Larry O'Brien: Classy pro Newswatch ... on politics today

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

October 03, 1990|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON--When the political history of the 1960s and 1970s is definitively written, Lawrence F. O'Brien, who died Friday at the age of 73, will probably be identified in two ways.

The first is as the architect of the 1960 election of President John F. Kennedy, and the second is as the prime target of the 1972 Watergate break-in of the Democratic National Committee that ultimately drove President Richard M. Nixon into resignation in disgrace.

These two identifications are certainly significant. In electing Kennedy, Larry O'Brien literally produced the textbook for achieving the presidency--"a 64-page black-bound book," Theodore H. White reported in "The Making of the President 1960," that provided "the diagram of organization for every Kennedy campaign from beginning to end" henceforth known among political operatives as "the O'Brien Manual."

As Democratic National Chairman in 1972, O'Brien was fingered by the Nixon reelection campaign, which hoped to find damaging information with which to drive him from that office or harass him through tax audits directed against him by the politicized Internal Revenue Service, on orders from the Nixon White House.

The eventual outcome, in addition to Nixon's departure, was a $775,000 civil-suit settlement to the DNC from the Nixon reelection committee, of which O'Brien got $400,000, which he promptly turned over to the DNC. He favored Nixon's criminal prosecution, yet said he shouldn't be sent to jail if convicted, and should be pardoned.

O'Brien, however, will also be remembered for other things. He was the Kennedy loyalist who stayed in his White House job as chief congressional liaison man for President Lyndon B. Johnson when most of the other leading members of JFK's "Irish Mafia" left with bitterness toward the man who in their view had usurped "Camelot."

O'Brien saw his obligation to Kennedy's memory as well as to the institution of the presidency to help LBJ with his pledge to carry out the JFK legislative agenda. Together they achieved much of it and much more.

O'Brien's talent for soft persuasion was an effective complement to Johnson's style of the cajoling, and oftentimes intimidating, hard sell.

LBJ rewarded O'Brien with appointment as postmaster general, a throwback to days when the occupant of that office was the president's chief political adviser in the cabinet, in the manner of James A. Farley under President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

When Sen. Robert F. Kennedy in 1968 decided to challenge LBJ for the presidency, O'Brien waited until Johnson dropped out two nights before the Wisconsin primary and then signed on with RFK in time to join his successful campaign in Indiana.

It was during the electric ten weeks that followed, ending with Robert Kennedy's assassination in Los Angeles, that we came to know Larry O'Brien best. Each Friday before a primary that pitted RFK against Sen. Eugene McCarthy, O'Brien would hold court for a handful of reporters on the state of the campaign. Unlike so many other campaign managers, he told the bad with '' the good, declining to blow smoke at newsmen with whom he had long worked and expected to work with in years ahead.

Reporters who heard him appraise the political landscape on the eve of the Democratic primary in Oregon were not startled when the heretofore invincible Kennedy "juggernaut" went down to defeat for the first time.

He described the state as "one big suburb" where Kennedy's strong pitch on the needs of the disadvantaged was not lighting sparks as it had elsewhere.

Reporters who had this kind of exposure to O'Brien dubbed his approach "the five-percent discount," meaning he would inflate his candidate's prospects by no more than that amount, knowing that his credibility with them would not tolerate any more.

Later, as party chairman, O'Brien maintained his credibility with reporters by continuing that approach, not confusing the task of advancing the party's objectives and candidates with that of a used-car salesman trying to sell a beat-up Studebaker with a fresh paint job as if it were a Cadillac.

Larry O'Brien prided himself in being a professional in politics, and he treated others he encountered along the way, in both parties and in the press, with the courtesy--not always deserved--that he believed one should always extend to a fellow pro. That was his idea of the highest compliment, and the one he above all deserved.

Columnists Germond and Witcover, members of the Evening Sun's staff, also appear in the Perspective Section of The Sunday Sun.

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