People who know him find it difficult to dislike him. He is a genial soul, with big, rather mournful eyes, a face that falls in dewlaps and jowls, and an Irish tenor voice as soft as the sound of the wind in the trees. No one tells a story better, and even his critics say he treats the members "nicely and kindly."
Nonetheless, House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill (D-Mass.) became the first candidate for scapegoat since the Democratic wipeout in November. Rep. Charles W. Stenholm (D-Tex.), expressing the bitterness and frustration of those who want Democrats to be more like Republicans, announced last month that he would lead a revolt to replace O'Neill as speaker.
It came to nothing. The speaker, who plans to retire in 1986 after one-third of a century in his beloved House, was handily reelected. Stenholm retreated before the first shot was fired in the House Democratic Caucus.
Stenholm, the leader of the "Boll Weevils," those southern conservatives who have caused the speaker so much pain with their votes for President Reagan's programs, was simply showing the folks at home how annoyed he is that Texas lost four Democratic House seats in the Reagan landslide and how deeply he believes that the national party has strayed too far from the mainstream.
In his short-lived rebellion, Stenholm enlisted the aid of another Boll Weevil, Rep. Buddy Roemer (D-La.), secretary of the Democratic Conservative Forum as the Weevils are formally known. Roemer, who promised to nominate Stenholm, quickly found that his candidate couldn't muster 50 votes.
A number of members from all persuasions launched parleys to turn back the empty but embarrassing challenge. In the back of many minds was the chilling prospect that the Boll Weevils, after being routed in a showdown, might repair to the Republican side. A series of negotiations began.
Last Friday, at O'Neill's instigation, a summit meeting was held. O'Neill and his counselor, Kirk O'Donnell, sat down with Stenholm and Roemer. No big deals were made. It was the music, not the words, that counted. The conversation, according to Roemer, was "very blunt, very friendly and very bottom-line."
"He didn't promise a lot of things," Roemer said of the speaker. "He just agreed not to ignore us any more. We told him the party has to be an umbrella and a full umbrella for everybody and not just let the liberals run everything." The speaker, who in 1981 made accommodations to the conservatives by giving them two seats on the Steering and Policy Committee, complained that he never heard from them again. There was some talk of a Boll Weevil assistant whip.
Afterward, Stenholm and Roemer had a series of meetings with disgruntled Boll Weevils, who agreed with the speaker's depiction of conservative agents as people who sulk in the back rows of the caucus and then go out and vote with Reagan.
It was agreed that they will speak and he will listen. Some of the Weevils wanted a formal pact -- they had only the speaker's word. His good name came to his rescue. "His word has always been good," said one.
So ended a challenge that was a tribute to the prose style of Republican direct-mail writers. They have made O'Neill a symbol of bloated government, the personification of fat Democratic budgets and uncontrolled spending. Although polls showed that he did not, in fact, detract from Democrats, House members from the South and West were stung by charges that they were "O'Neill's lackeys."
The real complaint against O'Neill is that he is not, like the sleek Irishman in the White House, a star on television. It was his girth, not his worth, that made him vulnerable. The cameras did not convey his easy, old-shoe charm.
He remains, however, the principal spokesman for his party. Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.VA.), whose Elvis Presley coiffure is the despair of blow-dried colleagues, will remain leader of Senate Democrats.
All of which makes the choice of Democratic National Committee chairman quite significant. Roemer surprisingly says that he favors Rep. Tony Coelho (D-Calif.). As the quick-witted chairman of the House Democratic Campaign Committee, Coelho has taken a leading role in party counsels and has been an indefatigable fund-raiser.
But there is not a dime's worth of difference between his voting record and the speaker's. Roemer knows that. Coelho votes with the liberals 90 percent of the time. But Roemer says he can talk to Coelho about issues dear to Boll Weevils. The big difference may be that Coelho is lean and the speaker is fat. The speaker kept many promises over the years, but never the one to diet. In the television era, none may matter more.