Tip Topped!

4 minute read
Alessandra Stanley

O’Neill tangles with some Republican Turks over camera angles

Tip O’Neill had heard enough. Incensed by an attack on Democratic legislators by Republican Congressman Newt Gingrich of Georgia during a debate last week, the House Speaker dropped his gavel and strode angrily onto the floor, leaving his Massachusetts colleague Democrat Joseph Moakley to take the chair. O’Neill shook a finger at Gingrich and roared, “You challenged their patriotism, and it is the lowest thing that I have ever seen in my 32 years in Congress!”

As his Democratic colleagues recognized, O’Neill had gone too far. Mississippi Republican Trent Lott immediately demanded that the Speaker’s words be “taken down”—a signal that O’Neill should be called to order for violating the House’s rule against personal attacks. Parliamentarian William Brown consulted a dictionary to see if the word lowest was a slur. Minutes ticked by in painful silence until a chagrined Moakley, as gently as possible, informed the Speaker that he had indeed violated the chamber’s code. “I was expressing my views very mildly,” protested a bristling O’Neill, “because I think much worse than what I actually said.”

The rarely invoked penalty for this infraction: enforced silence for the rest of the day’s debate. The judgment was so unsettling that Republican Leader Robert Michel quickly asked Lott to make a motion that exempted O’Neill from the penalty. Lott agreed, although he later defended his actions in taking O’Neill to task. “In the House you can’t impugn a member’s integrity,” he said. “The Speaker demeaned his position by coming down on the floor and getting involved in hand-to-hand combat.” No one could recall a House Speaker ever having been thus reprimanded. (The only known precedent was in 1798, when the House was debating the expulsion of Vermont’s Matthew Lyon, who had spit in the face of a fellow member. After an explosive exchange, Speaker Jonathan Dayton challenged another member to a duel. Dayton, who was indicted for treason nine years later, along with Aaron Burr, was called to order for improper utterances.)

That tempestuous scene was the culmination of a televised minidrama that began last January. An abrasive cadre of Republican “young Turks,” frustrated by the accommodating style of O’Neill’s golfing buddy Michel, began taking over the House floor every day after legislative hours to berate the Democrats. The chamber was invariably empty during these “special orders” sessions, but like all other action on the floor, they were broadcast live by the cable network CSPAN. What set O’Neill aflame was a bit of showboating by Gingrich; during a fiery denunciation of several Democrats’ views on Central America, he paused suggestively in midspeech, as if to dare his foes to respond. In fact, he was taunting empty benches, but that was not noted by C-SPAN’s cameras, which were allowed to focus only on the orator.

O’Neill reacted by ordering the cameras to pan the empty chamber in order to expose the young Turks’ tactics. In his pique, however, the Speaker failed to notify the Republicans of the change. For that he later apologized to Michel, but the firestorm had been ignited. Republicans labeled O’Neill’s action “camscam,” and took to the floor in high dudgeon. What upset the Democrats, as well as Michel, is that the Speaker, who is supposed to represent the House as a whole, had joined in a partisan shouting match. Lost in the scuffle was the laudable fact that O’Neill had improved the video link between Congress and its constituents by introducing a bit of honesty into the broadcasts.

—By Alessandra Stanley.

Reported by Neil MacNeil/Washington

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