I’m no fan of Matthews. Nothing personal. I’m no fan of any TV talking head shows mostly because I think all they do is stoke angers. I can’t bear to listen to Matthews’ yelling but more than his yelling what I find hard to take is that he’s a sentimentalist.
This actually makes me like him more than I do most of his colleagues who either go in for cheap cynicism or sophomoric ironies.
But Matthews seems to have gained his world view from Frank Capra’s movies and the paintings of Norman Rockwell, entirely missing the point that Capra and Rockwell were both saying Too bad people really aren’t like this, but it wouldn’t it be nice if they were? Listen to Matthews, even when he’s hopping mad, and you can’t miss it. He thinks we all live in Bedford Falls.
When I want to think life is like a Frank Capra movie or a Norman Rockwell painting I watch a Frank Capra movie or look at Norman Rockwell’s paintings.
I don’t buy books by Chris Matthews.
His Kennedy bio, Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero, was just another visit to Camelot. The sentimentality of this new dual portrait of Tip O’Neill and Ronald Reagan is breezily and fatuously announced in the title, which I know Matthews may not have chosen himself. Reagan never answered to “Gipper.” It was an advertising slogan cynical members of the Press Corps parroted to help peddle an image of Reagan as a wise in his folksy way, genial but tough when he had to be father-figure that nobody in Washington bought except, apparently, a young aide to Tip O’Neill named Chris Matthews.
The premise of Tip and the Gipper, that politics worked in the 1980s because O’Neill and Reagan could put aside partisan differences and hash out compromises for the good of the American people, doesn’t jibe at all with my memories of the time. Politics worked when O’Neill and other Democrats in the House and the Senate got together to keep Reagan from getting what he wanted and forced him into accepting things he didn’t want.
Here’s the odd thing though.
If I hadn’t already decided to give Tip and the Gipper the skip, Greenberg’s review wouldn’t have convinced me to. In fact, it might have made me want to read it.
There are things in it that strike me as being as basically wrong as calling Reagan the Gipper.
Starting with this:
The problems begin with the false symmetry Matthews sets up. He paints Reagan and O’Neill as mirror images: two “larger than life” “Irish-American” politicians, titans of their parties, standard-bearers for their worldviews. But O’Neill wasn’t “larger than life” (only large). Nor was he a notable spokesman for liberalism as Reagan was for conservatism — or as Barney Frank and Ted Kennedy were for liberalism. Even the most powerful House speakers haven’t rivaled the president in importance.
Greenberg should have tried out that paragraph in certain precincts around Boston.
Tip O’Neill didn’t appear on the national stage as Speaker of the House in 1981 any more than Reagan made his entrance in the 1980 Presidential election. O’Neill became a “titan” of his party as Democratic Majority Leader during Watergate. There’s really no defending the phrase “larger than life” but if any politician of the last third of the 20th Century could be accurately described as larger than life, and not just large, ha ha, it was O’Neill. And someone who’d be happy to tell you so is Barney Frank, who during the Reagan years wasn’t the “notable spokesman” for liberalism he would become. He was a very junior member of Congress whose influence, to the degree he had any, was due to his being the protégé of Tip O’Neill who was grooming him to become the first Jewish Speaker of the House. The reasons Frank never became Speaker are obvious but he almost didn’t last out the eighties as Congressman at all. He survived “coming out of the room” as O’Neill put it and the scandal that attended it because O’Neill protected him. There’s no being glad of Barney Frank without being glad of Tip O’Neill. When Reagan came to Washington, he wasn’t met by just some “old-style, steaks-and-cigars Boston Irish pol”, as Greenberg would have it. He was met by the Democratic politician who may have been most instrumental in running Richard Nixon out of town.
Greenberg gets to the central fallacy of Matthews’ book by pointing out that O’Neill and Reagan squared off against each other from the start, although I’m not sure that his one example is all that telling as evidence of O’Neill’s less than larger than life status or that he and Reagan didn’t spend Reagan’s Presidency in affable deal-making.
But on the key legislative issue of Reagan’s presidency — the 1981 fight over his budget, which slashed taxes on the rich — O’Neill simply got rolled. Spooked by the president’s popularity, which surged after he was shot by John Hinckley in March of that year, O’Neill failed to compete with Reagan in the new age of media politics. Worse, he also came up short in his supposed strong suit — riding herd on his caucus — as scores of Democrats, fearing the tax-cutting bandwagon, defected to back the Reagan bill. The consequences — skyrocketing budget deficits and debilitating inequality — have plagued us ever since.
Those tax cuts happened right at the beginning of Reagan’s first term when he was flush from his trouncing of Jimmy Carter and the economy was still a wreck from years of double-digit inflation, slow economic growth, and stubbornly high unemployment. It’s hard to oppose tax cuts under any circumstances, let alone those doleful ones.
(To be fair to Greenberg, who is a professor of history, journalism, and media studies and Rutgers University, the review reads like something that started out much longer and was haphazardly trimmed to fit by a hurried and distracted copyeditor with no real knowledge of the subject at hand.)
The real question is what happened over the course of the next seven years?
And basically what happened is what didn’t. Reagan wasn’t able to bring about the Reagan Revolution movement conservatives hoped for.
Not that he didn’t do damage.
It’s just that without Democratic opposition---obstructionism?---led by O’Neill the Reagan Years would have looked a lot like the George W. Bush years. Just as a for instance, Reagan wanted to go to war, at least by proxy, in Central America. He wanted to overthrow the Sandinistas in Nicaragua and replace them with Right Wing militarists. That didn’t happen. And it didn’t happen not because Reagan and O’Neill put aside their differences. It didn’t happen because Reagan lost the political battle to O’Neill.
Central to understanding what was going on between Reagan and O’Neill is Iran-Contra, which is not a story of the happy triumph of bipartisanship.
Reagan and O’Neill did practice the art of self-interested hypocrisy. But that’s what it was on both their parts, hypocrisy. They pretended to get along despite their differences in order to maintain their sanity as much as anything else. But the differences mattered to them. They were both intensely partisan and both fighters by nature.
But there were other factors at work shaping their relationship, one of them being Reagan’s health, which was not good.
Reagan was genuinely of the Right. But he wasn’t as ideologically committed to Reaganism or Reaganomics as his disciples would have and as they are. He was pragmatic and he was something else. Old. His image as a man who somehow defied age was an image. His brave and cheerful response to the assassination attempt inspired affection and admiration among people who loathed his politics but really the wound took a lot out of him, physically and mentally. It aged him. He didn’t recover like a young man. It’s likely he never truly recovered. And then there was his Alzheimer’s. It’s clear now, and should have been then, that in his second term he was already drifting away.
Throughout almost the whole of Presidency, Reagan didn’t have the physical energy or mental focus necessary for a sustained ideological battle. What may have looked to the young Chris Matthews like a willingness on Reagan’s part to cut deals and make compromises may very well have been evidence that Reagan just didn’t have the stamina left to care.
O’Neill was on the way out the door himself, as it happened.
In other words, what Matthews is remembering as a golden time in American politics was in reality a tale of two old men wearing out in public.
Maybe I’m being sentimental.
Let me add this.
The reason sentimentality has to be guarded against is that it often also nostalgic. Nostalgia is pernicious because it causes us to see people and events out of time, that is, apart from the circumstances and conditions that made them what they were and as cut off from things they themselves caused in the present.
Even if Matthews was right about the relationship between Reagan and O’Neill, it has to be seen as a product of the political conditions of the time, and there’s no making it a model for our political moment without recreating those conditions and undoing the political history of the last twenty-five years.
Some things happened since the days Tip and the Gipper hoisted beers together and those things were brought about by things Ronald Reagan did.
Greenberg points out something that can’t be pointed out enough when talking about Ronald Reagan. Yes, the man could be genial. That warm chuckle and the twinkle in his eye were genuine signs of a sunny disposition and affable nature. But he had a mean streak.
And it infected his politics. It was there in his talk about Welfare Queens. It was there in his callous indifference to the AIDS crisis. It was there in his dismissal of all the small Midwestern farmers facing foreclosure and the ruin of their and their families’ and their communities’ lives as “the inefficient.”
And with a warm chuckle and a twinkle he sold that meanness to the nation. Government is the problem, he said, but the problem was that government, liberal government, was based on the idea that we’re all in this together.
Nonsense, the Gipper chuckled and twinkled, we don’t owe anything to each other, we’re all in for ourselves, and the object of government to the degree it has one is to keep out of the way of the selfish and greedy.
Reagan himself wasn’t able to enshrine that in legislation because Tip O’Neill wouldn’t stand for it.
It had to wait for the arrival on the national stage of another larger than life politician.
All Reagan’s heirs have had as their goal to out-Reagan Reagan in meanness.
But Newt got their first and paved the way for the rest of them.
As you could probably tell, the reason I resent Greenberg’s characterization of Tip O’Neill is that it’s a challenge to my own probably sentimental view the man. That view is the product of two things, his actually having been my Congressman for during the first four years of Reagan’s Presidency and my having read at a too impressionable age Jimmy Breslin’s How the Good Guys Finally Won: Notes From an Impeachment Summer, still to my mind one of the best books about Watergate, although sentimental as only Breslin can be.