This past week, I sat for an hour-long, one-on-one interview with Brian Lamb, the man who created C-SPAN, where citizens can see and hear, frequently unscripted, the public officials whose decisions shape and touch their lives.
Advised by the show’s producer, Mike Holden, that Brian might ask me to name the memorable politicians whom I had met, I tried to figure what, beyond their all having been respected leaders during careers in the House of Representatives, Democrats Thomas “Tip” O’Neill of Massachusetts and Morris “Mo” Udall of Arizona and Republican Gerald R. Ford of Michigan had in common. Each of these men, I concluded, was in the inspired phrase of the late, great columnist Mary McGrory: “a stranger to self-importance.”
It’s true that O’Neill is the only House speaker in history to hold that demanding post for 10 consecutive years. Though he was regularly invited into the company of presidents, prime ministers and popes, he never forgot the less-than-toney people from whom he came.
O’Neill, on the record and with the camera running, told me the following story. He was on the House floor when Eleanor Kelly, his secretary, told him that Eddie Anderson was on the phone. Although they had grown up in the same working-class neighborhood, O’Neill explained: “I haven’t seen Eddie much since I was a kid, and to be perfectly truthful, life hasn’t gone that well for Eddie. I figure he’s got a problem, so I went to the phone.
“‘Eddie, what’s on your mind? I know you wouldn’t be calling me unless you have a problem.’ Eddie said, ‘Listen, Tip, I’m in a bar in Somerville, and I told the guys that I went to school with Tip O’Neill ... They didn’t believe me. They said, ‘Get him on the phone.’ Listen, Tip, will you say hello to my friends?’
“I said, ‘Eddie, is that all you want?’ And Eddie said: ‘Listen, Tip, we love you. We’re proud of you. And by the way, Tip, on C-SPAN, you look like W.C. Fields up there.’”
The speaker immediately shook with laughter at the joke of which he was the butt.
Udall was Congress’ leading voice and legislator on both environmental protection as well as on political and campaign finance reform. He ran for president in 1976 and finished second to Jimmy Carter. Early in that year’s campaign, before the New Hampshire primary, Udall recalled: “I was thousands of miles from home, with my car stuck in the snow. My advance woman urged me to shake hands in a nearby barbershop. I stuck my head in the door and blurted, ‘Mo Udall, I’m running for president!’ The barber replied: ‘Yeah, I know. We were laughing about it just this morning.’” Mo never even met self-importance.
I worked for Udall in that 1976 campaign and believe he would have been an excellent president. But because he was so wise and so sane, Udall could never convince himself that the fate — make that the survival — of the Western world depended upon his election to the White House. The Oval Office could always benefit from a large dose of self-deprecating wit.
The definitive Ford story was written by the late Jim Naughton, a wonderful journalist, who aware of the difficulties Ford’s son, Jack, had in adjusting to life in the White House, had, after watching Jack campaign for his dad for a couple of days, written, as Naughton recalled in his memoir, a piece that said, “Jack Ford was better at campaigning than his old man.”
Summoned during the next campaign trip to a private audience with Ford, Naughton, instead of enduring any words of presidential displeasure with the story, instead heard Ford say, “Betty and I really want to thank you,” confiding that Naughton’s piece had convinced them that their son “had turned a corner and would be OK.”
“That was the real Jerry Ford,” Naughton wrote. “In the middle of a fight for survival in his party’s most important contest, he was meeting me not as the president, but as a parent, a caring father.”
Three exceptional public men, and each a stranger to self-importance.
— Mark Shields is one of the most widely recognized political commentators in the United States. The former Washington Post editorial columnist appears regularly on CNN, on public television and on radio. Click here to contact him, or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.