This weekend marks the 100th birthday of the late Thomas Phillip "Tip" O’Neill, former Speaker of the House of Representatives. Greater Boston Executive Producer Linda Polach reflects on her experiences with O’Neill.
There is a photo of Tip O’Neill and me on the wall in my office. We look like buddies and he signed it, “Best wishes from an old friend.” But I’d be lying if I said the former Speaker of the House, one of the most powerful and effective members of Congress, was my close pal. In truth, I was a broadcast producer who got the chance to interview him many times over his congressional tenure.
I, like many others who knew him either from the Hill or his old Cambridge neighborhood, will be marking his legacy this weekend as we commemorate his 100th birthday. It seems a fitting time to recall one special day more than 20 years ago, when I took one hell of a wild ride with Tip O’Neill.
Despite the Speaker’s mighty stature on the national stage, he understood the value of an honest and ongoing relationship with the local media. So on Nov. 19, 1991, he gave local news anchor Natalie Jacobson and me permission to follow him with a camera as he went to the White House. He had recently retired and was going to to receive the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom from his former nemesis, President George H.W. Bush.
We met Tip and his wife Millie at their home outside Washington. The plan was for Natalie to ride with the Speaker and interview him on camera on the way to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. My job was to follow behind in a rental car. His last words to me before his driver took off were, “When you get to the White House, tell them you’re with ME!” It sounded good.
The first part of the plan went well. The Speaker talked candidly and humbly on camera in the car about the honor he would receive. My job was to simply follow the town car and keep up. But rush-hour D.C. traffic was a challenge and I feared losing them.
It turned out that was nothing compared to what I faced when we got to the White House. As expected, Natalie and Tip drove past the security fortress and straight on to White House grounds. In the distance, I could see them getting out of the car and meeting former first lady Betty Ford, who was also receiving the Medal of Freedom that day. But when I drove up to the gate, at least three security guards stormed my car and pointed submachine guns at my face. They didn’t even hear me whisper , “The Speaker said to tell you I’m with him.” Instead, they screamed, “What the hell are you doing?! Turn the car around and leave the premises… now!”
I knew I only had a few minutes to drive the rental to a nearby parking lot and race back to the White House for the ceremony. I successfully reunited with Natalie and my luck changed, as we were given prime seats at the ceremony. Tip was certainly in good company on that stage, as he stood next to Ted Williams and Betty Ford.
There was one little technical snafu that actually worked to our advantage. We had forgotten to take the lavaliere microphone off the Speaker when he got out of the car. And he ended up wearing it as he went up to the stage to receive his award. So when the President, the man he had battled on so many issues whispered into Tip’s ear, “Congratulations, my old friend,” it was a priceless, poignant sound bite that really illustrated how back in those days, even politicians on opposite sides of the issues had mutual respect.
Later, at a special congratulatory luncheon, that same microphone, still strapped to Tip’s lapel, created a minor ruckus. Seated next to Tip at the private affair was first lady Barbara Bush, who at one point noticed the mike and yelled, “Mr. Speaker, you’re wired!” Aghast and embarrassed, Mr. O’Neill later chewed us out privately for forgetting to take off the mike, which we had at least turned off.
That was only one of my memorable moments with the Speaker. During interviews with him at his home in Harwich, he entertained us with stories from his 10-year tenure as speaker. And often, the funniest tales were personal ones, like how President Nixon cheated when they played cards.
As the saying goes, he was truly one of a kind; a politician who always remembered where he came from and took his obligation to the people seriously. I wonder what he would say about his beloved Congress today.