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Selected Interviews With Late House Speaker Tip O'Neill

Aired April 8, 2001 - 21:00   ET


LARRY KING, HOST: Tonight a political legend who butted heads with the heavyweights. Highlights of our interviews with the late House Speaker, Tip O'Neill, next on LARRY KING WEEKEND.

Thanks for joining us. Tip O'Neill, Democrat of Massachusetts was one of a kind, an incredibly shrewd politician, an amazing storyteller. Had the gift of gab -- the man was Irish after all. Tip O'Neill was a guest on this show only 14 times. His first visit, June of '85, LARRY KING LIVE was just two weeks old. O'Neill was speaker of the House and he and President Reagan were going at it over aid to the Contra rebels in Nicaragua. But despite their many policy disagreements the two men enjoyed a unique friendship.


O'NEILL: Well this is the way a democracy works. We can argue and we can have a disagreement with regards to philosophy and policy and things of that nature. But there's no reason why I should dislike you. What the president says to me, after 6:00, sure after 6:00 we're friendly, we don't talk politics. He's a very personable being to be with.

KING: What do you talk when you don't talk politics?

O'NEILL: Oh, last Sunday night, I was at the Ford Theater, his wife, Millie and myself, and it was talk about the show or you just talk -- you may pass the time a day, you may tell a story. You talk about some mutual friend, the things of that nature.

KING: Do you still tell each other jokes?

O'NEILL: Oh sure.

KING: And you don't let that feeling effect the feeling of what you might say on the floor.

O'NEILL: I would have to say that in the Congress of the United States, some of my closest and dearest friends are across the aisle. They are republicans. It's one of the things that amazes the people of the world.

KING: It does.

O'NEILL: You go to many of the countries around the world and the minority stands at one end of the room and the majority stands at the other end of the room, and they don't speak to each other. We'll go across the sea to Russia or we go to Ireland, or we France or we go to Australia, Sylvio Kante (ph) is one of my dearest friends, and his wife Dorinne (ph), and Millie are the closest of friends. They can't understand it how he can be of one party and one philosophy and I can be another party, another philosophy. And yet probably of all those traveling, we're the closest people together. But that's the way a democracy works.

KING: Why don't you put on the gloves more with Ronald Reagan?

O'NEILL: Oh we put on the gloves with him, but they call him the Teflon kid, it just doesn't stick to him.

KING: It's not your fault.

O'NEILL: Not our fault, as a matter of fact, the press of America, the media of America really love the president of the United States. You see their press conferences, all they do is throw up softball to him.

KING: You think that he gets a break from the media?

O'NEILL: Oh there's no question about it. I have a press conference every day, they don't handle me in the press conference the way they handle the president of the United States. It's kid gloves.

KING: Because they like him?

O'NEILL: That's one of the reasons. They like him, yes. He's a very personable individual, and they like it when they go over and stroke him. The President of the United States is a very important person, the most important person in the world, and they thrill when he calls them by first name and things like that. Sure they're soft on him, there's no question about it. And the truth of the matter is that the media of America hasn't had these squalls that have been around him.

KING: A first guest on this show when it debuted last week was Mario Cuomo of New York and there are more people talking about him, I guess than any other democrat of late. Even Richard Nixon said he thinks Cuomo will be our nominee, do you?

O'NEILL: Well we've got a lot of good candidates out there. Cuomo is one of the good ones. I have to say, Gary Hart, I suppose is the front runner. Why do I say he is the front runner, because he had a thousand belly aches the last time, so he starts with a huge block over anybody else. But we've got some excellent candidates from the governors of America and from the members of the House and the Senate. We've got a young fellow in the house by the name of Gephardt. He's a candidate for the president of the United States.

KING: Is he?

O'NEILL: Not many people know him right now, but you watch him. He's going to be a strong man. KING: Who do you think they'll nominate -- the other side?

O'NEILL: Well I would have to say the closest would be Vice President Bush. I would think that he would have the inside. And if the president puts any weight towards that, then he should win it easily. If the president were to sit it out, that would be a kind of a disclaimer that I'm not satisfied with this man. And they may go to a much more conservative man.

KING: Kemp?

O'NEILL: And then you have to say that Jack Kemp, well Jack Kemp is a runner in there.

KING: Do you like Kemp?

O'NEILL: Kemp, well I've always liked Jack. He had some mean things to say about me a week ago, I thought was very unfair. And so I guess I can say some mean things about him. He was a quarterback with a pretty good arm and he had to have the play sent in by the quarterback. I wouldn't know whether we would want a president that couldn't call his own plays.

KING: When someone says something vituperative like that about you, or you about him, and you run into him tomorrow, what happens.

O'NEILL: Well he came in to apologize to me. I said, Jack you and I have been friendly for years, we're sport buffs. We meet each other around the nation, football games, ball games and things like that. He said I want to apologize, I never saw the letter that was sent out. It was fund-raiser. I said I can't believe that they'd send a fund-raiser out with your name to it, being very, very critical -- get rid of Tip O'Neill, the wild spinner.

But it was more than that, it was really vicious. And he said, well I want you to accept my apology. I'm telling you that I never saw the letter, and it was a mistake. And had I sent it out -- my office sent it out without my permission. I just couldn't believe it. But in politics it's a long life, and you forget your enemies.

KING: Do you think about age a lot?

O'NEILL: I never think of age at all.

KING: Don't?

O'NEILL: No, never.

KING: You don't think that you know, you're close to, meeting the Man?

O'NEILL: I never give that a thought. I think I lead a pretty good honorable, decent Christian life, to say that word. And I'm satisfied with my life, and I get through early, the day before last and ran out and played nine holes of golf all by myself. Sometimes I putt better when I'm alone. And I had a pretty good round, I'm happy. There's no problem, my wife and I will be married 44 years on Saturday, and it's her birthday and it's Father's Day.

What can you say. You married the same woman for 44, and you wake up every day and you love her more than you did the day before. And you love your family and your grandchildren. Millie says I get more happiness and satisfaction, more attention to my grandchildren. I think that may be true. Because a sad part of my life, where I was away so much in the field of public life that Millie was the strong mother and father of the family.

KING: Is that an area you missed?

O'NEILL: Well that's the area that anybody in public life -- I always tell the new members when they come down. Bring your family down, bring your family down. You know, you can be on this town and you may go out and have a drink or you may have a late supper. You may go and play gin with the boys or something like that. But when you get off, back to four empty walls, and your family is at home. This is a terrific feeling.

KING: You should have brought your family down?

O'NEILL: Well I tried to, but things were different. When I came here the salary was $12,500 a year. We had five children. They were all young. I really couldn't afford to bring them down at that particular day.

KING: Do you still have -- now you are 72 -- even your critics will say you have devoted your life to this country, whether they agree with you or not. Do you still have Potomac fever? I mean, do you still get a kick walking into the Capitol of the United States?

O'NEILL: I want you to know I get a thrill every time I ride down Pennsylvania Avenue towards the Capitol and I see the Dome of the United States Capitol. It thrills me.

KING: It's never a commonplace?

O'NEILL: Not me, I'm telling you there are three things in my life that thrill me: see the cadets at West Point marching on the field, and when I go over to see the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. And I see the Capitol of the United States, the Dome, there's the feeling that I have of the greatness and I portray within myself a love for the country.



O'NEILL: Let me say this to you. Fifty years in public life, the greatest country in the history of the world, the leaders of the world, we're the greatest legislative body in the world. We'll always be that as long as we recognize the rights of one another across the aisle. As long as we respect them for their thoughts and their ideas and their philosophy, and as long as they respect those who disagree.

This nation is great. Why is it great? Because we are the voice of the American people and we respond to their will. I leave with no rancor in my heart for anybody. I leave with just the love and affection for this great body. I'll always be a man of the House of Representatives. But always first, I'm an American and so proud of this body. Thank you, I love you all.




UNIDENTIFIED MALE: My parliamentary inquiry, Mr. Speaker, is did this revolutionary tax bill pass on a voice vote tonight?

O'NEILL: The chair would answer in the affirmative. There were no member on either side that stood for a role call. Does the chair want to challenge -- does the gentlemen want to challenge the chair?

The chair would say that he looked with deliberation, and there was no member that's staying there. And your own aide stayed down there in the well and looked for somebody. Now don't accuse the chair of doing something that he didn't try extra-exceptionally to be fair and honest with.


KING: Tip O'Neill spent 50 -- a half century in public service. Needless to say, he'd seen a lot of public opinion polls. In August of '86, shortly before his retirement, O'Neill had a 63 percent approval rating. I asked him: Why such high marks?


O'NEILL: I'm a liberal and a progressive liberal. There are people who talk about saving the whales, and clean water, and things of that nature. But I'm a gut democrat. I believe in the economy of the area. I believe that there should be jobs out there that people should be able to take care of their family.

We want for our family a better living than we've had, better education than we've had. We want a home over their head. We want to be able to say, in the twilight of the career that they are protected and taken care of. And those are the basic things that I have fought for, that my party fought for through the years. Some people think they're old hat. But while I was being criticized, I stayed with my philosophy all the way along the line. And the pendulum swings in politics, and the pendulum is swinging back that way.

KING: Is the Reagan -- does that amaze you, his popularity? How do you view it?

O'NEILL: It's unbelievable. I've told the story so many times, I think I told on your -- about the going through the sausage factory. And the little lady stuffing the sausages, and she said Mr. Tip, I voted for you all my life. I love you. She says, but don't be mean to our president. She had nothing in common with the president, no question in my mind she voted for the president.

I find that everywhere I go. They say, Tip -- I'm going through the airports -- we love the President of the United States. They don't like his philosophy, they don't like his programs. They know his trade bill today they beat us; 78 percent of America believe that the textile industry should have some type of protection. You talk about Central America, Nicaragua; 73 percent of America think the president is wrong. On cutting back on the health programs, and cutting back on the educational programs, 70-75 percent of America say he is wrong. But they love the man. There is no question. It's a phenomena.

KING: You can't beat likability than.

O'NEILL: No, well it's, it's the style that he has, it's the mannerisms that he has. And one thing is, they think he's a take charge fellow.


KING: When we come back, Democrat O'Neill matches political wits with Republican Alexander Haig. Stay tuned.


O'NEILL: That's what people elect us for, to weigh the consequences of the various policies. You as members of this Congress, I trust and hope that your voting your conscience on this matter, not the election of a foe. If you are doing this, if you are voting your convictions with the eyes of the next election, you don't belong in this august body. Because we're all Americans and we should vote our conscience.




O'NEILL: My personal opinion is this. You deliberately stood in that well before an emptied house and challenged these people, and you challenged their Americanism. And it's the lowest thing that I've ever seen in my 32 years in Congress.

SEN. NEWT GINGRICH (R), GEORGIA: Mr. Speaker, if I may reclaim my time. Let me say, first of all, the fact...

SEN. TRENT LOTT (R), MISSOURI: Mr. Speaker, I move that we take the speaker's words down.


KING: Tip O'Neill's next appearance on our show was in November of 1988, just days before the presidential election. The match up that year was George Bush versus Michael Dukakis. Our match up, the democratic former House speaker versus GOP former Secretary of State Al Haig.


O'NEILL: I've been following American politics for 50 years, and nobody alive today has been any closer than I have. I've watched every campaign since Al Smith. This is the dirtiest campaign that I've ever seen. This brings a racial overtone to it.

I have a letter right here, the picture of Willy Horton that they passed out there the other day. It's just absolutely a disgraceful situation. Why do they do it? When they are talking about -- Mike Dukakis doesn't know Willie Horton from a bucket of snow or a cord of wood, never saw him in his life. That all goes at the lower level. It's like accusing the president of the United States of doing something that the parole board does. They haven't let off it. That's was sleazy, that's mean, that's undercurrent showing a black man to bring racism into a campaign and it is wrong.

ALEXANDER HAIG, FORMER SECRETARY OF STATE: Well if it were that it would be wrong, Tip...

O'NEILL: It is that and it is wrong.

HAIG: Believe me, you know George Bush and I know George Bush. He hasn't got a bigoted bone in his body. And in the Maryland case where the state chairman put out the letter that the speaker is referring to, George Bush immediately disassociated himself from that.

O'NEILL: Of course he -- but that's the great thing. You know, how many times did you see a guy twist an ankle and say he's sorry in a football game?

HAIG: Oh...

O'NEILL: The coach had no control over it.

HAIG: Tip, would you compare this campaign to the job they did on Bob Bork, a man I've known for over 20 years who is one of the key jurists in the...

O'NEILL: He's not running for President of the United States. That's a...

HAIG: But the job done by him?

O'NEILL: That has nothing to, that has nothing -- listen, no job was done on anybody in America worse than me by the mean, by those who had no character...

HAIG: No you had your share.

O'NEILL: They were the selfish people of America.

HAIG: But that's why we're compatible, because I had mine too.

O'NEILL: Hold up the finger in the dyke so that they couldn't cut the Social Security program. And they couldn't cut all those programs...

KING: Both of you guys -- but you get into the public trough, you've got to expect a little of this. But, you will admit the Horton thing was overplay -- wasn't it overplay Al?

O'NEILL: Larry let me say this to you.

HAIG: I think it was overplayed by some local enthusiasts, and I thought George Bush would be the first to say that. You know...

O'NEILL: The overtone there is all of the way, talking about little, the "L" word, the "L" word. You know, I have never heard liberalism demeaned so since before the war, when the dictators and the Communists and the Fascists used to say, democracy is liberalism and Capitalism. I haven't heard the word liberalism -- liberal, I'm a liberal, and I'm proud of it.

I put 50 years in public life. And when I started off in public life, 50 percent of America was impoverished, 25 percent were unemployed, eight percent of America had pensions, and three percent had health insurance. And only the elite went on to college. And we changed it all. The Democratic Party, we were the agents for liberalism, and I'm proud of liberalism. And to demean it like that, demeans an awful lot of people who made America a great nation.

HAIG: Tip I'm pleased that you feel that way, and the facts are that the liberal/conservative label today means very little in classic terms. The real difference between a liberal and a conservative is that the liberal is optimistic about the perfectibility of man. That's the classic version of the liberal.

KING: The liberal is optimistic.

HAIG: And it's strange today that...

KING: Pretty good definition.

HAIG: ... and it's strange today that the democratic party is the party of big government, high taxes, big brother in Washington who is going to tell us how to do things. And the conservatives have become the advocates of the original liberal banner.

O'NEILL: I don't agree with that.

HAIG: And that's the hypocrisy of modern labor.

O'NEILL: No I don't agree with you, whatsoever. I know how I became a liberal. I became a liberal probably at the knees of the nuns in the parochial school, when they taught me the greatest sermon that was ever given, the Sermon on the Mount. Take care of the poor, and take care of - drink to the thirsty...

HAIG: Of course.

O'NEILL: And I am my brother's keeper, and when I broke into politics, America was like what it was. And I finished 50 years of public life and proud of the dream that I had.


KING: Stay tuned for more of our interviews with the one and only Tip O'Neill.


O'NEILL: What am I proud of most of all? I've seen America change. I've seen Middle America, middle class develop. I've seen the American dream come true, and I've played a part of it.




O'NEILL: The leader as you know opened the session and introduced me - Hi Mikala (ph) how are you darling? That's an O'Neill for you.


KING: A few days before the 1990 mid-term election, we asked Tip O'Neill to join us once again. Topping the agenda, the Bush administration's relationship with the democratic congress. O'Neill had very strong thoughts then about White House Chief of Staff John Sununu.


KING: Sununu doesn't get along with the House.

O'NEILL: Oh the House members don't like him, on both sides of the aisle. As a matter of fact, they have their Conference, they are at the summit and he and I are not in the summit. Well I can remember sitting down with the Reagan people. And Don Regan (ph) who was the president's man was there would say to him, you said over there when we need you we'll ask you. This is a conference between the members of the Congress, the democrats and the republicans. Sununu should have been there for his advice not to be running the conference. And the members are very, very much upset with him.

KING: Was Reagan a better mover of people than Bush?

O'NEILL: Oh Reagan was unbelievable. George Bush's leadership is just unbelievably, just...

KING: All right, another example, Reagan spoke when he wanted the public to react...

O'NEILL: Let me -- when the Kemp/Roth bill came up, that was the original tax bill that made the rich of America wealthier than they were. The liberals in my party didn't want me to bring it to the floor. The power of the speaker is tremendous. I got 50 to 60 thousand letters a day from all over the nation -- 8,000 from my own district, which is a very liberal district.

This is a democracy, the people have spoken. We want you to give the Reagan bill its opportunity. And so we gave the Reagan bill its opportunity. Here is the President of the United States out there advocating a summit talk he had agreed to. Democrats and Republicans, their leadership of both parties, he couldn't even get a majority of his own party. Sure he didn't get a majority of the democrats, they weren't going to vote with him when he couldn't get a majority of his own party. But if that had been Reagan, and Reagan put out the call, I want the members of Congress on my side of the aisle to vote with him, there would have been 50,000 telephone calls and telegrams and personal calls from all over the nation.

The Congress responds to the will of the American people. And George Bush has not been showing that leadership. No question about it, Ronald Reagan had but Ronald Reagan had great leadership ability.

KING: Bush has more ability in governing.

O'NEILL: Well he knew more about the government. Nobody went to the government better prepared than he did, a businessman, a member of Congress, head of the CIA, head of (UNINTELLIGIBLE) to China.

KING: Who sits well for your party? Is Cuomo going to get it?

O'NEILL: Well I think Cuomo is going to be very good, but we've got some excellent candidates out there. That's one of the questions I get when I'm out speaking to the college students or I'm out at a commencement. Are the Democrats going to win, have the democrats gone by? I say, that's the same thing we used to ask in 1950 when Harry Truman was president. The democrats had been president for 20 years. When are we going -- when are you going, when are the republicans going to win? The democrats are going to win when they show a man with leadership. We nominate a man with leadership, the American public says, he has more leadership ability than the republican has. And I think Cuomo has tremendous leadership ability.

And if I think of tomorrow he were running against George Bush. In the eyes of the American people, who would be the better leader for the nation, I just think that Bush would be overwhelmed.

KING: You do, despite his success thus far in the Persian Gulf, a success you applaud and give him an A-plus.

O'NEILL: I think it's been terrific as to how far that he's gotten. Where do we go from here? The American boys that are over there, they want to know why they are there. Are we there for oil, are we there to stave an invasion for the Saudis, are we there because there is a real evil man over there who destroyed millions of his own people with a poisonous gas? Are we over there because there is a man who has a possibility of getting the nuclear bomb; we can't let him get that?

KING: Any big upset tomorrow?

O'NEILL: This has got to be proven to the American people. One of the things the American people love, the way Bush handled, but he's kind of stopped dead. It's gone off the front page.


KING: When we return, Tip O'Neill's battle with cancer.



RONALD REAGAN, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Ladies and gentlemen, I think you know, Tip and I have been kidding each other for some time now, and I hope you also know how much I hope this continues for many years to come. A little kidding is, after all, a sign of affection, the sort of thing that friends do to each other. And Mr. Speaker, I am grateful that you have permitted me in the past, and I hope in the future, that singular honor, the honor of calling you my friend.


KING: In 1991, Kitty Kelly wrote an authorized biography of Nancy Reagan. The controversial book alleged that Mrs. Reagan had had clandestine affairs, and that she used astrology to set the president's schedule. When Tip O'Neill appeared in May of that year, I asked him about that book.


KING: Are you surprised with all that's going on, the Kitty Kelly books and the Inquirers and everybody's -- and everybody's involved in everybody's life.

O'NEILL: You know, I went to the Women's Press Club a year ago, and I sat next to Kitty Kelly. Now I didn't know who Kitty Kelly was, but she kept saying what about Nancy Reagan? My stock answer was I have never met a first lady -- and I've known them all since Bess Truman -- that wasn't a credit to the nation. Personally I like Nancy. I think she is a lovely lady. I think she did a great thing when she threw out all those years of old china that didn't match and put in new china. But apparently that's the way you make a dollar. You know, I'm happy, Larry, when I wrote up my book, I said I'm not thinking about the personal life. My book is only going to be about the public life.

KING: But are you annoyed that everybody seems to be caught up in the personal lives of other people? Does it bother you?

There was a period in politics where no one was interested in that.

O'NEILL: Do you really think people are interested in that?

KING: Maybe they're not.

O'NEILL: They must be, she's making $5 million and it's No. 1 for the third week in a row. KING: I'm not interested, but people are interested.

O'NEILL: I'm not. I know I wouldn't bother.

KING: Well you and I aren't; we're alone.

O'NEILL: By the way I have to look and ask somebody if I got a credit in the book, for sitting next to her at dinner.

KING: Oh my -- yeah, if she was sitting next to you, you might have gotten credit.


KING: Of course O'Neill had not come on the show to talk about Kitty Kelly's book. No, earlier that day he had gone before Congress to ask for more funding for cancer research. O'Neill was a cancer survivor, and I asked him about living with the disease and beating it.


KING: Now the cancer you had was what?

O'NEILL: Well I had a colostomy. I was out watching Boston College play Notre Dame at Notre Dame, and gee I had terrible cramps in my stomach. And I don't know what happened. I came home, flew in. And told Millie about it, and went to bed. Got up about 3:00 in the morning; she called my son Chip and they took me over to Sibley. The doctor said, well, I don't like what I see, but I'm not an expert on this. I'll give you some sleeping tablets and a painkiller. Come in Monday morning. And sure enough, stayed at Sibley about a week, and finally wound up at Pragerman Wilmans (ph) with Dr. Wilson.

KING: I remember very well. We spoke because the same time as the heart surgery. You had your surgery, we were phone-mates.

O'NEILL: Right, right...

KING: But you licked it, it was beaten.

O'NEILL: Well I licked it and everything was fine.

KING: Then what?

O'NEILL: I'll never forget, the doctor came in and he said to me, I have good news and bad news for you. I knew exactly what he meant. I knew exactly. He said, we've got the cancer cleaned, but he said, you're going to have to wear a bag, and I almost died. But, it's something that...

KING: And that was three and a half years ago.

O'NEILL: That was three and a half years ago.

KING: Now what? O'NEILL: Now well about a year ago, to be perfectly truthful, I couldn't button my shirt. Millie said to me, you're gaining too much weight, you're gaining too much weight. I was up to see Dr. Krasnow (ph) up on the hill. And I said my wife says I'm gaining weight, but I'm actually losing weight. He put his hand up here, and he said -- Dr. Tim Eberline (ph), the man up in Boston, the cancer man. Dr. Wilson had died. He said, I want you to go up there tomorrow. I went up there and they found a couple of things as large as olives. And they cut them out...

KING: Which was when?

O'NEILL: Just in February of last year, not this year, last year. And I go back every month and we've got couple of great doctors up there. And they've been giving me chemo and they've got them under control.

KING: Cancer effects both parties.

O'NEILL: Oh no question about that.

KING: I heard that. How does chemotherapy effect you? How do you handle it?

O'NEILL: The doctors are absolutely, they are amazed...

KING: That your...

O'NEILL: I -- no effects whatsoever.

KING: You're not wearing a wig?

O'NEILL: No, no, no, not at all. The interesting thing the doctors -- they just can't believe it. They said, no problems -- only part is I can't sleep.

KING: How old are you now?

O'NEILL: Well I will be 79 years old on December 9, and I will be 50 years married on June 17.



O'NEILL: I'll be with you in apple blossom time. I'll be with you to change your name to mine. One day in May, I'll come and say, happy is the bride that the sun shines on today. What a wonderful wedding there will be. What a wonderful day for you and me. Church bells will chime, you will be mine, in apple blossom time. Momma, I love you, as much as the night (OFF-MIKE) we were married.




O'NEILL: Sometimes an event strikes us with such drama and surprise that it exceeds our ability to absorb it. This is what happened today in the terrible destruction of our country's space shuttle. The space shuttle carried on its side the flag of the United States, and those who served on her served us, the American people.


KING: Tip O'Neill witnessed a lot of history during his 24 years in the U.S. House of Representatives. The event that touched him most deeply: Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech.


O'NEILL: I was there for the great speech that he made; I'll never forget it, either, because it was a tremendously hot summer's day and Jim O'Hara (ph) from Detroit and Jim Roosevelt, who are members of Congress, got a bus and about 25 of us went down and we sat right to the left of him. As you look up, he came over and shook hands with all of us. I've heard a million speeches in my life, and "I Had a Dream" (sic), that was the greatest that I ever heard. That was a beautiful, beautiful speech.

KING: Were you involved in making his birthday a national holiday?

O'NEILL: Very, very much so. I was speaker of the House when that was made, and Corinne (ph) came in to see me. Now, the question on how we were going to get it made...

KING: By asking -- very involved -- sometimes a speaker can be very involved in something, and...

O'NEILL: Well, I was very involved on this one. The question was -- there was no question we could pass the bill, is was how you got the rule to the floor. You get the rule to the floor with an open rule, but then they can attach all types of amendments around it and it would kill it. If you brought it in with a closed rule, then no amendments could be authored to it, which the rules committee did; at her behest and my behest it passed and became the legal holiday.

KING: Tip was mentioning to me before we began that he watched Governor and Mrs. Conally and Frank Mankowitz (ph) last week discuss JFK and the events of November 22, 1963, and I know that you hold the seat -- the seat you held in Congress was the seat that John Fitzgerald Kennedy held, that you knew him since he was a boy.

What do you think happened that day?

O'NEILL: About two weeks before he went down to Texas, I was visiting. And we were talking about the program, how things were going in the House -- things weren't going good in the House, as a matter of fact. He, in his conversation, said to me, you know, my nominee, or the nominee will be Goldwater, and he'd bring us into war. I said, Jack, what are we in now, Mr. President? He said, no, no; I'm going to bring the troops home as soon as the election is over.

KING: He definitely said that to you?

O'NEILL: Oh, no question about it. I put it in my book and, as a matter of fact, there are those people that question it. Now they have records where he wrote to the U.N. and people -- and they have found records that...

KING: Did you fear his going to Texas?

O'NEILL: I feared him going to Texas; I said it's ridiculous. He said, I've got to straighten out the party down there. He said, there's a difference between -- oh, I can't think of the old senator's name...

KING: Yarborough.

O'NEILL: Yarborough, who...


KING: Governor Connally denied that, he said...


O'NEILL: Well, that's what -- the president said to me, there's problems between Conally and Yarborough, and he said I've got to straighten them out.

Well, anyway, I remember the day -- of course everybody remembers the day and where they were -- I was in my office in Boston. And Kathy O'Brien (ph) and one of the other congressman's secretaries came running in, she had worked for me; she said, I heard the president was shot. I can't believe it. I call "The Boston Globe" and I said, may I speak to Bob Healy (ph). And so the girl said, this you Tip? I said, yes. She started to cry. She says, he's dead; he's been shot.

So I'll never forget it.

I always believed the Warren Report. I talked to Jerry Ford about it, I talked to Hale Boggs about it. There was no question. One day I said to Hale, I remember reading a piece in the paper that they had found a stray bullet. He said, probably so. But he says, there's no question; he says the authenticity of the Warren Report is absolutely correct.

Well, a couple of years later Kenny O'Donnell (ph) ran for governor; I was with Eddie McCormick (ph). And he -- Eddie McCormick defeated him for the nomination quite easily and he had a debt of $50,000 of $60,000. Well, I was a fund-raiser and I was a leading figure in the party in Boston and Massachusetts in those days. Some of my friends came to me and they said, poor Kenny, he owes $60,000, can you help him out a little bit? So we ran a fund-raiser, got him off his $60,000 -- straightened it out.

That night we went to Jimmy's (ph) for supper. Kenny O'Donnell and his wife, Dave Powers (ph) and his wife, my Millie, Leo Deal (ph) and his wife and Joe Maloney (ph) and his wife. And in the conversation we started to talk about what happened down there in Dallas. And Kenny said, I was in the sixth car with Dave. And he said, I'll always remember -- he says, there was a bullet came over the fence. A bullet came over the fence. And Dave says, I'm absolutely agreeing with it.

I said, you didn't say that in the Warren Report. You didn't say that in the Warren Report. I said, You denied it -- that you said there was only one bullet. So the FBI came to us, they asked us to tell that story. They didn't want to disrupt the family. I said...

KING: Now wait a minute; if that's true...

O'NEILL: No, let me tell you the rest of the story.

So Dave said, absolutely, a bullet came over the fence. The FBI said to us, no, you heard echoes, there was only one bullet and don't upset the family. So he said, I went and testified. I said I wouldn't have testified that way in 1 million years! I would have told them what I thought I saw or what I thought I heard.

Anyway, it gets back -- I'm writing the book again -- and I call Dave on the telephone. I said, Dave, I'm going to put in my book on the chapter of Kennedy our conversation with Kenny and you, how do you feel about it?

He said, Tip, I say the same thing today I said that night that's in polar opposition to what I said to the FBI: no question I heard a bullet shot...

KING: Then why don't...

O'NEILL: So from that time on, I always believed that there was a conspiracy...


O'NEILL: ... that there was somebody else. And, as a matter of fact, Congressman Stokes did a pretty good job.

KING: You appointed that committee, right? Stokes headed it. Stokes now has said, let's release all the materials...

O'NEILL: Oh, I'm for that; I'm for that.

KING: Why don't you go see the movie?

O'NEILL: I just -- you know, every time I see on television the president getting hit, I get sick. I had a love and an affection for the man...

KING: So you can't go, emotionally? O'NEILL: I just -- really, I can't go emotionally.

KING: You believe there was a plot?

O'NEILL: Oh, there's no question that he didn't do it by himself, in my opinion.


KING: Recently, evidence has emerged to support O'Neill's conspiracy theory: a U.S. government scientist studied audio tapes from the JFK assassination and concluded there was very likely a shot fired from the grassy knoll.

When we come back: his thoughts on Bill Clinton.



O'NEILL: Listen, whether it wins or loses, I'm not going to shed any tears. This is the president's bill; if the Republicans want to cheer and clap if it goes down, that's all right with me. I'm not going to worry one way or another. I'm just sick and tired of the White House now trying to put the onus that it's up to Tip O'Neill to pass the bill; it's not up to me to pass the bill, it's not my bill, and I had nothing to do with writing it.


KING: Tip O'Neill served a record 10 years as speaker of the House, and during most of that stint a Republican was in the Oval Office. As you might expect, O'Neill was delighted by Bill Clinton's presidential win in '92. It put the Democrats back in the White House for the first time in 12 years.


KING: What would be the first thing, if Bill Clinton called -- and, by the way, has Bill Clinton called you?

O'NEILL: Well, it was very interesting; during the campaign they called me four times, and each time they'd say, are you available for the call from the governor? And I'd say I'm available, and never did get the call. The fourth time they called me, they said, are you available for the governor, and I said, no I'm not available for the governor. I said, I think I'm going on LARRY KING one of these nights, and I want to go on LARRY KING saying, he's not looking for an old-hat Democrat like Tip O'Neill for any advice. He's got the election won.

So actually I've known him through governors' meetings. First time was in '80 after Carter had been nominated we had the big dinner the following day for the big hitters, and he was the speaker, and he was excellent. Then, very interestingly, down at the party my daughter ran in Atlanta for Turner -- she introduced me, and said here's the next democratic president of the United States and, sure enough, she was right. But I've met him at functions along the line.

KING: What would be the first piece of advice you'd give him?

O'NEILL: First piece of advice that I would give him would be, stay close to the Congress; that would be the first thing. The Congress, as I look at it -- and I've talked to so many of them -- they're aching to be part of a team.

George Bush, he -- proud of the fact he had 38, 39 vetoes out there. Politics has been the art of compromise since the days of the Greeks; never once did he ever compromise. He would chip away, chip away, chip away and finally when the bill had nothing left in it and it got to his desk, he would sign it.

Well, I am shocked to find out that Tom Foley had only seen the president something like three times in four years. When Reagan was president, we used to go over there every Tuesday morning; not for our advice, but as a courtesy that he would...

KING: Reagan met with congressional leaders?

O'NEILL: All the time. Every -- at least once a week.

KING: So you would tell Bill Clinton: Meet with the people?

O'NEILL: Oh, listen, he has got to work with the democratic Congress, there's no question about it. And not only the democratic Congress, the nation's in tough shape; Democrats, Republicans know that. The people know it. And they're just dying for a program to be able to work with the president of the United States.

KING: You're going to be 80 years old in two weeks. Do you wish you were in the hunt?

O'NEILL: No, I've had my day...

KING: I mean, now with all this excitement...


O'NEILL: No, no, no; I've had it, you know what I mean. I used to say, how long is Reagan going to hang around, how long is McCormick going to hang around? Then one day Millie said to me, hey, how long are you going to hang around? You used to be complaining about hanging around too long...

KING: You don't miss it?

O'NEILL: Oh, I missed it at first. You just don't walk away from 50 years, of which I had 26 in the legislative leadership -- you just don't walk away. But I used to miss meeting the press at half past 7:00 in the morning and meeting every columnist in America at noontime, being honest with them and going back and forth. Did I miss it? Sure I missed it; but now I don't miss it.

As a matter of fact, I did a record, and I do some speeches for Harry, and I'm in the process of writing a book...

KING: Another one?

O'NEILL: Another one, yes.

KING: You need the money, right?

O'NEILL: No, no, no; as a mater of fact, I can truthfully say that I've given to the poverty of America this year over $50,000, something I never thought I'd be able to do.

KING: Is it true you had the lowest net worth in the House?

O'NEILL: No question about it; no question about it. Never had my head out of water for 50 years. Oh, but it's a great democracy and thank God for Random House and their book!


KING: Tip O'Neill was a master at spinning tales, and we'll have one of his favorites when we return.


RONALD REAGAN, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: This is a nation where the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives aspires to someday be ambassador to Ireland. Tip, what about day after tomorrow?



O'NEILL: Your charm, your humor, you wit -- sometimes when I get up in the morning, I say, don't let it get you, old boy.



KING: As I mentioned at the top of this program, Tip O'Neill was a terrific storyteller, and during his next-to-last appearance on LARRY KING LIVE, he shared one of his favorite tales.


O'NEILL: Well, in 1956 I was appointed by Sam Rabin (ph) to go to the dedication of the statue of John Barry. Now, if you went to a parochial school like I did, you know that John Berry is the father of the American Navy. If you went to a public school, you'd probably believe that John Paul Jones was the father of the American Navy.

Well, went over, Millie and I, and we landed in Dublin, and it was about five days before the dedication. State Department said, what would you like to do; I said I'd like to go down around Clark (ph) city, where my grandpeople had come from and see if I could locate some relatives or something. So we drove down and we stopped, of course, and kissed the Blarney Stone. And the driver -- we saw the bells of Shandon and rang the bells of Shandon.

And the driver's taking us around the countryside, and he stopped the car and he said, that's our local hospital. Well, I said, what's so interesting about that, every community has a hospital. He says, in 1929, Henry Ford came to Ireland. His first visit, he was in the hotel. Knock on the door, a group of men, and they said, Mr. Ford, we want to welcome you to Clark city, the home of your mother and father, your first visit. We're building a hospital and we thought, perhaps, in memory of your mother and dad you'd like to make a donation. And very graciously Ford sat down and he wrote out a check for $5,000 and he gave it to them.

The following day the "Clark Courier" came out, blazing headline that said, "Henry Ford Donates $50,000 to Hospital." That afternoon, knock at the door, same group of men. They came in they said, Mr. Ford, we're grateful for the $5,000, we're sorry about the mistake that the newspaper made, but tomorrow they'll make a correction. And Ford said, give me my check back. So they gave him his check and he tore it up and he said, what does it cost to build a hospital? And they said $50,000. And he sat down and he wrote a check out for $50,000; he says, here, have this in memory of my mother and father, on one condition -- and those Irishmen didn't care what the condition was.

He says, over the portals of the hospital I want the inscription that I have in mind. What is it my Ford? And the inscription reads, I came among you, and you took me in.

So when I get a nice, warm welcome somewhere I tell them the Henry Ford story and say I'm very grateful; I came among you and you took me in.

KING: That is a great...

O'NEILL: The driver told me that story, and that was in 1956 I first heard that story.


KING: By the way, the hospital that Henry Ford funded is still there in Ireland, and bears the requested inscription.

Tip O'Neill died in 1994. The man who believed that all politics is local left a national legacy. We conclude our retrospective on the former House speaker with scenes from his funeral. What a guy. Thanks for watching; good night.


THOMAS O'NEILL III, TIP O'NEILL'S SON: (UNINTELLIGIBLE) was just across the street from this church, a landmark in this neighborhood for many, many years. Jesus, Tommy, he said -- and these were among his last words -- do you remember how good those honey-dipped doughnuts were? God, those honey-dipped doughnuts. JOE MOAKLEY, FORMER CONGRESSMAN: Tip, you left a marvelous legacy. You've helped so many people, you've enriched so many lives. You've made this country a better place to live. You are certainly always my friend like no other. Mr. Speaker, the world is going to miss you, I know I already do. So God bless you, my dear friend. Goodbye until we meet again.



4:30pm ET, 4/16

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