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Reagan, O'Neill, and Someone Named Chris

Reagan, O'Neill, and Someone Named Chris

By Craig Shirley - October 30, 2013

An actual history should be written someday about Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill. But not by Chris Matthews.

Matthews’s new book, “Tip and the Gipper,” is not the history of Ronald Reagan and neither is it the history of Thomas P. O’Neill III. It is the history of Chris Matthews before he became the Chris Matthews we see on cable television today. It falls into the category of micro personal history, but is so elfin as to be inconsequential.

There are several reasons for this. Matthews has assured Washington for years that he was a close aide and confidant to the former speaker of the House. Presumably in support of this narrative, Matthews invites readers of “Tip and the Gipper” to also look at O’Neill’s autobiography, “Man of the House.” That book provided some important source material for his own, says Matthews.

So this historian closely examined O’Neill’s book -- and found no mention of Chris Matthews in the index. The photo section was also inspected. No pictures of Matthews. Was Matthews the “ghost” on O’Neill’s book? No -- William Novak aided in this task. So is Matthews in the dedication, then? No again. Only in the acknowledgements section does his name appear, but only alongside the names of dozens of other staffers and individuals.

Other than that, there is no mention -- zip, nada -- of Matthews in the body of Tip O’Neill’s tome, though plenty of other aides and individuals are mentioned throughout and often warmly. “Man of the House,” by the way, is a treasure-trove of Reagan bashing, despite the hollow plea of Matthews that the two men were really the best of friends.

Tip O’Neill said it was “sinful” that Reagan had been elected president. He said Reagan didn’t care about the poor, and that Reagan would have made a better “king” than a president -- and that, in any event, Reagan was the “worst” president of his lifetime; a period that encompassed Jimmy Carter and Richard Nixon. There are dozens of other examples of Reagan-bashing, not excluding O’Neill’s ungentlemanly claim that Nancy Reagan was “the queen of Beverly Hills.”

He attacked Reagan for calling the Soviet Union “evil” and “godless” after it had murdered millions of people and outlawed religion. Indeed, one entire chapter of “Man of the House” is devoted mostly to harsh criticism of Reagan. In 1984, O’Neill advised Democratic nominee Walter Mondale that he had to “remove the evil that’s in the White House at the present time.” What was that about close friends?

But back to Chris Matthews.

It is possible to be overlooked by your own mentor, and it’s happened to better men than Chris Matthews, but it’s still telling to contrast how Matthews views his own role in history with how O’Neill and other contemporaries viewed it. (Matthews is not mentioned Reagan’s diaries or autobiography and appears in no other important books about the events of the 1980s, either.)

To read “Tip and the Gipper,” then, is to understand how much Matthews wishes the reader to believe he was a crucial part of those events, which is what really gets to the nub of what is wrong with his new work.

History comes in many packages. There is the broad expanse of Winston Churchill’s seven volumes on his life and times, or Dumas Malone’s sweep of Jefferson in six volumes. There is the micro history, focusing on the events of one day, such as Gordon Prange’s “At Dawn We Slept,” the single best book ever written about Dec. 7, 1941.

Matthews’s book does not concern a single day, but it’s a kind of micro personal history with a narrow focus: the relationship between two men. The trick to writing personal micro history, however, is make the story compelling to readers by putting them in the room where action is taking place. Most authors do this with detail. Matthews does not.

His book reads like an unimaginative teenager’s dry diary crammed full of first person pronouns. (I asked the publisher for an unedited copy of Matthews’s diary, by the way, on which his new book is partly based. That never materialized.) Strangely, Matthews does not even tell the reader much that is interesting about himself, save the advice he was giving O’Neill or the people who were championing his career. He writes about direct-mail fundraising, but omits the nasty hit piece signed by O’Neill that made Reagan so furious he wrote about it in his own diary.

On one point Matthews does relate something interesting about himself. It seems Chris habitually got into trouble with O’Neill over -- you guessed it -- his penchant for egregious self-promotion. He also apparently worked hard to plant embarrassing stories about Reagan, according to “Tip and the Gipper.”

Another major failing of the book: The attempt to convince readers that O’Neill and Reagan were close chums and that Reagan loved making compromises. Nothing could be further from the truth. “Tip and the Gipper” is essentially a theory in search of facts. Matthews tries hard to make the case that Reagan and O’Neill were fraternity brothers of a sort, but never really presents the evidence except that they got together on St. Patrick’s Day. To the extent that they were polite (though not always) with each other is more a reflection of their upbringing than any sort of close relationship. To wit, O’Neill died in January 1994. Attending the funeral in Boston were both Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford. Reagan did not attend, although later that year he attended the funeral of Richard Nixon.

Reagan’s close aide Mike Deaver once told me that the Gipper was “the most competitive son of a bitch who ever lived.” Truth be told, Ronald Reagan loved conflict, loved competition and hated losing. He was no “Great Compromiser,” as Matthews alleges. That was Henry Clay. Reagan was the Great Communicator, but he was also the Great Combatant. Just ask anyone who went up against him over the years. Stu Spencer, who knew Reagan beginning in 1965, told me often he thought Reagan was the toughest and most resilient man he ever knew. Another longtime Reagan confidant, Martin Anderson, called him “warmly ruthless.”

From the time he took on the administration at Eureka College, to his fights with studio moguls in Hollywood, to his fiery speech for Barry Goldwater in 1964, to challenging -- and conquering -- the GOP establishment in 1966, 1976 and 1980, to taking on the establishment over the Panama Canal treaties, to his own government shutdowns, to firing the nation’s air traffic controllers to staring down Gorbachev at Reykjavik (whew) -- this was not a man who was conflict-averse.

Matthews relishes telling how Reagan and O’Neill worked together in 1982 to pass TEFRA, a massive tax increase. What Matthews does not adequately address is the widespread resistance within the GOP led by Jack Kemp (with help from Newt Gingrich), or that Reagan’s nationally televised address urging support was one of the most poorly received speeches of his presidency. O’Neill often dismissed Gingrich and Kemp as “Reagan’s robots,” something given short shrift in Matthews’s book.

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Craig Shirley is the author of two best-selling books about Ronald Reagan, including “Rendezvous With Destiny” and “Reagan’s Revolution.” He is also the author of the best-selling “December 1941; 31 Days That Changed America and Saved the World” and is the president of Shirley & Banister. He is now writing several more books about Reagan, including “Last Act.” He has lectured at the Reagan Library, is the Visiting Reagan Scholar at Eureka College, and is a member of the Board of Governors of the Reagan Ranch.

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