Contributors

Liberals should admit Tip O'Neill was Reagan's bitter enemy, not his friend

We wish liberal Chris Matthews would stop citing Ronald Reagan. We wish liberal Jennifer Rubin would stop citing Ronald Reagan. Same for liberal E.J. Dionne and other agenda-driven liberal reporters. Because who they say is Ronald Reagan is not Ronald Reagan. What they say is so ain't so.

 

President Trump's apparent and newfound friendship with Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer and his cold-shoulder of GOP leaders has confused many. Others have looked to history for examples of the same. Don't look to President Reagan's relationship with House Speaker Tip O'Neill though. It's wrong. It is historically illiterate.

 

"Look to the 1980s," some may say. "Reagan was a friend of Tip O'Neill, and they worked closely with one another. Surely if Reagan could do it and still be favored by conservatives, Trump could too, right?"

 

Wrong. Because Ronald Reagan and Tip O'Neill rarely worked together and were never friends. Take, for example, the speaker in July 1984: "The evil is in the White House at the present time. And that evil is a man who has no care and no concern for the working class of America and the future generations of America, and who likes to ride a horse. He's cold. He's mean. He's got ice water for blood."

 

 

Take the speaker in 1983: "He only works three to three-and-a-half hours a day. He doesn't do his homework. He doesn't read his briefing papers. It's sinful that this man is president of the United States."

 

Take the speaker's own autobiography, published in 1987, which had an entire chapter dedicated to Reagan - and nothing about it was positive. He slammed the president and slammed the president's friends and president's supporters, calling them "Reagan Robots." He called Nancy Reagan "The Queen of Beverly Hills." The distaste that the speaker held for anyone with an R behind his name was not subtle, especially Reagan.

 

Reagan himself was much more diplomatic in his own autobiography, An American Life. After the 1984 election, in which Reagan won 49 of 50 states and 59 percent of the popular vote, Reagan recounts, "Tip O'Neill made a point of telling me privately that he was very much aware of the fact that we had received fifty-nine percent of the vote during the election. I had hoped that was a signal he'd be more agreeable the second time around, but it didn't work out that way. As far as he was concerned, it still wasn't six o'clock."

 

Reagan was naturally optimistic - that was the entire platform of his political philosophy - but even here he realized that his optimism with O'Neill was probably more naivete.

 

In his diaries, however, he was less than diplomatic. Though the president never cursed or swore in his diaries (he even censored the word "hell"), he showed his frustration with the speaker. He called him "a solid New Dealer" who believed "in reducing the states to admin. districts of the Fed. govt." To Reagan, given his views on federalism, this was nearly synonymous with the left-wing dictatorships in Europe (in fact, Reagan had said in one Christmas address that New Dealers were in fact fascist sympathizers). Reagan accused the speaker of "playing games" and refusing to support bipartisan measures. He also groused in his diaries about a Tip O'Neill fundraising letter which falsely accused Reagan of cancelling Social Security. Friends? Really? What utter nonsense. 

 

The main substantial and early aisle-crossing legislation, which many point to as a Reagan-O'Neill friendship, was the Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Act of 1982, which increased taxes. And even then, the main promise from O'Neill - to cut spending - was broken, causing a major thorn in the president's image and his opinion of the leader. They only did business together twice: TEFRA and a deal on Social Security. Chris Matthews, in his book on the relationship between the two men, prances through Washington falsely claiming they did the 1986 Tax Reform legislation together. Wrong. Reagan did the deal with House Ways and Means Chairman Dan Rostenkowski. O'Neill was getting ready to retire.

 

If people want to look for bipartisan measures between the executive and legislative branches, they shouldn't look to Reagan and O'Neill. Instead, they should look to President Clinton and Speaker Newt Gingrich. True, the latter helped impeach the former, but before that hoopla went down, the two did restore the economy, and they did pass major reforms. No, they weren't best friends. But there was a substantial ability to compromise, far more so than Reagan and O'Neill.

 

Chris Matthews can't ignore Newt's importance, and he should try to improve his understanding of Reagan's.

 

Craig Shirley has written four bestsellers on Ronald Reagan and is the founder and chairman of public affairs firm Shirley & Banister. Scott Mauer is a research assistant at Shirley & Banister.The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.

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