To raise funds a while back, the Boston Symphony auctioned off a private lunch with the Speaker of the House Thomas P. O'Neill Jr. in the speaker's office in the Capitol. On the appropriate day, Mr. and Mrs. High-Bidder, both dressed to the nines, were greeted by the speaker, who thanked them for their generosity to the symphony.
Tip O'Neill, who did not establish the record for longest continuous service as speaker of the House by being unobservant, sensed some tension between his guests. This intuition was confirmed when, in response to his host's question on how he had happened to buy the lunch, Mr. High-Bidder, ignoring his wife's embarrassed plea, blurted out: "To tell you to your face what a SOB you are and to tell you to stop being so mean to the president." Tip O'Neill, a man with a healthy sense of self, laughed at the outburst and insisted they finish their meal. He roars when he tells the story now.
In his chosen business of U.S. politics, where there is truly nothing permanent except change, that same sense of self has enabled Tip O'Neill to become the Heavyweight Champion of Change. This is the season for tributes and testimonials to the retiring speaker, who will be forced to hear himself portrayed as either a crafty Pat O'Brien with Spencer Tracy's hair or as some portly leprechraun with a partisan gavel. Such praise misses the point.
The grand and singular strength of O'Neill, who came to Congress when Harry Truman was in the White House and the Dodgers were in Brooklyn, is his mastery of change. It is no understatement to say that the House of Representatives would almost certainly never have voted in favor of legislation to end the Vietnam war, to impose an ethics code upon itself, to limit the dollar influence of political action committees, to require that committee chairmen be elected or that House votes be recorded without the forceful leadership of Thomas P. O'Neill. The House is today a better, fairer and more accountable place because O'Neill has been its leader.
His critics say the speaker is not "good" on TV. They are right. He doesn't speak in self contained 30-second paragraphs. He talks in public the way most of us, except maybe William Buckley, talk with our families, in shirt-sleeve English and sentence fragments.
But Lyndon Johnson had no trouble understanding Tip O'Neill in 1967 when he became the first big city congressmen to come out against the Vietnam war. LBJ summoned O'Neill to the White House where the future speaker, referring to the working class roots of the American troops, is reported to have said: "Mr. president, those are Democrats who are getting killed over there."
A strong believer in a strong president, the speaker has seen his party twice devastated in presidential elections by a strong Republican president, Ronald Reagan. But in legislative combat with the Gipper, the Tipper has more than held his own.
Because the speaker, instead of delaying, delivered on his pledge of a 1981 House vote on the president's tax cut plan, the Republicans were unable in the election of 1982 to blame that year's recession on the Democrats. In 1985 a triumphant president was confounded by the speaker who insisted that the Republican Senate act first on the Reagan budget. Thus when the GOP Senate cut the defense budget for the first time in a decade, the White House was unable to censure "softlining" Democrats.
Remember the 1985 Reagan tax bill, the one that was going to realign our political parties? One reason it hasn't is because O'Neill endorsed both the House Democratic tax proposal and the notion of revenue neutrality, which left the president in December pleading publicly with GOP House members to switch from opposition to support of the bill and to demonstrate that Ronald Reagan was not, in O'Neill's bluntly partisan phrase, "a lame duck."
There are, of course, some values that do not change. Take this story of the speaker's:
"I was on the House rostrum and my secretary came out to say Eddie Anderson was on the telephone. Now I haven't seen Eddie since we were in the fifth grade together, and, to be perfectly truthful, Eddie hasn't done well. I took the call. I said, 'Eddie, what's on your mind? What can I do? I know you wouldn't be calling unless you had a problem.'
"He said, 'Listen, I'm in a bar in Somerville. I told two guys here I know you. They didn't believe me so they said get him on the phone.' He said, 'Will you say hello to my two friends?' I said, 'Eddie, is that what you wanted me for?'
"Eddie says, 'Look, Tip old boy. We love you, we're proud of you.' He says, 'By the way, you look like W. C. Fields up there.'
And the speaker laughs out loud. When you know who you are and where you come from, as Thomas P. O'Neill so obviously does, then change is nothing to get too concerned about.