Thursday, Oct. 3, 2013 | 2 a.m.
Disagreement over whether to raise the debt ceiling is an old story in Washington. What’s new is the inability of leaders of both parties to amicably avert such a crisis. Consider Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill.
No Republican House member would go along with Jimmy Carter’s desire to raise the debt ceiling in 1980. But when Reagan became president in 1981, he needed to keep Democrats in favor of the increase.
His solution? He went to House Speaker O’Neill, who said he’d oblige, but only if Reagan supplied a personal note for every Democratic House member requesting their support, providing cover against any future opponents. The next day, 234 letters arrived.
Chris Matthews shares the anecdote in his book “Tip and the Gipper: When Politics Worked.”
“It’s an example of how the two parties could actually put up the truce flag for a while and get something done,” Matthews told me. As he writes in his book, “Both knew when to make a fist and when to shake hands.”
That Reagan and O’Neill would treat each other like adults was evident before Inauguration Day. Just two weeks after winning the election, Reagan paid a courtesy call to O’Neill in his Capitol Hill office. O’Neill told Reagan that while they’d often disagree during the day, they’d be friends after 6 p.m. and on weekends.
“The president-elect seemed to like that formulation, and over the next six years, he would often begin our telephone discussion by saying, ‘Hello, Tip, is it after six o’clock?’ ” O’Neill wrote in his own memoir. “ ‘Absolutely, Mr. President,’ I would respond. Our watches must have been in sync, because even with our many intense political battles, we managed to maintain a pretty good friendship.”
The O’Neills were among the Reagans’ first dinner guests at the White House. It was O’Neill who kneeled beside Reagan’s hospital bed after he’d been shot, the two men reciting the 23rd Psalm. Matthews says that Reagan’s willingness to doggedly court the opposition was something President Barack Obama has never wanted to do.
“I mean Reagan made his name in Hollywood because he cultivated a relationship with Pat O’Brien. How do you think he got the role of the Gipper?” Matthews said. “He worked these relationships, and I don’t understand how you think you don’t have to do it.”
But Matthews notes that Reagan and O’Neill were also willing to play hardball.
“They were conviction politicians. The conservative and the liberal who personified their philosophies and yet, at the end of the day when they got to the point where they couldn’t get any further on their own, they knew when to deal.
“The fighting was real and the deal-making was real. I just think it’s like Muhammad Ali is the greatest fighter in history, but he fought by rules. You know, he didn’t kick. You know? He didn’t scratch the other guy’s eyes out. He fought by the rules, and I think that’s what they can teach us.”
And any difference between Reagan and O’Neill remained within our borders. In 1985, when O’Neill led a congressional delegation to Moscow, he was carrying a personal letter from Reagan to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev seeking a meeting. When Gorbachev told the House speaker he didn’t understand what it meant to be the leader of the opposition party, since both major U.S. parties opposed communism, O’Neill schooled the Soviet leader on how “we stand together in support of the president of the United States,” Matthews writes in “Tip and the Gipper.
“You can’t imagine that today. You can’t imagine John Boehner being the envoy for Barack Obama to Putin, and yet the stakes were much higher back then. We had nuclear war to worry about,” Matthews told me.
Why Matthews has chosen this moment to release a book with stories he lived three decades ago is obvious. As he told me, “What we’re going through right now is not normal American politics.”
Michael Smerconish is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer.