Correction: A previous version of this article misidentified the actors in a bar brawl in the movie “The Quiet Man.” The fight scene included John Wayne and Victor McLaglen, not Ward Bond.This version has been corrected.
During tense budget negotiations at the White House in 1982, President Ronald Reagan and House Speaker Thomas P. O’Neill were spotted off to the side, heads together, whispering. Aides wondered what was up, and Reagan replied that they were “just two Irishmen plotting.”
Given the reverence for all things Hibernian in Chris Matthews’s “Tip and the Gipper,” a reader might conclude that the current legislative crises are due to a shortage of Irish Americans in the capital. Matthews, the host of MSNBC’s show “Hardball” and a former aide to O’Neill, feels that his monocausal ethnic analysis — replete with Irish stories, Irish jokes, donnybrooks and shamrocks — needs defending. “It’s easy,” he writes, “from the vantage point of today, to mock all those Irish jokes and the swapping of stories between the president and the Speaker. But I was there, and the plain truth is, they kept the conversation going when no other progress seemed possible otherwise.”
In fact, Matthews builds a solid, multi-sourced case that the leaders’ publicly embraced obsessions with a shared heritage did facilitate a civil tone in the historic battles over Reagan’s austerity budget and his 1981 income tax cuts . Of course, the chief exhibits attesting to the value of compromise were their grand bargains on Social Security in 1983 and on the tax reform bill of 1986. Matthews had plenty of company in believing that Irishness was a universal legislative emollient. Indeed, from the start, Reagan aides, O’Neill aides and journalists, including David Broder and James Reston, rallied to what Broder called the “stubborn Irishmen” theory. This book conjures the mood of “The Quiet Man,” in which John Wayne and Victor McLaglen buddy up after a bar brawl.
The book’s didactic purpose is attuned to today’s hate-filled gridlock in Washington. These two men ridiculed each other’s politics in private and in public. They wanted opposing things: O’Neill to help the “struggling class” and Reagan to lower taxes dramatically for the ownership class. But “each liked to beat the other guy, not sabotage him.” Their shared heritage provided an emotional link around which momentous legislation could be enacted. Matthews cites approvingly Reagan’s diary entry about O’Neill giving him a shamrock tie on St. Patrick’s Day. “Tip is a true pol. He can really like you personally & be a friend while politically trying to beat your head in.”
With a less celebratory tone, Matthews shows that their boyo-crush hit rough spots. O’Neill unwisely supported Reagan on deploying Marines to Beirut and tried unsuccessfully to thwart the president’s domino fixation on Nicaraugua and the contras. But the happier part of the book is more instructive, with lessons on legislative flexibility and budget protocols that are now often ignored.
Matthews depicts a linkage between ethnic bonhomie and legislative compromise and the political style he celebrates on “Hardball.” That style depends on a macho ethic glorified by Theodore White’s “The Making of the President, 1960” and the generations of Washington journalists shaped by the Kennedy years. Tip made his bones early by bluffing the ruthless Robert F. Kennedy out of running for the House seat Tip coveted. Tip learned, and his protege Matthews believed, that in politics, “the opposition’s duty [is] to hit hard enough so you could hear the smack,” but always in the corny spirit of sportsmanship. In the Tip-Gipper showdowns, rhetorical savagery continued until cocktail time, when Reagan could be relied on to telephone and say, “Hello, Tip, is it after six o’clock?” O’Neill would respond, “Absolutely, Mr. President.”
There’s a fortuitous pairing of subject and author on this point. Reagan, the expert in creating nostalgia for an imagined American past, is limned by an author whose stock in trade is nostalgia for a political era of debatable virtues. Matthews admits to being shaped by the big-city Democratic legacy of patronage, perks and “New Deal-grade pork barrel.” The urban machines, in turn, fostered a sense of sleazy entitlement that prevailed among House Democrats during O’Neill’s speakership.
The book would be stronger if Matthews had closed the analytical circle by showing that today’s run-amok GOP House was made possible when swing voters rejected the Democrats’ free-loading habits and machinations idealized as “hardball.” Without irony, Matthews recalls O’Neill’s version of congressional omerta in regard to shady ethics. “I never want to see a guy go to the can,” O’Neill said. The ex-convict Dan Rostenkowski, also an ex-chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, is cast here as Tip’s “traveling buddy” on corporate-financed golf vacations and the annual “O’Neill-Rostenkowski” Easter tour to foreign fun spots.
Such pulled punches illustrate a core problem with any first-person Beltway memoir, which is how to balance loyalty and revelation. Even so, Matthews’s account is both useful and entertaining. Its energy recalls one of the best and least-appreciated insider memoirs, “Crisis: The Last Year of the Carter Presidency” by Hamilton Jordan, chief of staff for Jimmy Carter, for whom Matthews also worked. Indeed, Matthews’s eyewitness account of the collapsing Carter campaign in 1980 is one of the strongest passages in the book.
Political scholars will profit from Matthews’s emphasis on documentation in his recounting of the pivotal role played by James A. Baker III, Reagan’s chief of staff, in the Reagan-O’Neill deals. Baker, a moderate Republican, was not too proud to trek to O’Neill’s home at night to craft the compromises that allowed two old men to crow publicly about their everlasting Irish inflexibility. Matthews’s praise for Baker’s hidden-hand role is a reminder that Carter’s presidency might have been successful if the Georgian had found his Baker.
Baker’s success is cited as a paradigm of the macho craftiness that Matthews wants the current players to emulate. He believes that “the Princeton-educated Texan was evidence that the more centrist political lieutenants can be the most fearsome in battle; they’re often cagier.” Matthews sees himself in the same light when telling of his rise to prominence as a behind-the-scenes slinger of partisan zingers for the uneloquent speaker. He does not let modesty prevent him from citing journalistic accounts that depict him as the Democrats’ star ventriloquist.
The “unspoken but paramount truth” for Matthews is that Reagan and O’Neill were “conviction politicians.” The title seems to fit the radical Reagan better than old pol O’Neill. In one respect, however, O’Neill contrasts mightily with the Republicans who are leading House Speaker John Boehner by the nose and conspiring to cheat Obama of his health-care victory. O’Neill did not pretend to misread Reagan’s landslide. “He was going to allow the White House’s fiscal agenda — all the spending and tax cuts — to be debated and voted upon in the House by August 1. There would be no procedural games, no foot-dragging.”
By implication, the book succeeds in making Boehner’s, or the tea party’s, House look like a confederacy of dunces, addicted to “government by tantrum.” Praise for Reagan’s skill at reaching across party lines also contrasts with President Obama’s stand-offish image. Their clashes looked feverish at the time, but this book is an invitation to join Tip and the Gipper in tall tales about how grand it was in the old country.
TIP AND THE GIPPER
When Politics Worked
By Chris Matthews
Simon & Schuster. 423 pp. $29.95