Capitol Letter: Them Is Fightin' Words

It's still a few weeks before Congress, now preoccupied with taxes and campaign-finance reform, takes up the issue of whether to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to oil exploration. But both sides are already dug in for what promises to be one the year's nastiest legislative fights.

President Bush campaigned last year on lifting the prohibitions to drilling in the 19-million acre northeast Alaska wilderness, and an end to the ban is included in a major energy bill, sponsored by Republican Sen. Frank Murkowski of Alaska, that will surface later this spring. Oil and gas interests, which ponied up $14 million in the 1999-2000 election cycle ($10 million of it to Republicans) are preparing to push hard for the National Energy Security Act of 2001, which focuses on decreasing U.S. dependence on foreign oil by increasing domestic supplies of conventional fuels (oil, coal and natural gas).

But it is ANWR, both as symbol and substance, that will dominate the debate. Arctic Power, a pro-drilling group funded in part by the state of Alaska, has retained the powerhouse Washington lobbying firm Patton Boggs and Bush adman Alex Castellanos to press its case. It is also forming the Energy Stewardship Alliance, an umbrella group that includes oil companies, the Teamsters union and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. They argue that with more than 50 percent of the country's oil originating overseas, the U.S. needs to become more self-reliant. ANWR's 1.5-million-acre coastal plain may hold one of the world's largest oil deposits, and the industry insists that with new technological advances it can be extracted with a minimum of environmental damage.

But environmentalists and their congressional allies say drilling will not yield enough oil to end foreign dependence and will in the process wreck one of the world's last pieces of pristine wilderness, endangering wildlife like caribou and polar bears. "It's bad energy policy on top of bad environmental policy," says Sen. John Kerry, the Massachusetts Democrat, who promises to lead a filibuster of the Murkowski bill when it reaches the Senate floor. Kerry says he isn't opposed to new domestic drilling elsewhere, but that it has to come in conjunction with a major commitment to energy efficiency and conservation.

The fight over ANWR has already triggered a snarky war of words between Kerry and Republican Majority Leader Trent Lott. "I think he might want to think about what's going to happen when you turn the lights on in Boston" and nothing happens, Lott told the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call last week. Pro-drilling forces suggest that Kerry is grandstanding for environmental interest groups to enhance his 2004 presidential prospects. "He wants to run for president. That's why he's talking about a filibuster," says Roger Herrera, Washington coordinator for Arctic Power. Kerry says his interest in energy policy has nothing to do with 2004, and that the idea that oil from ANWR, which would take five to seven years to extract, can have some sort of immediate impact on current energy shortages in places like California is "completely false."

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Boston Globe reporter Jack Farrell was at a White House Christmas party in December 1994 when he encountered Susan O'Neill, the daughter of the late speaker of the House. She mentioned that Boston College, where her father's papers are kept, was about to take down a small exhibit featuring his desk and other paraphernalia from his half century in politics, including 10 years as speaker (1977-87). Why? Because neither students nor scholars were interested. Farrell decided to see what was there, figuring he could use the material to fashion a series for the Globe. But after a few hours immersed in the documents, he realized that this was no newspaper series but "a goldmine that was dropped into my hands."

The result, published earlier this month, is "Tip O'Neill and the Democratic Century" (Little, Brown), an absorbing and evocative look at the life the hulking Irish pol from Boston whose rise paralleled the ascendance of New Deal liberalism and who became its most stalwart defender in the Reagan years. I spoke with Farrell yesterday about the project.

NEWSWEEK: Did you see Tip O'Neill differently after you finished your research?

Jack Farrell: He was a far more complex character than I had thought. He's always been caricatured as this congenial Irish guy. And there's no denying that he had one of the singular personalities ever seen in American politics. But he had his insecurities. He had his weaknesses. He could be lazy, he could be venal. He very much resented the Kennedys, for example. The standard assumption was that he'd gotten his liberalism from the New Deal days of the Depression, when he must have had a hardscrabble life. In fact, he was from a very comfortable middle-class family. His father was a civil servant, his brother went to Harvard Law School and Holy Cross. But he lost his mom when he was only 9 months old, and his father was trying to raise three kids working six days a week. He was once trapped in a Black Caucus meeting, and they challenged him and said what do you know about discrimination? He said he was pushed around from aunt to aunt as a kid. He said, "I didn't know a house, but I knew what a broken home was."

He'd spin in his grave if I was ever to call him a reformer. But for his time he was more educated, more modern, than the crowd of James Michael Curley and the previous generation of Irish politicians. He brought the New Deal science of government to Massachusetts, and I think that left him open when successive waves of reform, came to the fore in the '60s and '70s.

No longer. With judges freed up for all-consuming, political considerations, the judging has become reasonably, maybe even remarkably, fair. (The International Skating Union no longer even identifies the countries of the judges on the scoreboard, as it has always done in the past; it doesn't matter any more, they seem to be saying.) As a result, the worlds in Vancouver has the distinct possibility of witnessing all four defending champions lose their titles. That's great for skating and, above all, great for its fans.

What is his most enduring contribution as a public servant?

My theory is that [by 1980] the New Deal had run out of steam. The Democrats were intellectually exhausted, and Reagan said we're going to stop this, we're going to roll it back. Tip [as speaker] couldn't prevent Reagan from stopping it, but he could prevent him from rolling things back, and I think that's what he did. And between them I think they drew a line that the two political parties have been behind for the last 20 years. Every time someone tries to go across the line, the O'Neill-Reagan line, like Bill Clinton with National Health Insurance or Newt Gingrich going after Medicaid, they've been beaten back to the other side.

What was his biggest wasted opportunity?

I think he completely bungled the Carter years. He had a great first year as speaker in 1977, and then he let his pride and the irritation he felt toward the young Carter aides like Hamilton Jordan and Jody Powell [get in the way]. And he had philosophical differences with Carter. We can look back at Jimmy Carter as the first New Democrat. They didn't get along on almost anything, but it was all manifested in really petty stuff like patronage jobs for friends, and who's invited to dinner, where were they seated in the Kennedy Center. I think he frittered away whatever chance the Democratic Party had to reform itself without undergoing Reaganism.

What were the darkest corners of his life?

His son's addiction to alcohol and drugs is something he felt very guilty about. He certainly set an example for his son's gambling and nightlife. He was quite a gambler and a night owl when he was a young man. The other thing I found through a Freedom of Information Act request for FBI files was that the bureau had pursued him for two years, wiring people to go into his office trying to nail him on bribery charges. In the end they found things that we would call serious conflicts of interest today that took place in the early 1960s but nothing actionable.

Did you like him?

I did. I went up and down, I started out liking the caricature, found out some stuff I didn't like, did a little bit more research and got more context. What struck me about him was that this was a real ordinary guy. And when Reaganism finally arrived, Jack and Bobby Kennedy were gone, Teddy had been defeated [for the 1980 Democratic presidential nomination], Humphrey was gone, Johnson was gone, Carter and Mondale had just been defeated. He was the only guy, and it was really fascinating to see how he rose to the occasion. So I very much admire him and am very fond of him for that.