In Chris Matthews new book Tip and the Gipper: When Politics Worked, the author describes the battle between the Speaker and President Reagan over funding for the Contras, the Nicaraguan rebel forces, fighting the Sandinista government of that country. In 1986 the President was trying to get $100 million out of Congress for direct military aid to the Contras. Speaker O’Neill and the Democratic-controlled House were opposed to the funds and feared that the President was eager to launch a war in Nicaragua. In March the House rejected the military aid package, but this did not stop the President from continuing his efforts on behalf of the Contras.
As Matthews tells the story, in June of 1986, Don Regan, President Reagan’s chief of staff, called Speaker O’Neill to request that the President be allowed to make an appearance before the House of Representatives, to make his case for the Contras. O’Neil refused, telling Regan that he was not opposed to informal discussions with House members, but that any formal appearance by the President had to be during a joint meeting of the House and Senate, as protocol demanded.
Chris Matthews tells the rest of the story of how the President decided instead to make a noontime TV address to the nation and in the end, he was able to prevail over the House and get the money he wanted to aid the Contras.
Here is the rest of that story from my perspective as the House Historian. I got several calls from reporters asking what I thought at the time were routine questions. I was asked: who controls the House chamber and who can speak there? This was easy. The Speaker controls the chamber. Then I was asked if any president had ever spoken to one chamber before? This was a little harder to answer but after a quick review of some files I kept on such things, I said no. At the time I had no idea that the President and Speaker O’Neill were in a tussle over the President’s desire to speak to the House. Here is how the story unfolds in my personal journal.
"Mr. Speakes [Larry Speakes, the President’s press secretary] also said that President Jefferson spoke to one chamber of Congress on the Barbary pirates and that President Madison spoke on the War of 1812, but the House historian, Raymond Smock, said he could find no record of those Presidents ever appearing before either house of Congress. In later statements the White House dropped the references to Jefferson and Madison."
The Washington Post editors apparently didn’t think too much of the story and although they had it on the front page, the story was rather bland and uninformed. The Washington Times, a Republican paper, played it up to the hilt in a manner critical of the Speaker with a full headline: “O’Neill bars the House to Reagan.” This paper quoted Republican reaction right off with comments by Congressman Henry Hyde and the Republican Leader Bob Michel. In this paper I am quoted accurately but with a twist to the context that makes it appear as if I am at odds with the Speaker’s statement. I also went too far in talking with this reporter because I was drawn into a stance of speaking for the Speaker, something I was not hired to do and something that will get me in trouble if I am not extremely careful. The Washington Times got their facts wrong about the Presidents who have spoken to one body of the Congress, but regardless, this is what they said:
"Only five presidents–George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Woodrow Wilson, Harry Truman, and Richard Nixon–have addressed a single chamber of Congress, according to White House researchers. But House Historian Raymond Smock, who was besieged by reporters yesterday to put the rebuff into historical context, said it was not clear that the speaker’s action was unprecedented. Mr. Smock said congressional records do not show earlier instances in which the president was denied access to Capitol Hill, but he would not rule out the possibility. I don’t think the Constitution says anything about where the president may speak, Mr. Smock said. But it is the prerogative of the speaker to control the use of the House chambers."
This is one of those crazy cases where we are expected to have all the statistics at our finger tips when in truth the record is incomplete and I cannot account for all the actions of all the Presidents and all the Speakers throughout American history. The best we can report on is the known instances. In this case the Speaker is absolutely right; there has never been an appearance by the President before the House only for the purposes of addressing the House on a particular piece of legislation. Richard Nixon and Jerry Ford appeared before separate chambers, Nixon in l969 and Ford in l974, but these were appearances before both chambers on the same day, Nixon to thank the Congress for its support of his Vietnam policy and Ford to simply return to the Congress as a kind of “welcome home Jerry” day.
I went to the Speaker’s press conference this morning at 11:45 and all the reporters wanted to talk about was the Speaker’s refusal of the President. The Speaker put the thing into perspective by saying that he assumed when Don Regan approached the House that the President wanted a joint session, which he was willing to approve. But the President wanted to appear before the House only. The Speaker offered the President a joint session on Tuesday evening (today), but the President had plans to be at a fund raiser for White House restoration on the West Coast. The President, according to the Speaker, had a traditional method of addressing the House open to him, but he refused. There is no known precedent for a president to speak solely to the House, especially for the specific purpose of promoting a piece of legislation that the majority of the House has already rejected.
I talked to the Speaker’s spokesman Chris Matthews who was, I believe, a bit pissed at me this morning for getting my name in the paper so much. It is his job to defend the Speaker and garner quotations from the major newspapers. But in this case he was upstaged by the historian. I asked him to give me some advice. I told him I would shut up altogether if that is what he wanted, but unless told otherwise I thought it was my duty to give the press the best historical information I could. He said that was o.k. as long as I didn’t contradict the Speaker. I told him that in this case that was no sweat because the Speaker was right, the House has never been the scene of a President speaking before a single chamber for the purpose of dealing with a specific piece of legislation.
The moral of this story, I have always thought, was that the truth beats lies or misinformation. In this instance I didn’t have all the facts, but the ones I did have were correct. Anyone checking on the information that came from the White House could quickly determine that they were wrong to suggest other presidents had spoken to only one chamber of Congress.
The high school I attended in Illinois had a motto over the main entrance that I saw everyday but never really understood until much later. It was from Francis Bacon and it read: “Knowledge is Power.” In this case, a little knowledge caused the President’s men to back down, and it may have kept me from being in hot water with the Speaker.