As I listen to the remembrances of George Steinbrenner, the late owner of the New York Yankees, who magnanimously allowed himself to be ridiculed on Seinfeld, it occurs to me that someone should stand up and say that he was a courageous man who saved American Democracy.
If you don’t believe me, and even if you do, you should read How the Good Guys Finally Won: Notes from an Impeachment Summer, a brilliant, poorly-titled book by one of America’s greatest writers, Jimmy Breslin.
For anyone who was cognizant during the Watergate Scandal, and for everyone else as well, this book is a primary historical source of great value, as well as a brilliant primer on the ABCs of politics. Tip O’Neill, the central character, learned his craft from guys like John F. Kennedy.
As many of us bloggers have been discovering, there is a fundamental limitation on what we can impart in a single blog entry. It’s not the same as a column in a newspaper or magazine. We don’t have the space to adduce enough evidence to prove a point; we can only point readers to other sources, where they can make up their minds for themselves.
But take my word for it, Breslin shows, in this remarkable book, how Steinbrenner was compelled, by mortal threats to his business from the IRS, the Commerce Department and the Department of Justice, to contribute to Nixon’s reelection committee.
Nixon’s former law firm set up shop next door to the White House, openly peddling their influence, and when Steinbrenner went there, he was informed that a contribution of $100,000 to CREEP (Committee to Reelect the President) would make his problems go away.
Steinbrenner, who had been a longtime contributor to Democratic candidates, went to some old friends and opened the bag about this shakedown. He spoke to Rep. Thomas P. (Tip) O’Neill, then majority leader in the House of Representatives, Senator Edward Kennedy, and Republican Senator Daniel Iouye — remember him? The one-armed war hero from Hawaii who rounded out his service to the Republic as a member of the Watergate Committee.
O’ Neill knew all the big givers to the Democratic Party. “You need them,” he told Breslin. “There’s no way it can be done without them until the entire system changes. As is is now, there are four parts to any campaign: the candidate, the issues of the candidate, the campaign organization, and the money to run the campaign with. Without the money you can forget the other three.”
O’Neill kept hearing from Democratic contributors that the entire engine of government was being used to threaten their businesses and compel them to contribute to CREEP.
“All our friends, our best friends, were afraid to come around,” O’Neill told Breslin. “Well you didn’t have to draw a map for me to let me know what was going on. It was a shakedown, a plain old-fashioned goddamned shakedown. I can read pressure. I can see what they were doing. And then out comes this great big newspaper ad. Democrats for Nixon. And this ad had all the names of our people on it.
“The day the ad came out, they were calling me up saying, ‘Tip I had to sign the ad. They sandbagged me. It’s either sign the ad or go into the soup.’ Well I kept saying to myself, this Nixon and Stans have got to be kidding. What they’re doing is too big. You never can get away with a thing like this. Not in this country. But they sure were trying.
“Now I don’t remember when I said it, but I know I said to myself during the 1972 campaign, I said, ‘This fellow is going to get himself impeached.’
“The stange thing about it is that I never gave much thought to the Watergate break-in when it happened. I thought it was silly and stupid. I never thought it was important. I was concentrating on the shakedown of these fellas like Steinbrenner.”
Tip O’Neill, at that time, had no chance of becoming speaker of the House, but then one longstanding incumbent got knocked off by an upstart (Elizabeth Holtzmann, I believe) and another got killed in a plane crash in Alaska (like Will Rogers) and suddenly Tip was Speaker.
And he was able to bring about Nixon’s impeachment, even though the House of Representatives had historically been “an institution designed only to react, not to plan or to lead.” The whole story is told brilliantly in this book by one of the greatest American writers of all time.
Ironically, Steinbrenner had to plead guilty to a felony because of his contributions to CREEP. This was due to the diligence of a Washington Star-News named James Polk. It was the contributions that were illegally extorted from him by people at the highest levels of government that forced him to relinguish control of the Yankees. Irony of ironies.
I would just like to say, on the occasion of his passing, that George Steinbrenner played a key role in defending our system of government from one of the most sinister threats in its entire history, and he deserves the thanks of a grateful nation, as does Thomas P. O’Neill.