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,” which was released Tuesday.
“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 last week. 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, although 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.”
Soon thereafter, O’Neill gave Reagan a special flag as a 70th birthday present. 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.
And on O’Neill’s 69th birthday, Reagan hosted a White House celebration that culminated with champagne and Reagan’s recitation of an old Irish toast: “Tip, if I had a ticket to heaven and you didn’t have one too, I would give mine away and go to hell with you.”
The camaraderie lasted until O’Neill retired. Reagan was the headliner at a send-off at the Washington Hilton.
“I was there,” Matthews writes, reflective of having been hired as O’Neill’s administrative assistant in 1981. Not bad for a Philly guy whose initial job on Capitol Hill was a patronage position that allowed him to work in a congressional office by day, while his salary came working as a cop at night.
Matthews recounts how Reagan and O’Neill worked tirelessly on building relationships. Over drinks, with cigars or playing cards, O’Neill made it his business to get to know every member of the House.
Reagan hired the likes of Max Friedersdorf, Ken Duberstein and David Gergen — “all these guys who knew how to work politics and work Congress,” Matthews writes. And early on, Reagan attended the Gym Dinner, an annual event for former and current members, served at the staff cafeteria of the Longworth House Office Building.
“There was no program. It was purely an inside event and Reagan showed up and showed the courtesy and the respect for that dinner, and I realized all those guys wanted their picture taken,” Matthews told me. “It was an attempt to court people on their own turf and I thought it was great. I loved the fact that he put it in his diary that night that Carter never went to one of these.”
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, sbecause 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 writes for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Readers may contact him via www.smerconish.com.