"Tip O'Neill at all times has one great political weapon at his disposal. He understand so well that all political, power is primarily an illusion. If people think you have power, then you have power. Power is an illusion. Illusion, Mirrors and blue smoke . . ."
Jimmy Breslin was only half right. Even in the ephemeral world of politics, you can live on illusion just so long. You can use it to get power and adjust the mirrors until others are afraid to say 'no' or until they give you what you want without being asked.
But sooner of later, you have to acquire the real thing or the illusion blows away - like blue smoke. Maybe Breslin doesn't know that. His losing campaign for elected office in New York showed him to be a better writer than a politican.
But Tip O'Neill knows. You learn that before you learn your ABC's in Boston.
It is not that O'Neill does not know the value of illusion. He does. To watch him in his first eight months as speaker of the House has been to [WORD ILLEGIBLE] a legend being born.
O'Neill, using mirrors and blue smoke, help it along until it was self-sustained.
Who pushed a tough ethics code through a reluctant House? Tip O'Neill.
Who orchestrated the congressional pay rise, putting it off while there was heat and controversy, calling it up when the issue had cooled, planning the strtegy every step of the way? Tip O'Neill.
Who go Jimmy Carter's energy package through intact? Tip O'Neill.
In fact, who straightened out Jimmy Carter in how to handle Congress? Who taught him the master strokes of manipulating Congress labyrinth ways? Tip O'Neill.
How do we know? Tip O'Neill told us so. He came back from a private dinner with Carter and told us so.
Who is not to be blamed for defeats, like the voter registration bill coming apart, like Standard of Official Conduct Committee and the Assassination Committee disintegrating before our eyes, like the defeat of labor's common site picketing bill on the floor? Tip O'Neill.
How do we know? He told us so. Before the dead body of the common site bill - expanding picketing rights for construction unions - ever hit the floor. Tip O'Neill told us its defeat was the result of a botched-up lobbying effort by labor. He - Tip O'Neill - knew it would not pass the House. His count showed that, but he let himself be persuaded by labor to schedule the bill, and labor was wrong.
It's not that O'Neill's analysis is incorrect. It's probably right.
What is so amazing is that he moved like lightning to keep the odor of defeat from rubbing off on him, from affecting his reputation - even if is cost his good buddies in the labor movement a piece of their clout.
Carl Albert, O'Neill's Predecessor, would never have done that.He would have sat there and said "I don't know" when the press asked him what happened. He would have tried to absorb defeat and, as a result, his reputation for weakness would have grown.
O'Neill has built his mystiquie through the press. Albert feated the press O'Neill plays with it like a cat with a mouse. He has killed the tough, post-Watergate press with candor and charm.
Ask O'Neill about an alleged gambling ring in a House office building and whether he has quashed a Justice Department investigation of it. O'Neill Says no. he knew nothing about it. Then he regates the press with stories and mottos about gambling. "Never bet on a left-handed quarterback," he advises. "Never bet on a came of skill."
He tells the story of going to the Pimlico racetrack as a young congressman and meeting J. Edgar Hoover there, Hoover offers him a Hit back to Washington. He accepts. When they get back to town, Hoover discovers he has taken the wrong car from the parking lot.
There are no more questions about he gambling ring.
A story appears detailing how O'Neill has brought pressuer on the secretary of the Navy, who wants to cancel the F-18 fighter plane. F-18 engines are made in Lynn. Mass, O'Neill is asked whether the pressured the secretary into keeping the plan in line. Of course he did, O'Neill says. And he details precisely how he threatened him.End of questioning.
His colleagues now attribute all sorts of happenings to the workings of O'Neill, whether he was within miles of the event or not. One congressman believes O'Neill acted to keep him off a delegation to an international conference. All indications are that O'Neill didn't care and simply followed seniority in making the appointments.
O'Neill has been acquiring more than the charisma of power. He has been gettint the real thing. He is about to garner instutional power in a way that no Speaker has since the days of "Uncle Joe" Canron and "Czar" Thomas reed at the turn of the century. There was a revolt atter Cannon, and they took most of the speaker's instutional power away.
The late Sam Rayburn had the "charisma," rather than institutional, kind of power. A high-ranking aide who remembers Rayburn said it first came to him because he had survived World War II, so his name was linked with greats the likes of Roosevelt and Churchill.
Then, the aide said, it was reinforced because there were great monolithik forces in the House, and polities was a matter of loyalty either to the anti-FDR, the anti-civil-rights South, the Republican Patty, or the bigelty machines of the North. In any case, "To get along, go along" was Rayburn's strongest club.
O'Neill often laments that he does not have the kind of power Rayburn had. He tells how Rayburn could call in the Attorney General and tell him to stop an investigation of some friends of a congressman. He tells how, on a tough vote, Rayburn had that cogressman and seven others sitting in the front row ready to go with him if he needed them.
O'Neill says he has only persuasion as a tool. He says today's younger, heter-educated legislators are so independent that there is no force but the merit of the argument that will move them. He says the old loyalties to Democratic programs are gone.
He is partly right.
But events have conspired to make O'Neill Speaker of the House at a time of a great power victium.
And O'Neill, like a vacuum cleaner, has been scooping up disparate ends.
For instance, O'Neill became Speaker just at the time that the era of strong committee chairman ended. Reforms pushed by liberal Democrats the last eight years have denigrated the power of committee chairmen. Now they must stand for election, they must account for their budgets, they must give the minority a third of the staff, they are beholden to congress of Democratic members for their power.
There are no strong committee chairmen left.
George H. Mahon (D-Tex.), who heads the Appropirations Committee, is the last man who can run his committee with an iron hand, and he is retiring next year.
Wilbur Mills plunged into the Tidal Basin. Wayne Hays into sex, Wright Patman into senility and F. Edward Hebert into illness, and retirement.
They were the strong committee chairmen of recent times, barons who could have offered some rivalry to the Speaker's power.
But in the last eight years, liberals have passed rules that have "democratized" the House, taking power away from 20 or so strong committee chairen and spreading it among subcommittee chairmen. As the power spread, the number of subcommittees grew. Now there are some 180 subcommittee, and power dispersed among some 180 chairmen is no power at all.
Sam Rayburn has some barons to contend with, Clarence Cannon, the chairman of the Appropriations Committee, used to make Texan Rayburn come to him on his kness to get funding for Southwestern pork-barrel projects. Judge Howard Smith of the Rules Committee willfully and arbitrarily held legislation from the floor that he didn't like, no matter what Rayburn wanted.
On Tip O'Neill horizon there are no rivals. None.
Those who had the personal force to he rivals are dead or gone. Rules changes have taken care of the rest.
Along with the liveral Democratic reformers who wanted to 'democratize" the House, there was another group of liberal Democratic reformers who wanted to strengthen the power of the Speaker. They looked at Rayburn's successors - weak Speakers John McCormac and Carl Albert - saw their paralysis in moving Democratic legislation even though there were heavy Democratic majorities, and decided the Speaker must have more power to get the Democratic plattform through, to get done what the Democrats wanted.
For every four reforms that were passed that "democratized" the House, one was passed that strengthened the power of the Speaker.
For instance, quietly, white Democratic caucus elections were defeating the first chaimen in 1974, a rule change was passed that allowed the Speaker to nominate all the Democartic members of the Rules Committee and its chairman.
The Rules Committee passes on legislation going to the floor. It can refuse to let bills come to the floor. It sets the terms of debate. It can restrict the number of amendments or changes allowed on the floor.
Allowing the Speaker to nominate Democratic members of the Rules Committee gave him control of the committee, where 10 democrats and five Republicans sit.
O'Neill has used that control on important issues to restrict the freedom of House members in offering amendments - in making changes in important pieces of legislation that he wanted kept intact.
For instance, on the energy package the Rules Committee, under O'Neill direction, voted to allow 27 specific amendments to be offered. House members could vote on whether there should be an additional 4- or 5-cent federal tax on gas, to go mass transit. But they could not vote to make it 10 cents or 2 cents or use it for some other purpose. They could only take it or leave it.
Republicans yelled that their rights were being violated.
Sometimes the Rules Committee Democrates balked. Many of them, plus most of the committee Republicans, did not like part of an ethics package that put a limit on their outside income. O'Neill told them bluntly that if they did not vote the part out, they might be appointed to the lowly District of Columbia Committee. They voted it out.
The reformers believed they found a way to make committee chairmen subject to the will of all House Democrats. They made them stand for election in the caucus of House Democrats.
But O'Neill has found a way around the reformers.
It is a device called a "select committee." While the chairmen and members of the regular or permanent House committees must be elected, "select committees" are supposed to exist for shor periods of time to serve a particular purpose or investigate a particular problem.
Their members and chairmen are appointed by the Speaker. Usually their subjects are peripheral, such as aging or crime. But O'Neill has established select committees to control the issues he is most concerned about, and he controls who serves on those committees.
In the eight months that he has been Speaker, he has formed a select committee on ethics, a select committee to oversee the sensitive are of intelligence and, most important, a select committee to report energy legislation.
He named his close friend Edward Boland (D-Mass.) to head the intelligence committee. He named his close friend Thomas (lud) Ashley (D-Ohio) to head the enrgy committee.
Energy was obviously going to be the issue of the year, and members fought and scratched to get appointed to the Select Committee on Energy. Those who did are extremely beholden to O'Neill. Those who did were ones O'Neill knew would vote the right way.
Through the select committee, O'Neill has found a way to control not only the committee chairmen but the committee members. It is not exactly what the reformers had in mind.
Finally, O'Neill has learned that nothing is too insignificant to be a source of power. Politicians know the importance of details anyway, but it took Ohioan Wayne Hays to teach the House and O'Neill that even filing cabinets and paper clibs can be a source of power if you use them right.
When Hays became chairman of the House Administration Committee, it was a job nobody wanted. The previous chairman had given up the job to be a lowly member of the Ways and Means Committee.
House Administration signed paychecks for members and committee staffs and was an overseer of the restaurants and barber shops and parking lots and other nity-gritty items necessary to make the city that is Capitol Hill run. It was considered a boring job.
Until Wayne Hays came along.
He used the committee to make members beholden to him by increasing their fringe benefits (stationery allowance, newsletter allowance, number of committee staffers). He withheld perquisites from his enemies, gave them to his friens. It became unwise to make Wayne Hays mad.
Hays resigned last year when it was revealed that he had put his mistress on his payroll and she said her only duty was to perform sexual favors. But Hays left his lesson behind.
Now, in the name of efficincy and reorganizatio, a House Commission and Administrative Review has suggestions that those Administrative functions currently scattered among a number of House officers (clerk, doorkeeper, sergeant-at-arms) be consolidated into the office and that a "super administrator" he elected to oversees them.
The Speaker would nomiate the "super administrator," subject to election by the Hosue. Only the Speaker, with the backing of the House Administration Committee, could fire the "super administrator."
There is also some thought being given by the commission to suggesting that the Speaker be allowed to appoint the Democratic members of the House Administration Committee, just so he does for Rules.
It is passes, O'Neill would control the internal operations of the House, the fringe benefits, the perks and the Hosue patronage jobs.
Combined with his controls over when and in what form legislation comes to the floor and his use of select committes, it would give O'Neill more real institutional power than any Speaker has had since "Uncle Joe" Cannon, the legendary leader whose absolute control finally triggered a revolt in 1910. Cannon had chaired the Rules Committee, appointed its membbers, appointed members and chairmen of committees, and determined how and when legislation would come to the floor.
There is a certain irony about such a consolidation of power going on at a time when the house has undergone an enormous turnover (more than to per cent since 1970), when its members are considered younger and more independent than ever, when party loyalty is considered dead and when strong leaders have all but disappeared all the way from city hall to the White House.
But there is a certain inevitability about it, too. The House is a cyclical institution and the pendulum throughout its history has swung from a period of strong Speakers to a period of weak Speakers and back again.
So far there is nothing even faintly resembling a revolt, even among the most reform-minded House members.
As one of them, Toby Moffett (D-Conn.), was quoted as saying: "I know the Speaker, and he wants to get things done. A lot of people have been crying for leadership. And now they've got it."