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Profile: Thomas Phillip ‘Tip’ O’Neill, Jr
Thomas Phillip ‘Tip’ O’Neill, Jr was a participant or observer in the following events:
Stories of President Nixon’s emotional and physical debilitation circulate around Washington, with rumors of bouts of heavy drinking and depressive episodes. The press does not report these rumors, mostly because Nixon keeps himself out of the public eye, shuttling between his home in San Clemente, California, his vacation home in Key Biscayne, Florida, and Camp David. In his notes taken during a meeting about the Yom Kippur War, Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill (D-MA) writes, “President is acting very strangely.” [Reeves, 2001, pp. 606]
After attending church, President Ford works on the final wording of his statement announcing the pardon of Richard Nixon. His statement will emphasize Nixon’s failing health and decades of service to the Republican Party and America. Ford alerts a few Congressional leaders of his upcoming announcement. Senator Barry Goldwater (R-AZ) is nonplussed. “What are you pardoning him of?” he asks, “It doesn’t make any sense.” Ford replies, “The public has the right to know that in the eyes of the president, Nixon is clear.” Goldwater is taken aback. “He may be clear in your eyes, but he’s not clear in mine,” Goldwater retorts. House Speaker Tip O’Neill (D-MA) is equally blunt. “I’m telling you right now,” O’Neill says: “this will cost you the election. I hope it’s not part of any deal.” Ford responds, “No, there’s no deal,” to which O’Neill says, “Then why the hell are you doing it?” O’Neill says that if Ford has to pardon Nixon, the timing is bad. He needs to wait. Ford disagrees. The resistance from without is reflected inside the White House, when press secretary Jerald terHorst tenders his resignation to Ford (see September 7, 1974). TerHorst’s letter says in part, “I cannot in good conscience support your decision to pardon” Nixon, “even before he has been charged with the commission of any crime. As your spokesperson, I do not know how I could credibly defend that action in the absence of a like decision to grant absolute pardon to the young men who evaded military service (see August 31, 1974) as a matter of conscience and the absence of pardon for former aides of Mr. Nixon who have been charged with crimes—and imprisoned.… [I]t is impossible to conclude that the former president is more deserving of mercy than persons of lesser station in life whose offenses have had far less effect on our national well-being.” [Werth, 2006, pp. 316-319]
The National Program Office (NPO), which is responsible for the highly classified Continuity of Government program, establishes a secret line of presidential succession for certain “narrowly defined” emergency situations. According to the traditional legal line of succession, should the president of the United States be killed or incapacitated, he is to be replaced by the vice president, followed by the Speaker of the House of Representatives, then by the President Pro Tempore of the Senate, then each cabinet member from the Secretary of State down. The alternative succession plan developed by the NPO, known officially as the Presidential Successor Support System, or “PS cubed,” would suspend these traditional rules and allow a small group of officials to appoint a new government. A source with knowledge of the plan says it would “suspend that natural succession and these individuals would have the right to appoint, virtually appoint, a new government.” The program, according to author James Mann, calls for “setting aside the legal rules of presidential succession in some circumstances, in favor of a secret procedure for putting in place a new ‘president’ and his staff.” The idea is to “concentrate on speed, to preserve ‘continuity of government,’ and to avoid cumbersome procedures; the speaker of the House, the president pro tempore of the Senate, and the rest of Congress would play a greatly diminished role.” The alternative succession plan allows the presidency, the vice presidency, and each cabinet position to be filled by individuals from both inside and outside the active government. In 1991, CNN will list the names of several people that may assume power should the plan be put into action, including Dick Cheney, Howard Baker, Richard Helms, Jeane Kirkpatrick, James Schlesinger, Edwin Meese, Dick Thornburgh, and Tip O’Neill. Some participants say the alternative succession plan is absolutely necessary to ensure the survival of the federal government, but others argue the secrecy of the program undermines its credibility. “If no one knows in advance what the line of succession is meant to be,” says a constitutional scholar from Duke University, “then almost by hypothesis no one will have any reason to believe that those who claim to be exercising that authority in fact possess it.” [CNN Special Assignment, 11/17/1991; Atlantic Monthly, 3/2004]
A Peacekeeper test firing at Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands. [Source: US Army]President Ronald Reagan, reversing his campaign opposition to the MX mobile nuclear weapons platform (see June 1979), now enthusiastically supports the program, which he dubs, without apparent irony, the “Peacekeeper.” He first proposes housing them in superhardened Minuteman missile silos, which is roundly derided as ridiculous given that the entire raison d’etre of the MX is its mobile capacity. Reagan then appoints a commission, chaired by former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft and having former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld as one of its members, to study ways of making the program work. The commission finally recommends that 100 MX missiles be deployed in Minuteman silos in Wyoming, as well as smaller, single-warhead MX missiles, dubbed “Midgetmen,” to complement the main missile program. Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill (D-MA) opposes the program. Iconoclastic Republican John Perry Barlow, a Wyoming rancher and sometime-lyricist for the Grateful Dead, lobbies Washington lawmakers against the MX. He sees it as a huge step away from “mutually assured destruction” (MAD) and towards a first-strike policy, which would, in Barlow’s eyes, be potentially catastrophic. He finds Rep. Dick Cheney (R-WY), who strongly supports the program, a worthy adversary. “I must have lobbied more than one hundred members of Congress on this, and Dick was the only one who knew more about it than I did,” Barlow will later recall. Washington Post columnist Mary McGrory accompanies Barlow to one meeting with Cheney. After listening to the intense debate, McGrory tells Barlow, “I think your guy Cheney is the most dangerous person I’ve ever seen up here.” Barlow will recall: “I felt we were really arguing about the fate of the world.… Cheney believes the world is an inherently dangerous place, and he sees the rest of the world as… populated by four-year old kids with automatic weapons.” Congress will eventually give Reagan only fifty of the MXs, but in part to placate him, Cheney, and their allies, authorizes the start of what will become a multi-billion dollar weapons platform, the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), later dubbed “Star Wars.” [Dubose and Bernstein, 2006, pp. 51-53]
Officials from the National Program Office (NPO), responsible for the highly classified Continuity of Government program, fake an exercise in front of congressional leaders in order to cover up equipment failures. At a secret site near Great Falls, Montana, Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill (D-MA) and Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Robert Byrd (D-WV) gather with other key officials to witness the first major test of a new post-nuclear communication system. The high-tech system, worth millions of dollars, is meant to provide government leaders with the ability to communicate during and after a nuclear war. Much of the equipment, however, was purchased from separate contractors and is technically incompatible. The multi-million dollar system does not function properly, but NPO officials rig the exercise, paving the way for additional funding. As one participant will later explain: “At one point information was supposed to be sent out, and even though lights were blinking and the wheels were turning, the message was being sent by payphone about a block and a half from the site where the exercise was taking place.… Millions of dollars worth of equipment failed to function correctly and 25 or 50 cents worth of change and a pay telephone got the message through.” The visiting congressmen, who are responsible for allocating funds for the project, are fooled into thinking the system is fully functional. Money will continue to flow into the shoddy equipment for years to come. Sources will tell CNN five years later that the system is still not working properly. “Very few people knew about the scam and because the program is so classified there was no one they could tell,” CNN will report in 1991. [CNN Special Assignment, 11/17/1991]
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