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

"I called Tip O'Neill. I'm not sure he's ready to give in," the Gipper once wrote. "Tip is truly a New Deal liberal. He honestly believes that we're promoting welfare for the rich."

The speaker got frustrated more than once. He would come back from White House meetings complaining that the president read everything "off three-by-five index cards."

But consider the bond some Reagan diary entries suggest: "Tip and I got into Donnybrook. I really had my dander up. The worst of it is Tip O'Neill doesn't have the facts of what was in the budget. Besides he doesn't listen."

"Tip is a real pol," Reagan wrote after one St. Patrick's Day lunch. "He can really like you personally and be a friend while politically trying to beat your head in."

Here's Tip on Reagan: "Away from politics, he's a charmer."

There was something there I miss today. They argued, but they were always able to talk. And there were important times for the country when they put their heads together. When Reagan took office wanting to push cuts in taxes and domestic spending, Tip refused to play games. There was no filibustering, no efforts to jam up the system. Reagan deserved his time at bat.

In Reagan's second year, a deepening recession had put his policies in question, and the Democratic speaker had the upper hand. "Tip O'Neill made a speech to Republicans telling them why they should support me. It seemed strange - both of us on the same side," Reagan wrote.

In 1983, after a big Democratic victory in the midterms, both backed the bipartisan solution to keeping Social Security sustainable. Later, in a joint effort, they passed a historic tax reform.

Reagan would later say that he recognized Mikhail Gorbachev as a different kind of Soviet leader - and that it reminded him of his relationship with Tip.

Tip's daughter Susan recently told me about her father's feelings toward Reagan: "He liked him."

When Reagan spoke at Tip's goodbye party in 1986, he said: "Mr. Speaker, I'm grateful you have permitted me in the past and I hope in the future that singular honor - the honor of calling you my friend."

I didn't get the full picture on this fascinating relationship until much later. After the assassination attempt, Reagan was in far worse shape than was publicly known when Tip arrived at the hospital. Max Friedersdorf, the president's congressional liaison, was alone across the room.

In a letter to me, Max described how the speaker went to Reagan's bedside, took hold of both his hands and knelt. "Thanks for coming, Tip," he heard the president whisper.

The two recited together the 23rd Psalm. Tip rose, kissed Reagan on the forehead and said he didn't want to keep him from his rest.

Max shared this story long after both men were gone. It would have been good to hear earlier - because it shows how deeply these political giants recognized and honored their shared humanity, despite their stark differences of philosophy.

It is a joy to savor it now.

Chris Matthews hosts "Hardball"on MSNBC and "The Chris Matthews Show." He was a senior aide to House Speaker Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill Jr. from 1981 through 1987.


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