Tip and the Gipper
When Politics Worked
When Ronald Reagan was elected to the presidency in a landslide victory over Jimmy Carter (for whom Matthews had worked as a speechwriter), Speaker O’Neill realized Americans had voted for a change. For the first time in his career, O’Neill also found himself thrust into the national spotlight as the highest-ranking leader of the Democratic Party—the most visible and respected challenger to President Reagan’s agenda of shrinking the government and lowering taxes.
At first, O’Neill doubted his ability to compete on the public stage with the charming Hollywood actor, whose polished speeches played well on TV, a medium O’Neill had never mastered. Over time, the burly Irishman learned how to fight the popular president on his key issues, relying on legislative craftiness, strong rhetoric, and even guerrilla theater. “An old dog can learn new tricks,” Tip told his staff. Of O’Neill, one of his colleagues said, “If Martians came into the House chamber, they’d know instantly who the leader was.”
Meanwhile, President Reagan proved to be a much more effective and savvy leader than his rivals had ever expected, achieving major legislative victories on taxes and the federal budget. Reagan and his allies knew how to work the levers of power in Washington. After showing remarkable personal fortitude in the wake of the assassination attempt against him, Reagan never let his political differences with Democrats become personal. He was fond of the veteran Speaker’s motto that political battles ended at 6 p.m. So when he would phone O’Neill, he would say, “Hello, Tip, is it after six o’clock?”
Together, the two leaders fought over the major issues of the day—welfare, taxes, covert military operations, and Social Security—but found their way to agreements that reformed taxes, saved Social Security, and achieved their common cause of bringing peace to Northern Ireland. O’Neill’s quiet behind-the-scenes support helped Reagan forge his historic Cold War–ending bond with Mikhail Gorbachev. They each won some and lost some, and through it all they maintained respect for each other’s positions and worked to advance the country rather than obstruct progress.
As Matthews notes, “There is more than one sort of heroic behavior, and they don’t all look the same.” Tip and the Gipper is the story of the kind of heroism we need today.