TIP AND THE GIPPER: WHEN POLITICS WORKED by Chris Matthews

 

As an avid viewer of MSNBC’s Hardball program each evening with Chris Matthews I am very familiar with his views and style, and usually agree with him.  I have read his previous books and looked forward to reading his latest, TIP AND THE GIPPER: WHEN POLITICS WORKED.  After reading the book and digesting his final thoughts as he states that “We need leaders able to balance large purpose with equally large awareness of the electorate, what message the voters have sent.  In a worthy contest this goes for those who’ve won but especially for those who haven’t. The rules of fair play can’t be simply cast aside.” (371) Reading TIP AND THE GIPPER I got the feeling I was having an intimate conversation with the author and his subjects.  Matthews lets the reader in to his inner most thoughts and cannot but admire both men he writes about and the relationship they forged.  Obviously, Matthews wants their relationship to be a model for today’s politicians who have given us a new concept, “partisanship on steroids!”

Matthews is a superb writer and his narrative flows like a literary work.  He is able to subtly integrate his own political education, first as a speech writer for Jimmy Carter and then as Tip O’Neill’s administrative assistant, as he develops the relationship between his two larger than life subjects.  As the historical narrative unfolds the reader would have to be blind not to think about our current state of government by stalemate.  Today, Reagan would probably be labeled a liberal Republican by Tea Party elements and his legislative accomplishments, particularly the 1983 Social Security legislation and the 1986 Tax Reform Law, would have been forcefully opposed by the likes of Cruz, Lee, and Paul.

Matthews is very insightful in a number of areas.  Early on he points out the weakness of the Carter presidency, the aloofness of the man from Plains, Ga.  When Reagan assumes the presidency in 1981 “his plan was to charm rivals and potential allies alike,” and Tip O’ Neill was his first major target.  By pointing out the political problem that aloofness in the Presidency can create, it is obvious who Matthews is pointing to.  From the outset O’Neill rejected an obstructionist strategy in dealing with Reagan’s proposed economic plan as he realized that the American people had spoken at the polls.  He decided that he would assist Reagan in achieving his agenda as much as he could, as it was his duty as an American patriot.  O’Neill’s biggest problem in dealing with Reagan was his “star power,” as the President was the consummate actor in addition to being shrewd and cunning in dealing with the Speaker.  Matthews’ role in the Speaker’s office was to assist O’Neill in adapting to using the media as a tool in dealing with Reagan.  It is from this vantage point that Matthews presents his narrative.

If O’Neill had considered any thoughts of creating roadblocks for Reagan’s legislative agenda they would have been immediately cast aside after the assassination attempt on the President.  Reagan’s handling of the attempt on his life was out of a Hollywood script and after being closer to death than the American people were led to believe he emerged as a “true American hero.”  For O’Neill this meant doing his best to lessen the assault on his liberal self, and in 1981 and 1982 Reagan was able to work with O’Neill and gain congressional approval for his tax cut, increase in military spending, all of which was to lead to a balanced budget by 1984.  It was very clear that what Vice President George H. W. Bush termed “voodoo economics” during the 1980 presidential campaign was not going to work and because of that O’Neill was able to gain Reagan’s cooperation in reforming the Social Security system and putting it on a firm financial footing for the future.

The most interesting aspects of Matthews’ book center around his description of the how the O’Neill-Reagan relationship developed and how they were able to work with each other despite their divergent political philosophies.  Matthews quotes freely from Reagan’s diaries and O’Neill’s memoir, and statements and speeches he was privy to.  In so doing he seems to create a conversation between the two men which reflected anger at times, but always mutual respect for each other.  The mutual respect was the key and they both believed that after 6:00pm politics would be set aside as they met frequently and seemed to enjoy each other’s company.  What is amazing is that despite their ideological differences and their battles over the budget and spending and tax issues they never lost their affection for each other.

The first third of book is a comparative biography of both men where Matthews does not present any new material that has not been gone over by the likes of Lou Cannon in his book on Reagan entitled, PRESIDENT REAGAN: THE ROLE OF A LIFETIME and John A. Farrell’s excellent biography, TIP O’NEILL ANDTHE DEMOCRATIC CENTURY.  After completing this section of the book, Matthews begins his account of the legislative battles between the two men and their disagreements on foreign policy.

Matthew’s description of O’Neill’s mood swings as he dealt with Reagan is fascinating.  In particular the Speaker’s anger when Reagan characterizes his liberal principles as demagoguery.  As a result he finally realized he had to graduate to the media age against a president who had mastered it for years.  Despite his periodic anger at Reagan, O’Neill always realized that no matter how weak the economy became after the Reagan agenda became law, the president always remained popular.  In addition, O’Neill was always wary of being seen as an obstructionist.  For Matthews, his role was to make O’Neill relevant again despite legislative defeats and not appear as “over the hill” as Republican strategists tried to make him out to be.  His media “remake” of O’Neill was successful and it forced the public to begin to question Reagan’s economic program and resulted in Democratic gains in 1982.  By 1983 Reagan began gearing up for his reelection and did not want Social Security to be an issue for the Democrats.  Hence, Reagan and O’Neill realized there was a political center in American politics that would benefit the entire country.

On foreign policy O’Neill took the position that the President needed Democratic support in dealing with the Soviet Union and events in Lebanon.  But Reagan’s position on the Sandinistas in Nicaragua reminded the Speaker of the slippery slope that led to the Vietnam War.  O’Neill was a major force in limiting the administration’s action in Latin America through the Boland Amendment and greatly resenting being “told” about the invasion of Grenada which he saw as an attempt to turn the focus of the American people away from the terrorist bomb that led to the death of 241 Marines.  Matthews is correct in pointing out that Reagan could not escape the Cold War paradigm that he believed in and accept the idea that there were numerous confessional rivalries in Lebanon as well as ignoring the history of resentment against American imperialism in the Americas. (276)

O’Neill’s final year in office was highlighted by the 1986 Tax Reform Bill as once again he and the President moved to the center in compromising their goals in the name of the American people.  Obviously many of the examples that Matthews presents seemed designed as lessons for today’s politicians many of whom only know how to say no instead of doing what is in the best interests of the nation as a whole.  Every day pundits reinforce the idea that nothing will can accomplished due to the current political environment, but Matthews has provided an honest historical portrait of two men who showed despite their differences what could be accomplished.

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