I think they had a couple of things in common. They were old school. They had a lot of respect for institutions. And I think they also took seriously deadlines, like the budget had to get through by a certain date.
It’s not a zero-sum game. Speaker O’Neill’s challenge to Ronald Reagan made Reagan look better. And taking on Reagan and modifying a lot of his more radical decisions made Tip look better. Speaker O’Neill was able to trim some of [Reagan’s] initiatives, so in the end it was a much more moderate Reagan era than it would have been otherwise.
One real advantage was they were older men, around 70 both of them. Reagan knew it was the only presidency he was going to have, obviously, and the speaker knew that Reagan was his last president. They knew this was their last chance saloon, their last chance to really do something in public life, so they couldn’t mess around.
They weren’t looking to play games with each other. I think that was the big difference from today. They weren’t afraid to agree, to be seen agreeing, and they weren’t afraid to compromise. I think today there seems to be a premium on fighting rather than compromise and on never wanting to be seen in the company, even, of the other side.
[Working for O’Neill] was the toughest job I ever had. There were three Tip O’Neills: There was the Santa Claus who’d do anything for you, there was the Black Irishman who always suspected something wasn’t on the level, and then there was the politician. And thank God the politician and Santa were allies. But the other guy was there, too. And he was suspicious of people, so you had to deliver, and I did. — As told to Joel Brown (Interview has been edited and condensed.)
READ ONTip and the Gipper: When Politics Workedwill be released Tuesday. On Thursday, Matthews will appear at noon at the Harvard Coop (617-499-2000, harvardcoopbooks.com) and at 7 p.m. at the Cambridge Public Library (617-349-4040, cambridgema.gov/cpl).