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Appreciation | Jimmy Breslin and the Art of Describing Washington

Book by New York newspaperman is an invaluable portrayal of Capitol Hill

Jimmy Breslin found his muse in the late Massachusetts Democrat Tip O’Neill, above, whom he portrayed in his book “How the Good Guys Finally Won” as a consummate professional. (CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Jimmy Breslin found his muse in the late Massachusetts Democrat Tip O’Neill, above, whom he portrayed in his book “How the Good Guys Finally Won” as a consummate professional. (CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Jimmy Breslin will always be remembered as a New York newspaperman. But he also made an indelible contribution to documenting the Watergate scandal and in doing so, breathed life into some of Capitol Hill’s most influential characters. 

The hard-boiled columnist, who died March 19 at the age of 88, brought the full force of his observational skills to his 1975 book “How the Good Guys Finally Won.” Breslin made a career out of focusing on big stories through the perspective of working stiffs, so it’s no surprise he latched on to two methodical House Democrats who took on President Richard Nixon, fresh off a landslide 1972 re-election victory and whose team seemed to be brushing off the Watergate break-in.

Those muses were Tip O’Neill of Massachusetts, then the House majority leader, and Peter Rodino of New Jersey, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee tasked with the perilous assignment of preparing impeachment charges.

Breslin portrays O’Neill as a consummate professional who belied the caricatures of him as a glad-handing ward heeler.

“Tip O’Neill lives at 26 Russell Street in North Cambridge, the part of Cambridge where people do not go to Harvard,” Breslin wrote, a bit of biography to offset the usually patrician profiles of congressional leaders.

Then Breslin describes O’Neill’s rotundity as a reflection of his unorthodox success.

“Weighing as much as he does, O’Neill does not look like a figure who has had anything to do with history. The thinness, the austerity, and the haughtiness that glare at you from oil portraits of such men is totally absent in O’Neill. He comes with the full blood of Cork City in his face. A great head of silver hair allows O’Neill to be picked out of a crowd at a glance. He has a large bulbous nose that is quite red. Large blue eyes seem to be sleepy-slow and have led a thousand victims into thinking that they were on the verge of winning.”

Such characterizations of O’Neill helped build an image the Massachusetts Democrat himself embraced as he ascended to the speakership.

At the time the Watergate scandal was getting started, though, O’Neill was new to the job of majority leader, thrust into a promotion by the disappearance of Majority Leader Hale Boggs, the Louisiana Democrat whose plane fell off the earth in October 1972 with Alaska Rep. Nick Begich, on a campaign swing through The Last Frontier.

Rodino was also new to his job. The longtime Judiciary chairman, Emanuel Celler, lost his bid for renomination in 1972 (to Elizabeth Holtzman, whose op-ed on Watergate and impeachment just ran in Roll Call). That put Rodino in the chair, just in time for a potentially perilous career-defining moment.

Breslin packs in Rodino’s fears, aspirations and moxie all into a description of his interview of John Doar, a Republican who previously led the Justice Department’s civil rights divisions, to be the committee’s chief counsel on impeachment.

“There is in John Doar, under his silence and under his mixture of propriety and informality, a terribly fierce fifteen-round fighter. Pete Rodino, who grew up in a tenement in the First Ward of Newark, sensed this immediately. For all purposes, Rodino was risking everything he had or hoped to have upon his selection of a special counsel. If he was going to go down, Rodino kept telling himself, he at least wanted to go down with a strong guy.”

Breslin the outsider is also both hilarious and spot on when describing the everyday life of Congress, with something as simple as members’ proclivity for commenting on legislative material without actually having read it.

“There was now a book on impeachment. It wasn’t an undefinable topic any more. Now it was right there, in a book, that Congressmen could lift and feel and thumb through. And on the cover it said, ‘Impeachment.’ It was 718 pages long. Jeee-zus! Goddam big book! Seven hundred and eighteen pages long. Keeerist! This is gettin’ to be important business now. Nobody read a line of the book, but everybody held it and looked at the last page to see that it was 718 pages long.”

It’s tempting to wonder what Breslin would have done with the current health care debate roiling Congress.

For members of Congress navigating an uncertain time in history, it might be worth considering what he thought was O’Neill’s greatest asset.

“Tip O’Neill at all times has one great political weapon at his disposal. He understands so well that all political power is primarily an illusion. If people think you have power, then you have power. If people think you have no power, then you have no power.”

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