You can hear longing for the old days when MSNBC Hardball anchor Chris Matthews talks about his latest book, Tip and the Gipper: When Politics Worked (Simon & Schuster, Nov.). A top aide to Speaker of the House Representative Tip O’Neill for six years, Matthews was an eyewitness to the contradictory relationship between his boss and President Ronald Reagan. He explains why he was inspired to write this book now. “I wanted to write about two men who were completely convinced of their opposing political philosophies who could find ways [to] make the system work, consistent with the fact that they didn’t agree. The book shows how two leading political figures avoided the kind of mess we’re in now where people don’t talk to each other and can’t find common ground.”
Even though their rivalry was legendary, O’Neill and Reagan were also good friends. Matthews shares a personal story. “They had a civility about them where they would make a point of letting everybody know they got along. Reagan told me that himself when I met him for the first time. He came to give the State of the Union address and the holding room for that is the Speakers Ceremonial Office, right off the House floor. I went into the room where the president was drinking his hot tea getting ready to give the speech. I said, ‘Welcome to the room where we plot against you,’ and Reagan said, ‘Oh, no, not after six—the Speaker says we’re friends after six.’ ”
The busy newsman, who hosts Hardball five nights a week and has a weekend news show on NBC, shares his writing advice with Show Daily. “I have a four-step way to write, and I’m not going to brag about it, but it works for me. First you collect—you just dig and dig and knock out the wall—news clips, transcripts, everything. Among other things, I read Tip O’Neill and the Democratic Century by John A. Farrell and President Reagan: The Triumph of Imagination by Richard Reeves. Second, you organize large sections, basically chronologically, but I call them ‘strategic hamlets.’ You get an event like January 28, 1986, which is the morning Tip and Reagan had a big row over the budget and joblessness, and that afternoon Reagan gave the speech of his life about the Challenger. So I focused on that day. Third, you organize within the section. And then you rough it out. You get to the word processor and you move it. I keep saying to myself, speed the plow, don’t let this thing stop, keep it moving—even late into the night. And fourth, you go back over everything you’ve written and clean it up. You don’t sit there trying to figure out your first sentence for two weeks.”
Matthews is master of ceremonies at this morning’s Book & Author Breakfast.