In a recent issue of National Review — December 31 — I had a piece called “Good Ol’ Tip: Thomas P. O’Neill Jr. and national myth.” I propose to do a blowout, here in Impromptus — an expansion of that piece. About O’Neill and myth, there’s plenty to say . . .
You may have missed this, but, at the end of November, the House decided to name a building after O’Neill — a building on Capitol Hill. Everyone was nice and proper. John Boehner, the Republican Speaker, called the late Speaker “a giant in the history of the House.” The Democrats’ leader, Nancy Pelosi, called him “a legend in Congress and a bona fide American hero.”
O’Neill had a building on Capitol Hill named after him before — but it was razed in 2002. Many things are named after him in the Boston area, where he came from. When I lived up there, I played a nice little nine-hole track called Fresh Pond Golf Course. Shortly thereafter, it was the Thomas P. O’Neill Jr. course.
What a comedown, I thought. You might expect a Reaganite like me to think that. But I wouldn’t have wanted the course renamed for Reagan, or any other favorite of mine. Hard to improve on “Fresh Pond.” And why introduce politics into it?
“Tip,” as everyone still refers to him, was Speaker of the House from 1977 to 1987. The way we’re supposed to remember him now is, affable Irishman, big heart and big red nose, liked his liquor, hoisted a few with Reagan, buddied with that president to get things done for America.
In the 2012 campaign, one and all — Republican and Democrat — talked about how Reagan and O’Neill worked together to “save Social Security.” What they had in mind was the deal struck in 1983. This was the deal that resulted from the Greenspan Commission.
I have a little story for you — a personal story. In 1984, I was working as an intern in the office of Senator Robert J. Dole. He was chairman of the Finance Committee (soon to become majority leader). He was showing a visitor around, I believe, and pointed to a picture on the wall — a picture of Reagan and O’Neill at the 1983 signing ceremony (as I remember). “Yep,” said Dole, “Ron and Tip made that happen. That’s what people say, anyway.”
The senator, I believe, thought that “Ron and Tip” had basically shown up for the ceremony. He often made tart remarks, true — remarks tinged with bitterness or resentment. But that doesn’t mean those remarks were wrong.
As there was a deal in 1983, there was a deal in 1982 — a budget deal. Democrats will tell you that Reagan teamed with O’Neill to raise taxes and save the day. Again, hurrah! I give you President Obama: “If Ronald Reagan could compromise, why wouldn’t folks who idolize Ronald Reagan be willing to engage in those same kinds of compromises?”
Here’s what “folks” know, some of us, at least: O’Neill and the Democrats promised three dollars in spending cuts for every dollar in taxes raised. The taxes were raised; the spending cuts never came. Reagan kicked himself, hard, for that deal.
What’s true for individuals is true for nations: Better to remember the good and let the bad fade away, probably. Comity is better than enmity. O’Neill had a saying about the D.C. culture: “Before 6 o’clock, it’s all politics, but after 6 o’clock, and on weekends, we’re friends.” Reagan used to call him up, on some weekday morning or afternoon, and say, “Is it after 6 o’clock?” His other trick was to push the clock after 6 o’clock, when O’Neill came to visit.
Reagan and O’Neill had some friendly moments — particularly when O’Neill saw Reagan in the hospital, after the latter had been shot. The two said the Lord’s Prayer together, I believe.
But look: By and large, O’Neill was a nasty piece of work, who constantly slandered and defamed Reagan as a hater of the poor, a warmonger, and an idiot. O’Neill may not have been a warmonger, but he was as ugly a class warrior as we’ve ever had. He was one of the most partisan men who ever lived.
Nixon used to say, “Let’s flick the scab off that wound.” Probably not a good idea — but let’s.
If I heard O’Neill say it once, I heard him say it a thousand times: Reagan may have started out poor, sure, but then he started to make big money in Hollywood — and he resented the taxes taken out of his checks. Plus, he had not “grown” in office. You’re supposed to grow when you get to Washington — i.e., accept big and ever bigger government — but Reagan was clinging to the same stupid beliefs he had arrived with.
O’Neill said, “He has no concern, no regard, no care for the little man of America, and I understand that: Because of his lifestyle, he never meets those people.” Reagan, according to O’Neill, was “callous,” “a real Ebenezer Scrooge,” “a cheerleader for selfishness.” His administration had “made a target of the politically weak, the poor, the working people.” His policies were just “one big Christmas party for the rich.”
As the Reagan tax cuts were being passed in 1981, O’Neill gave a speech declaring it “a great day for the aristocracy of the world”: Charles and Diana were getting married in London, and the hoity-toity were getting a tax cut in America. The late journalist Robert Novak, in his memoir, wrote, “I recall that speech whenever I hear romantic nonsense about the Reagan-O’Neill ‘friendship’ in an era of golden bipartisanship.”
He also wrote that “the news media made over the mean-spirited O’Neill” — so true.