Read Something: Chris Matthews’ “Tip and the Gipper”

IMG_0266      The Essentials

Tip and the Gipper: When Politics Worked / 423 pages (371 sans index)  Amazon/ $17.27

Chris Matthews: The author, currently the host of MSNBC’s Hardball, bases this book on his personal experiences as House Speaker Tip O’ Neill’s administrative assistant from 1981-1986.

Release: October 1, 2013 (The release of this book was timed almost too perfectly with the start of the current government shutdown. Something tells me it was intentional, as budget deadlines are known far in advance).

The Review

While the good folks at Simon & Schuster have categorized Matthews’ latest work as a biography, they could just as well have filed it under ‘fantasy’ because the government he describes seems unbelievable in today’s political climate.  A Speaker of the House and president of opposing parties working together? Not telegraphing every move to sabotage the enemy? Actually considering the other a friend? “Preposterous,” you say.  President Obama and Speaker Boehner can hardly conceal their contempt for one another, and Speaker Gingrich led the charge for President Clinton’s impeachment!

What most of us twentysomethings don’t remember, however, is that there was a time when politics wasn’t just a game of brinkmanship. There was a time when politics worked.  And that’s exactly what author Chris Matthews seeks to remind readers.  (“It serves no purpose at this time of habitual conflict to spin a tale of happy harmony; far better to illustrate how two very different figures managed to make politics work.”)

After Ronald Reagan’s decisive victory over President Jimmy Carter in 1980, liberal House Speaker Tip O’ Neill found himself in a quandary.  How could he lead the Democratic Party against the agenda of an extremely popular Republican president?  He couldn’t out charm him.  He couldn’t out orate him, as the Californian certainly knew how to give a rousing speech.  And there was no question in the white-haired Irishman’s mind who had a leg up in the looks department.  So, he decided to join his political opponent – not for the betterment of his party, but for the betterment of his country.

Now, Matthews is admittedly biased about his old boss, and perhaps that contributes to the larger-than-life personas described throughout the book.  (“For one thing, you couldn’t be trying to play the game of politics and fail to acknowledge the Speaker’s Boston-Irish toughness, a part of Washington lore.”)  And large personas create some emotional scenes of an almost cinematic quality – undoubtedly heightened by the president’s own acting background. (“‘Now wait a minute,’ came his reply.  This is the proposal that came from the Congress.  It’s on the table because you people put it on the table!” )  The grandiosity of his descriptions, however, is tempered by the abundant use of primary material, including O’Neill’s autobiography, Reagan’s diary, and Matthews’ own personal notes from the 1980s.

Despite Matthews’ biases, this isn’t a bitingly partisan read.  Yes, he recounts with glee some of the attacks he helped orchestrate against Republican opponents, but they aren’t prefaced with a series of name-calling low blows. They’re statements of fact that he describes with great political reasoning and respect.  For as much as Matthews’ clearly worked for Democrats to prevail, he writes admiringly of President Reagan and his cabinet. He gives credit where credit is due, and suggests that the two subjects of his book owe many of their successes to each other.  (“Reagan without Tip would have lacked the frequent pushback that kept him from the abyss of excess. Tip without Reagan would have been a man who’d reached the pinnacle without a reason to be there.”)  Above all, it was a complex partnership, and Matthews’ treats it as such.

He connects this complex partnership, as did I, to the current stalemate in Washington during the book’s preface and conclusion, but the comparison only seems to highlight more stark differences.  Reagan and O’ Neill were both aged Irishmen from the old order of politics.  As Matthews’ suggests throughout his book, it was largely those commonalities that created a bond that worked,  a politics that worked.  When those commonalities disappear, however, as they have over the last several decades, it’s hard to imagine how politics can work as it did in the 1980s.  The pols aren’t just old, white, and ethnically homogenous anymore.  They’re diverse and perhaps even more partisan, and that has made commonalities extremely difficult to find.

Thus, rather than serve as an example for how opposing sides can govern together, as Matthews hopes, his work serves as an example for how opposing sides did govern together.

The Quotables (The Juicy Stuff)

On O’ Neill’s initial impression of Reagan’s executive skills:

In the White House meetings they would now have regularly, he would watch Reagan and be fascinated by what seemed the president’s near-total reliance on “3×5 cards” when discussing policy (48).

On O’ Neill’s personal TV prep:

When he emerged [from the bathroom], I got a whiff of the richly old-fashioned scent I’d soon come to associate with his making himself camera-ready. Was it cologne? Or, possibly, hairspray? I wasn’t sure and never asked. But it was included in his ritual and I respected it, knowing it was a part of his armor (141).

On the Speaker’s non-traditional information gathering tactics:

The Speaker, certainly no jock at his age, had his own habits when it came to gym-going. Whenever I’d hear him say to his secretary, Eleanor Kelley, ‘I’m going over for a rub, Ell-nah,’ I knew he’d be clutching a handful of cigars he planned to share on arrival. The steam room camaraderie provided him with yet another opportunity to keep his ears to the ground, yet another way to read the House (158).

On O’ Neill’s meeting practices:

He would bellow loudest at the congressman he had decided well beforehand to support. This way, the loser would leave his office feeling that the Speaker saw his argument even if he did not end up siding with it (198).

On Reagan’s political style:

Reagan was the wholesaler of the two. He had few friends, and saw his associates as largely interchangeable, if not outright dispensable (287).

The Bottom Line

If you’re depressed by the government shutdown and in need of a little nostalgic optimism, you may want to give this book a try.  However, don’t go into this book thinking that Matthews will offer specific solutions on how to fix Washington’s current climate of extreme partisanship.  He doesn’t.  And if you’re just depressed by government in general…then this book probably isn’t for you.

Please note:  This isn’t a commissioned review.  No copyright infringement was intended in the writing of this review.

– l  xo


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