Many principals of the juicy anecdotes that fill Thomas P. O'Neill's memoir of a long and colorful life in politics are dead. But we are not, and herewith testify that what he wrote about us is a whopper.
The account in the memoir, "Man of the House," of how as newly elected House majority leader he rejected a "deal" we offered him and then "kicked" us out of his office has been noted in book reviews and columns. The account is totally untrue, and its untruth clouds the credibility of other engrossing Washington vignettes by a master storyteller.
Tip O'Neill's book should warn historians dealing with the contemporary politician's memoir, which in many cases is dictated into a tape recorder and compiled by a ghostwriter. While he provides little insight into his historical role of politicizing both the speakership and American foreign policy, O'Neill is abundant with revelations that should be subjected to arduous verification.
One reviewer complains that the book sounds more like his ghostwriter than O'Neill, but that's not the case at all. In fact, the cadence is pure Tip, the stories familiar to friends who have heard them polished over the years.
That is true of his account that shortly after he became majority leader in 1973, "Evans and Novak came to my office" and "had the gall to offer me a deal: if I kept them informed as to what was happening in Congress and the White House, they would see to it that I would receive great press notices, which would help smooth the way for me to be the next speaker. I was ashamed to be in their company, and I kicked them right out of my office."
In a combined 70 years of reporting in Washington, neither of us has offered anybody such a deal or been kicked out of anybody's office. We did visit O'Neill when he became leader (as we similarly visited Jim Wright years later). When we expressed hope we could see him occasionally, O'Neill smiled assent.
Nor did he shut us out. On March 18, 1977, the newly elected speaker of the House addressed our twice-a-year political forum. In February 1978 we interviewed him over television from the speaker's office.
In that long interview, he assailed Bruce Caputo, who was then a congressman from New York. "From what I've been told," said the speaker, "he has two employees on his payroll who check the sex life of his colleagues, who check to see if they are out cheating on their wives, who check if they go on corporate planes." Caputo denied everything and challenged O'Neill to identify the staff members. Five days later the speaker took the floor of the House to apologize.
The Caputo incident may explain why O'Neill turned down our later requests for television interviews. We know now the reason he gave staffers was the fictitious 1973 office incident. "I think that if you gave the speaker sodium pentothal he would tell the same story," a longtime O'Neill associate told us.
The veracity of other O'Neill yarns is dubious. Consider his revelation that a young Robert F. Kennedy wanted to run against him for the House but was stopped by his father, Joseph P. Kennedy.
According to O'Neill's account, Sen. Thomas J. Dodd heard Bobby was going to oppose him in Connecticut, confronted Kennedy and was told, "No, but I am looking for a seat, and I may run up in Tip O'Neill's district." O'Neill said he went to Sen. John F. Kennedy, who called his father.
Robert Kennedy's friends label that story preposterous. O'Neill's account places the event after Dodd was elected to the Senate in 1958 (an election in which Kennedy would have been constitutionally too young) and before the 1960 presidential election.
An intimate of Kennedy in that period, Nashville Tennessean publisher John Seigenthaler, says he never heard him discuss a race against O'Neill or Dodd. "I never heard him express any interest in Congress or the Senate from Connecticut or Massachusetts," Seigenthaler told us. "There is no doubt in my mind that he would have mentioned it to me at some time in our association."
In the vast literature about Lyndon Johnson's 1960 selection for vice president, O'Neill's name never appears. But in his memoir, he describes himself -- still an obscure congressman -- as the vital go-between. In passing, O'Neill writes that Kenneth O'Donnell told him he falsified testimony to the Warren Commission, which investigated the assassination of John Kennedy, at the Kennedy family's request.
While it is hard to believe these stories, it is difficult to refute them because eyewitnesses are dead. But we can say firsthand that when it comes to us, Tip's story is pure fiction.