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opinion | Chris Matthews

Yes, politics was once friendly

Kirk O’Donnell, chief counsel to Tip O’Neill, advised, “always be able to talk.”file 1988/the boston Globe

A new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll finds that 78 percent of us think the country’s headed in the wrong direction. The true surprise is the 14 percent who think that things are getting better.

Government shutdowns that once amounted to a couple of days are now more than a couple of weeks. And who knows how to measure the possible cost of the threat to stop payment on the national debt?

There was once a man who personified the very opposite of this political dysfunction.

Kirk O’Donnell was chief counsel and partisan consigliore to Speaker of the House Thomas P. O’Neill. He was, by the great man’s own estimate, “hard as a rock.” Young in years, he knew the rules of the old crowd and employed them with brio. I know because he took the time to teach them to me.


It was Kirk, beside whom I worked in the speaker’s office back in the Ronald Reagan years, who confected that blazing “third rail of American politics” for the unforgettable danger that awaits any politician who dares to touch Social Security benefits. He watched, as I did, what happened to the Reagan team when they made the error in 1981, again in 1982, and finally got wise in the great Social Security compromise with Tip O’Neill in early 1983.

Kirk got that “third rail” notion as a young kid growing up in Boston. He would have nightmares from seeing those scary old MTA signs that warned: NO TRESPASSING. DANGER THIRD RAIL.

But as I said, he possessed savvy beyond his age and time, wisdom both street-smart and big-picture. It was Kirk who not only taught me the rules of politics, but, just as important, that there are rules. He had refined them early on setting up those “Little City Halls” for Kevin White. He knew that “all politics is local” long before being recruited by Speaker O’Neill in the late 1970s.

How many times in our daily war with “The Great Communicator” did I hear him say, “You make your breaks,” or “You gotta play your strengths,” or “It’s all about the timing?” It’s how I got the idea for “Hardball,” which I wrote after the speaker retired.


What’s missed now in American politics is Kirk’s finest advice.

It’s applicable to marriage, work relationships, and most especially to rivalries: “Always be able to talk.”

I believe Speaker O’Neill and President Reagan honored that truism to a T. When I first met the conservative hero — he had come to Capitol Hill to give an early State of the Union — I tried breaking the ice. “Welcome to the room where we plot against you,” I offered. “Oh no,” Reagan countered. “It’s after six. The speaker told me that here in Washington we’re all friends after six.”

Critics can say what they will to diminish the importance of that sentiment. I believe it masks a far deeper value. It said that after all the fighting, all the battling of left and right here in this country, we’re in this thing together. In the end what matters is the system of self-government itself. It’s what gives us the chance to make things better.

All those hours of social time between the liberal speaker and the conservative president, all the shared birthday parties and over-the-top Irish toasts, all the Saint Patrick’s Days spent together, served to keep open the lines of communication.

Reagan knew it. He would call the speaker in midafternoon and ask him to reset his watch. “Let’s pretend it’s after six,” he’d say and then come through with his offer.


Together these two saved Social Security for generations, cut the top individual tax rate down to 28 percent while equalizing it with capital gains. That gave a piece of the bargain to the supply-side conservatives — not to mention the wealthy — and something important to progressives, equal treatment of money made from money with money made from work.

Some of their quiet cross-the-aisle dealing could be traced to the two men’s tribal connection. They enjoyed their Irishness. When Tip wrote the president a confidential letter late in 1985 asking for help with Margaret Thatcher on Northern Ireland, Reagan came through. It was the beginning of the Anglo-Irish Agreement, an advent to The Good Friday settlement and with it an end to the Troubles.

Kirk O’Donnell was behind that, too. As the speaker’s foreign policy aide, he deserves credit for helping to bring together “The Four Horsemen”: Senator Edward Kennedy, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Governor Hugh Carey, and O’Neill. It was this quartet who moved the American Irish community to the peace effort.

For Tip O’Neill, it didn’t end there. When Mikhail Gorbachev became the new Soviet leader, he led the bipartisan delegation to Moscow carrying Reagan’s letter pressing for a meeting.

“Always be able to talk,” Kirk O’Donnell, who died in 1998 at age 52, would faithfully urge. It would make all the difference to history.

We lost Kirk way too early — for him, his Democratic Party, and the country. We can use his counsel now more than ever.


Chris Matthews is host of MSNBC’s “Hardball.’’ His new book is “Tip and the Gipper: When Politics Worked.”