Tip's Flip

POLITICS

REAGANISM faced down the Democrats again last week, when House Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.) was forced to recant the last of the positions he took in a revealing interview with columnist James Reston. In that interview, O'Neill let loose on Reagan, damning his work habits, his politics, his understanding of issues, and even his wife, whom O'Neill quipped "would become Queen of Beverly Hills" if the President were to leave office. He also called the recent U.S. invasion of Grenada unjustified. He criticized the administration's attack on the Caribbean island, saying the invasion was clearly premeditated, and denying that the safety of American medical students justified a full-scale "trampling" of another nation.

Last week, however, after sending a letter of apology to the First Lady, O'Neill also recanted on his objection to the Reagan invasion. He said, in a prepared statement. "The [Congressional] delegation has now returned with the information that at the very minimum a potentially life-threatening situation existed on the island with regard to American citizens. Since this was the case, I believe that sending American forces into combat was justified under these particular circumstances."

The O'Neill retraction is symptomatic of the general decline in Democratic response to the Administration. In the wake of the Grenada invasion, Democrats have seen their foremost leaders stumble or keep mum. Kennedy has kept silent, Glenn and Mondale vied for the loudest comfortable position and O'Neill mumbled about keeping our boys safe. Suddenly, in the Reston interview, O'Neill seemed to strike a strong position.

When a Congressional fact-finding mission returned, however, filled with a strong host of doubters, most significantly his own Democratic colleague from Massachusetts, Edward Boland, O'Neill suddenly began to toe the Administration line. Inexplicably switching his position on what justifies an invasion, O'Neill seemed to be satisfied with having been let in on the facts of Grenada, and once in the fold, he now agrees with the Administration's policy.

WHATEVER THE merits of the case, O'Neill's opening salvo was hasty. As the Democratic strong man, O'Neill must appear responsible. He should not have gratuitously attacked the First Lady, and his comments about Reagan's work habits and intelligence do not befit his own stature. It may be true that Reagan works little and vacations a lot, but he should leave that kind of criticism to Democratic back-benchers. The Speaker of the House does not have to resort to insults to get his job done.

But if his opening attack was not thought out, his recantation on Grenada was ludicrous. The letter of apology to the First Lady was certainly warranted, but the Speaker's unquestioned sanction of Grenada is incomprehensible. Perhaps the Congressional fact-finding mission discovered something on Grenada that the public does not know. That would be easy since all we really know is that ABC's poll found Grenadians happy that we invaded. One hopes that the Speaker doesn't plan to begin running his foreign policy on the advice of ABC. Does the country's most prominent Democrat really want to stand behind such an invasion? The Grenada invasion not only flouted international law but also continues to be fraught with rumor and uncertainty and includes perhaps the largest cover-up operation since Watergate.

In the wake of Tip's flips, things look bleaker than ever for the future of the leadership of the Democratic Party. Sensible members of the American press will continue to lobby unsuccessfully for guarantees of press freedom in the future. Uncertainty and mass graves will continue to appear in Grenada. But without adequate Democratic pressure, the President will continue carrying out his policies unhindered. With the strongest Democrat in the country silent, indeed, it seems unlikely Reagan can be stopped.