What Ronald Reagan and Tip O'Neill could teach Washington today

By Chris Matthews
Tuesday, January 18, 2011

A vigorous debate over the role of government is always at the heart of our democracy. Since the shootings in Arizona, however, many have said that our partisan ferocity is unhealthy.

So it seems like a good time to reflect on Ronald Reagan and Tip O'Neill. It would serve us well to understand how these very different politicians managed to temper their philosophical divide with a public, and sometimes personal, cordiality.

About this time of year three decades ago, Reagan went to the Capitol to deliver the State of the Union address. His designated "holding room" was the speaker's ceremonial office just off the House floor. I was a senior aide to the speaker, and I thought a little kidding was in order.

"Mr. President, welcome to the room where we plot against you," I said.

"Oh, no, not after 6," he replied. "The speaker says that here in Washington we're all friends after 6."

Reagan was warm - and he meant his words. For years, he and O'Neill engaged in tough partisan competition. They gave no quarter and expected none. The president believed that government wasn't the solution; it was the problem. The House speaker believed that people, especially the old, the sick and the young, needed help along the way.

There was something the American people liked about this test of wills. Voters saw these political heavyweights jousting over ideas and dealing with each other as worthy opponents. Citizens clearly felt satisfied that these politicians were fighting the good fight on their behalf.

Reagan had a basic philosophy: Cut taxes, cut the size of government and beat the Soviets. Tip believed that Social Security had alleviated the fear millions once had of old age, and that the GI Bill and other government programs built the American middle class. Yet, occasionally, the two found common ground.

"Tip had the last word and it was good one," Reagan jotted in his diary after one meeting. Another entry: "I'm having more luck with Demos than Repubs. Asked O'Neill if I could address a joint session next week. He agreed."

To soften the edges, they would share lunches from time to time, and always on St. Patrick's Day.

"It's Tip's birthday and we had a good time telling stories - Irish stories," Reagan wrote. That lunch, his aide Ken Duberstein later told me, lasted till 3 p.m.

Their disagreements over the country's direction were impassioned and sincere.

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