They all told him the administration’s policies were working and a premature withdrawal was tantamount to weakness. The war was of course Vietnam. LBJ was in the White House. And a Massachusetts congressman named Tip O’Neill was on a collision course with President Johnson after years of steadfast support.
As I followed the recent deliberations in the Senate, I felt compelled to reread Man of the House: The Life and Political Memoirs of Speaker Tip O’Neill, published by Random House in 1987. His Vietnam anecdotes were especially poignant and haunting. This passage in particular is especially relevant after listening to Republican drones unleash their stay the course and don’t cut and run propaganda:
“One Friday, I was invited to speak at Boston College, where Susan and Tommy were both undergraduates. I gave my usual talk on the war, which was followed, as usual, by a dialogue with the students. As always, they took issue with both my information and my views.It was 1967 and for Tip O’Neill an epiphany. O’Neill had been on the rise in the House and enjoyed a good relationship with Johnson. He was also personally close to Speaker John McCormack an avowed hawk.
‘You know,’ I told a young man who had challenged me, ‘I think I know more about this situation than you do. I’ve been briefed forty-three times. I’ve been briefed by Robert McNamara. I’ve been briefed by the CIA. I’ve been briefed by Dean Rusk. And I’ve been briefed by the president of the United States.'
‘That’s a lot of briefings,’ said the student, whose name was Pat McCarthy. ‘But how many times have you been briefed by the other side?’
The question came as a complete shock. Nobody had ever asked that one before.
That night, as I was lying in bed, thinking over the events of the day, I kept coming back to Pat McCarthy’s question. And I had to acknowledge that I hadn’t ever taken a good look at the other side of the issue. Before I fell asleep, I resolved to do just that.”
It was McCormack who persuaded O’Neill not to vote against the Gulf of Tonkin resolution three years earlier:
“’If you vote against this resolution,’” he said, “’you’ll be seen as a traitor to your country. It will be the worst vote you ever make. I urge you in the strongest possible terms not to do it.’After the Boston College encounter, O’Neill found his voice and sent his constituents a newsletter declaring his opposition to the Vietnam War:
I decided to go along with his advice. But I don’t want to blame John McCormack, because I was free to vote my conscience. I just didn’t have the courage.”
“For a mainstream Democratic congressman like myself, the newsletter represented a radical departure – not only from the views of my colleagues, but also from those of my constituents. For despite all the colleges in my district, the students who were old enough to vote did so in their home communities. Of my regular constituents, only 15 percent opposed the war. The day I sent out the letter I told my son Tommy that I had just signed my political death warrant.There was an initial backlash from his district and inside the Democratic Party leadership. Johnson feared that as a member of the Democratic establishment, O’Neill could become a rallying point for other restless members of his party and he summoned the congressman to the White House. Johnson managed to persuade O’Neill to mitigate his opposition and “give me time” to straighten Vietnam out.
But I knew it was the right thing to do.”
Vietnam wasn’t straightened out and in another year O’Neill’s opposition was dwarfed. Eugene McCarthy launched an insurgent campaign for the presidency followed by Robert Kennedy. Johnson opted not to seek another term. Vice President Humphrey carried the Democratic banner honorably but his association with Johnson denied him the presidency. More blood was shed on both sides under Nixon.
Tip O’Neill was a good man. But he didn’t have the courage to stand up to LBJ in 1964. Not many did. When he was finally ready to dissent, O’Neill was willing to sacrifice his congressional seat for the greater good but it was too late.
Today’s politicians are cut from different cloth than Tip O’Neill. However, contrary to the media’s focus on division among the Democrats, the party is finally finding its’ voice. Not everyone supports a fixed date of withdrawal but the Democrats are deliberating over real alternatives to Bush’s moronic stay the course policies.
Understandably, as a minority congressional party the Democrats are institutionally incapable of rallying behind a single position or leader on the issue – especially with several of them jostling for 2008. Nonetheless, we are hearing some creativity from John Murtha, Russ Feingold and even Joe Biden. Even more remarkably, General Casey's plans for troop reductions strongly resemble the recent Senate resolution offered by Feingold and Kerry!
But that is not enough. The country must have principled courageous dissent within the GOP ranks on the Iraq war. Republicans rebelled against Bush on Social Security, immigration and Dubai ports. Yet on the Iraq War they remain mindless drones concerned more with political advantage than our national interest.
Occasionally, John McCain expresses no confidence in Rumsfeld and Chuck Hagel rebukes his party about tone. That is insufficient. Unless Republicans finally make concessions to reality, the ripple effect from the Iraq War will be impossible to contain and Afghanistan will be lost too.
Hopefully, the recent leaks about General Casey’s plans will do more than simply embarrass the Republicans and Bush. Perhaps a Bush loyalist within the GOP establishment will have an epiphany the way Tip O’Neill did forty years ago and put the national interest first. A nice thought but I’m not holding my breath.