In Tip and the Gipper: When Politics Worked host Chris Matthews, former administrative assistant to Tip O’Neill, chronicles the Speaker of the House’s combative but productive relationship with President Reagan, pointing out the lessons it offers for today’s politicians—and voters.
It seems you wrote this book to show that the current political stalemate in Washington isn’t inevitable, is that right?
I think the book shows that you can be a conviction politician, as President Reagan and Speaker O’Neill both were, and also operate with certain traits that distinguish them from politicians today. The first is that you respect the voters. Tip respected the fact that Reagan had been elected president overwhelmingly and deserved his day in court. He fought against Reagan’s program but he didn’t play any games with filibusters to stop it; he promised an up or down vote on every piece of the program by August 1. Reagan was equally able to read the electorate; when he lost 26 House seats to the Democrats in ’82, he came back and said, “OK, we’re going to solve Social Security your way.” They fought like hell, but they knew when the fight should end and the deal should be struck.
What makes politicians today so different from them?
The most important thing you’re taught as a kid is to play by the rules. If you don’t say “I’m it” when you get tagged, the game doesn’t work. You can’t function as a society unless people operate by the rules of the game; I think that’s what’s missing today. We had an election, and right after the election, Mitch McConnell said, “The only thing I care about now is getting rid of this guy.” What happened to the honeymoon? Voters expect to get results from an election, not to have it annulled immediately. On the other hand, I think Obama has been guilty of not having any personal relations with members of the House, the way Reagan and O’Neill did. He’s basically a loner, like Jimmy Carter, and it hurts him politically.
You quote Tip O’Neill as saying it’s important to be able to keep talking; then you might be able to find common ground.
That’s right, though it’s more difficult now. In Tip’s day, conservative Democrats wanted to ally with Republicans for a while; today, the Tea Party really don’t want to ally with anybody, so you have this war going on. Tip had another rule, which is: Timing is everything, and I think this book is well-timed, because everything is going wrong right now. We can’t meet our deadlines to keep the government open, we can’t pay our debts, we can’t protect the United States’ credit rating; this thing’s going to hell in a handbasket in the next couple of weeks, and it’s going to be horrible. Reagan and O’Neill weren’t embarrassed to find common ground.
You write in your book that we need a restoration of confidence in democracy and “the standards for public service it demands.” Have those standards been abandoned?
I think that there are still political leaders who know what they’re doing, who are respected and looked up to by the public. I hope this books helps. I hope it reminds us that it doesn’t have to be this way, that there’s a long tradition of public service and political conviction, right and left, that helps the country, and that two great politicians can make each other look better by the kind of fight they engage in. The debate itself can be healthy for both of them.