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November 14, 2013

Tip and Gipper a good pair, read

Cooperstown Crier

---- — Chris Matthews is best known as the host of Hardball on MSNBC. He is also known as someone who likes to hear himself talk (he frequently interrupts his guests) and as an unabashed promoter of his own books. The initial reaction from any self-respecting reader might be to avoid anything that is so shamelessly marketed. However, in the case of Matthews, that would be a mistake.

A couple of years ago he published the best-seller, “Jack Kennedy, Elusive Hero.” Matthews has never shied away from the fact that he idolizes Kennedy since the 35th president provided the inspiration for him to join the Peace Corps. That experience changed Matthews’ life and propelled him on the road to a life in politics. I have always been intrigued by Kennedy’s life myself but assumed that Matthews’ account would be a love-fest. Instead it was an even-handed biography that didn’t gloss over Kennedy’s many physical and personal failings. I was impressed.

Matthews’ latest offering is “Tip and the Gipper: When Politics Worked,” a look back to the 1980s when House Speaker Tip O’Neill clashed with President Ronald Reagan over a host of issues. Matthews is an appropriate person to tell the story because he was a close aide to O’Neill for six years. He also kept a daily journal of his time with the Speaker.

Despite Matthews’ admiration for O’Neill he is very complementary towards Reagan. Matthews notes that although Reagan may have had a black-and-white view of the world he was very well informed and engaged in the process of governing. In other words, he was no dummy. Similarly, while many of O’Neill’s detractors viewed him as a political hack he was actually quite sharp and knew how to use his position effectively.

The end result was a clash of titans. The liberal O’Neill saw government as the answer to the nation’s ills while the conservative Reagan saw it as the problem. The only thing these two men seemed to have in common was their Irish heritage.

Fortunately, despite their differences, both men believed in a functional government. They could be brutal with each other in the press and actually despised each other at times, but never severed the lines of communication. They knew they needed each other to get anything done. It also didn’t hurt that they enjoyed each other socially.

Matthews explores many of the critical issues of the day, including Social Security and tax reform. He witnessed first-hand how these two men would constantly clash yet somehow reach common ground more often than not. Compare that to today where gridlock rules and one side thinks talking to the other is the equivalent of treason.

It’s ironic that while living through the 1980s it didn’t seem like a golden era in politics. We had a lot of contentious battles over supply-side economics, the Iran-Contra scandal, budget deficits, and Star Wars. Yet, in the end, it was still a time when politicians could treat each other with respect and manage to get things done. “Tip and the Gipper” proves that government can work during even the most difficult of times and provides an object lesson for the future.

David Kent is the director of the Village Library of Cooperstown. He can be reached at