Political memoirs are an American cottage industry. Starting with John G. Nicolay and John Hay, Lincoln's secretaries, and President Ulysses S. Grant in the late 19th Century, Washington insiders have entertained and instructed us with their versions of what happened on their watch.
Not surprisingly, most of these memoirs are self-serving. They not only make some of the authors a lot of money--seven-figure sums are now standard for prominent politicos--but also give their authors a platform for setting the record straight or nudging history in the "right" direction.
Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill, a 17-term congressman and House speaker for 10 years, and William Novak have given us a memoir that is a model of the genre. Their book is filled with amusing and troubling anecdotes that will justifiably propel it onto the best-seller list, where the publishers will recoup their $1-million advance.
O'Neill has memorable stories to tell about every President since F.D.R. Harry Truman had an almost irrational dislike of Dwight Eisenhower. " 'Some of the newspapers are making snide remarks about Mrs. Eisenhower, saying she has a drinking problem,' " Truman told a group of freshman Democrats that included O'Neill in January, 1953. " 'Now it wouldn't surprise me if she did, because look what that poor woman has had to put up with. She's married to a no-good son of a bitch.' " Truman could not forgive Eisenhower for having written Gen. George C. Marshall in 1945 asking if a divorce and remarriage to Kay Summersby, his mistress, would hurt his military career.
O'Neill pulls no punches about Ronald Reagan. He "lacked the knowledge he should have had in every sphere, both domestic and international. Most of the time he was an actor reading lines, who didn't understand his own programs.
"I hate to say it about such an agreeable man, but it was sinful that Ronald Reagan ever became President. . . . He wasn't without leadership ability, but he lacked most of the management skills that a President needs. But let me give him his due: He would have made a hell of a king."
O'Neill points to the fact that when the Soviets shot down the Korean airliner in September, 1983, Secretary of State Shultz called him at 7 o'clock in the morning on Cape Cod to ask him to come to an emergency meeting in Washington. When O'Neill asked what the President thought about the incident, Shultz replied: " 'He's still asleep. He doesn't know about it yet. . . . We'll tell him when he wakes up.' "
At a meeting with the heads of American's three biggest auto producers on the eve of a trip to Japan, the President read from three-by-five cards, as he typically does in formal meetings. But on this occasion, "they were the wrong cards. His guests were so embarrassed that no one could bring himself to mention the mistake. Eventually, the President realized he was barking up the wrong tree."
O'Neill and Novak's book will particularly delight traditional mainstream Democrats, who will find their gibes at Reagan's domestic and foreign policies, at Nixon's abuse of power, at conservative journalists Evans and Novak ("Errors and Nofacts") at Johnson's tragically wrong Vietnam policy, at the FBI, and at the contras-- "a small ragtag army of racketeers, bandits, and murderers"--alone worth the price of the book.
Yet there is more to this book than O'Neill's partisanship or capacity to tell a good story at the 19th hole. His recollections include fascinating observations and revelations on a number of people and subjects that enrich our knowledge and understanding of recent American history. His doubts about the Warren Commission report, for example, are startling. He tells us that two of President Kennedy's aides who were present at the assassination told the Commission that they heard only one shot when in fact they had heard two. One of them told O'Neill that he testified the way the FBI wanted him to testify as a way to put the affair behind the country and save the Kennedy family from additional pain and trouble. "I used to think that the only people who doubted the conclusions of the Warren Commission were crackpots," O'Neill writes. "Now, however, I'm not so sure."
Similarly, O'Neill and Novak's description of Nixon's last days in the White House are chilling. They draw a portrait of an emotionally unstable man whom one member of Congress, a physician, described as "paranoid." The comment so alarmed O'Neill that he called Mike Mansfield, the Senate majority leader, to ask whether anybody at the White House was "watching to make sure he (Nixon) didn't put his finger on the button!" Mansfield replied that Alexander Haig was "running the show right now." O'Neill believes that Haig "deserves our gratitude for keeping his eye on things when Nixon was falling apart." Yet Haig's performance on the day Reagan was shot left O'Neill with doubts about Haig as well.
There is more here about the Watergate episode, Abscam, Koreagate, Jimmy Carter and his staff, the press, the Congress and the office of the President that Americans would profit from hearing. But more important than any specific topic O'Neill and Novak address in their book is the message O'Neill conveys by the example of his career. He is a blunt, practical man whose personal integrity (he left office with only $2,900 in the bank), and compassion for the disadvantaged make him something of an anomaly in an age of manipulated images, ideological passions, and private greed. Tip O'Neill is a consensus politician who makes American government work. His memoir could do worse than inspire others to follow along his path.
DR, DOROTHY AHLE