Back scratching, that is what O'Brien became a master at when he served as Presidential liaison man with Congress. He was described as having the "most whispered-in ear in Washington." The messages he carried to and from the White House opened a bridge of communication that made him one of the most effective power brokers ever on the Hill. In 1965, for instance, he helped push into law 68% of President Johnson's legislative proposals, which is akin to averaging 68 points a game in the NBA. From half court.
"Every day, every hour, it was drive, drive, drive—to use the basketball term, a full-court press," O'Brien recalls. Though, many days, that meant juggling up to 125 phone calls and subsisting on three packs of cigarettes and a Niagara of black coffee, he would not have had it any other way.
Part of the fun was seeing men of great power sitting before him, so to speak, in their long red underwear. One long-running skit was Lady Bird Johnson's attempts to police LBJ's diet. Not only did he keep a box of pralines, his weakness, stashed under his White House bed, but once, when O'Brien accompanied him to a Washington Senators Opening Day game, the President took to wolfing down hot dogs in a crouching position for fear that Lady Bird might spot his indiscretion on TV.
Ah, politics. Does O'Brien miss it? You bet your sweet head count he does. One friend confides, "If Larry were offered the right kind of deal in Washington, he'd go back in a flash." O'Brien disagrees, of course, explaining that "the only good job down there is the Senate, and I've never been convinced that I'm electable." Though twice mentioned as a prospect for the Vice Presidency as well as for a Senate seat, O'Brien suspects that "perhaps I lack the necessary ego for office seeking. I've never felt that my holding public office was essential to the Republic."
No matter. In a Presidential election year such as this, it is certain that a man of O'Brien's vast experience has been tapped on an informal basis. Indeed, he has been in contact with Jimmy Carter at the candidate's request and, as he says, "a line of dialogue goes on." How extensive it is, is anybody's guess; O'Brien is understandably evasive on the subject, saying only that "I don't want to give the impression that I've closed the door on my past."
That a new political era might slowly be closing out Larry O'Brien the commissioner was a thought that came to mind when the Democratic National Convention was held in New York this summer, right at the foot of O'Brien's 20th-floor office in the Madison Square Garden complex. At one point, while involved in negotiating the final details of the ABA merger, he looked out the window at the delegates streaming into the Garden to the strains of Happy Days. "New ball game," he said.
When O'Brien left Washington after chairing the 1972 Democratic National Convention, it was said that the enemies he left behind could meet in a phone booth. Now he says, "I'm not sure how many friends I have anymore in high places in Washington. A lot of people who were once in Washington aren't there now. And I'm not sure they were my friends in the first place."
Partly, that is a twinge of regret stemming from the fact that as the Democratic National Chairman he was the target of the Watergate break-ins, an experience that, he says, "depressed me a great deal because of the harm it did to the public acceptance of our system. What we once called apathy has become cynicism." To counteract "the crisis of truth," he has lately been preaching the virtues of "leveling with the people," a theme he sounded again and again when he was refereeing the NBA negotiations. If Larry O'Brien succeeds it is because he is, by all accounts, a decent man.
Pronouncing his first year as NBA commissioner "an exciting, fast-paced experience," O'Brien says he appreciates it all the more because it helped wash away the Watergate gloom. "Now I'm on the inside of the papers," he says with some relief, "instead of on the front page."
New York suits O'Brien just fine. He has been a theater buff ever since the days when vaudeville troupes used to line up at O'Brien's Cafe for his mother's beef stew. As often as possible, after dinner at Sardi's or Toots Shor's, he and his wife Elva take in a Broadway show, any show. "I can't stand a bad movie," O'Brien says, "but I will sit through almost any play, no matter how inept. If the script is poor, I'm content to study the actors. I've always been fascinated by the similarity between actors and politicians."