies. In nearby corridors, hanging back a little, schoolgirls clutch one another's arms in thrill at the sight of their very large visitor.
O'Neill takes his place at a table in a vast refectory called "the commons." The event is sold out, good news for host and guest alike. Two hundred copies of "Man of the House" are ready for sale. Between bites, O'Neill signs books and greets relatives of people he once shook hands with.
On stage after lunch, Rutherfurd speaks first, delighting his audience with highlights of his sweeping historical novel about England. "I am primarily a novelist but I am unashamedly an entertainer," he says.
After Rutherfurd sits down, O'Neill describes the bidding among "14 publishers" for the right to publish his book, but omits the price Random House ultimately paid -- reportedly more than $1 million. He terms his promotional tour "a moral obligation." Then he delivers an unabridged version of every answer he has given to an interviewer that morning -- and more. The 40-minute speech is lively, the audience in the Speaker's palm. Even so, there are signs he is beginning to tire. He refers to someone as a "capital venturist." He says he thinks Robert Bork should never have been "nominated for president." And he adds that the nominee should be "more in tune with the millstream of American thinking."
Outside in the commons again, two Elmspersons are sliding copies of "Man of the House," opened to the title page, under the author's hand. Most of the time, he signs only his name, Tip O'Neill, dotting both i's each time. When the helpers aren't looking, someone will ask, "Would you make it out to my son and daughter-in-law?" and O'Neill, of course, obliges.
Sooner than you might expect from a line of people 200 long, the books are gone, and people begin bringing O'Neill other things to sign. Rebecca Snoderly, a student at the Elms, has him sign her periodic table. George Catavalos, the chauffeur, asks him to sign a copy of the American Express ad in which the Speaker is pictured sitting on the beach.
Climbing into the car for the ride to the airport, O'Neill sees the NBC crew again, still grinning, still shooting.
"Goodbye, fellas. Are we through? Go out and have a beer on me."
Thereis, however, one more stop: the well-appointed Akron home of Nancy McGrath, president of the alumnae board of the Elms, and her husband Bill. There is time, it seems, for a glass of beer, even though Helen Moise', who has gone to the airport in another car, will be upset by the wait.
In the living room, O'Neill compliments Nancy McGrath on her harp of Irish Belleek, lights another cigar, teases his hosts about the beer they serve (St. Pauli Girl) and tells his favorite jokes about nuns. No one laughs harder than Sister Augustine Stropko, who sits on the couch nursing a glass of wine. Teen-aged Billy McGrath sits next to her, not quite believing the former speaker of the House is in his living room.
As glasses are drained and the entourage moves toward the front door, there is a last request of the guest of honor.
"Can you say hello to Annie Houlihan on the phone?"
Of course he can. Annie Houlihan is Bill McGrath's mother, and was not well enough to attend the speech. "You're the best sport in the world," Nancy says.
O'Neill picks up the phone. "How are you, darling?" he begins.