After his wheeling and dealing for nearly 32 years in the turbulent arena of the House of Representatives, Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.) could be excused for exhibiting some cynicism. But no, you can take the speaker's word for it, he's still an idealist who chokes up at Washington's and the nation's symbolic landmarks.

Whenever he gets off a plane arriving at National Airport from Boston, O'Neill told those attending a recent reception, "I get a thrill when I look at the Capitol of the United States." The reception honored former representative Fred Schwengel (R-Iowa), president of the U.S. Capitol Historical Society, on his 80th birthday.

There are three symbols, by O'Neill's account, that affect him the most: the Statue of Liberty, the Capitol and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington Cemetery.

O'Neill went on to relate an incident involving the tomb.

One night, the speaker said, he and Rep. Edward P. Boland (D-Mass.) were hosting two or three priests in the Washington apartment that he and Boland share. (O'Neill's wife never moved here from Massachusetts, and he commutes home on weekends. Such travel will end when O'Neill retires this year.) They got to talking about the tomb and its soldier guardians.

It was a dark and stormy night, as the line goes, and snow was falling, and O'Neill said he and Boland could do nothing less than take their guests for a ride to Arlington Cemetery. There they found the honor guard pacing dutifully and ceremoniously alongside the tomb.

It must have been an inspring scene. But the scene I'd most like to have viewed was of the speaker of the House identifying himself to an undoubtedly flustered gate guard and talking his way, long after hours, into the cemetery.

Reservists' Choice

A Washington lawyer has become the most junior officer, as a lieutenant colonel, and the youngest, at age 41, to become president of the Marine Corps Reserve Officers Association. All prior presidents have ranked as full colonels or above.

Lt. Col. Herbert N. Harmon, who lives in Alexandria with his wife Diane and has a downtown law practice, was elected last month as the 27th head of the organization at a meeting in Kansas City, Mo. He is assigned to the Fourth Civil Affairs Group, a reserve unit in Anacostia. His most recent overseas assignment was in Korea.