Before he became a journalist, Chris Matthews was a top aide to House Speaker Tip O’Neill. In this exclusive excerpt from his new book, Tip and the Gipper: When Politics Worked, Matthews shares his behind-the-scenes insight into how President Reagan and O’Neill came together to ensure the passage of the Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Act (TEFRA) of 1982.
When it was announced that the president asked for a primetime slot to explain to the nation his support for the bill, I suggested to the Speaker that he name Tom Foley, No. 3 in the Democratic leadership and a respected intellectual from Spokane, Washington, to give the response.
Tom had long been a friend to me, one who always backed what I was doing, and when he got the word, he asked me to write what he would say. Unfortunately, as soon as he had my draft in his hands, his verdict was that it was too tough. I’d let my enthusiasm get the better of my judgment, Foley persuaded me. I’d taken too partisan a tone for the occasion. The beginning I’d come up with knocked pretty much every aspect of Reagan’s presidency to date, and only after that did I get into the business of pushing for the new tax bill. The speech had been a lot of fun to concoct, I have to admit, as I imagined it being heard by millions of fellow Americans. Tom’s advice was to skip the nasty preamble and keep it simple. The president says we need this tax bill and the president is right.
Foley was right, too. He delivered his preferred version well and was a big success. The Speaker was especially pleased. Ever the “reader” of his colleagues, Tip was alert to the effect Foley had had. “Some of the people in our party who were more reluctant last week are more willing to listen today,” he noted, gratified.
The two speeches—Reagan’s and Foley’s — were broadcast on a Monday night. On Tuesday, the New York Stock Exchange had a near-record day of trading, with the Dow showing its biggest jump in history. Apparently, we were watching good politics validated by Wall Street.
The TEFRA vote was set for Thursday. On the day before, O’Neill put the vote in political perspective, his perspective. “The tax bill will not repeal Reaganomics,” he said in a morning statement. “Congress cannot with one vote correct the excesses and inequities of two years. But it is at least a step in the right direction. It is a step away from ‘trickle-down’ economics and a step toward common sense. I urge my fellow Democrats to support the bill because it is the only opportunity Congress has this year to restore sanity and fairness to national economic policy.”
That same Wednesday, Tip appeared at the White House in a show of unity. Reagan recorded the occasion with his usual descriptive brevity: “Interesting photo opportunity in Rose Garden with Tip O’Neill, Bolling & our leaders as a bipartisan group for the tax bill. Tonight a dinner in the W.H. for a group of undecideds.”
I awoke the morning of the vote with my own doubts. “Tax vote comes today. Watching television and reading the press I get different impression than from the floor. Members are voting for this bill. I mean by that the average members who vote on the basis of national politics. I just don’t see support for this beyond the good- thinking group of 50-70 and the leadership. I heard yesterday that the Democratic Conservative Forum was going to vote against the bill. Now the polls show [the] people against it. Need to make clear: that this is vote necessitated by the failure and excesses of Reaganomics.”
As they usually were, the big vote was scheduled for a Thursday night. I’d come to love such occasions, despite the grievous losses of the previous year. With the House chamber filled, the Republican leader, Bob Michel, the Democratic leader, Jim Wright, and finally, the Speaker, would “close debate.” It was like the summations in a courtroom drama, the moment when those in attendance sit quietly, offering their respectful attention.
This occasion was different. After two years of battling the president, Tip O’Neill was joining Reagan in the fight. Both were battling from the center outward. Reagan needed to shrink the deficit; Tip needed to move the country’s attention off Washington and back to pocketbook issues back at home.
It had been a stressful day for the president. That morning, his father-in-law, Dr. Loyal Davis, a pioneering neurosurgeon, had died in Arizona, where he was living in retirement. Here’s Reagan on how the day had gone: “Nancy wasn’t alone — thank Heaven Ron & Doria were there. But it seemed awful to be here & not be with her. All day I sat at my desk phoning Congressmen on the tax bill and tonite it passed with 103 Repub. votes & more than half the Dems. 226 to 207. Tip O’Neill made a speech to Repubs. telling them why they should support me. It seemed strange — both of us on the same side. The Sen. took it up tonite and it won 53 to 47. Again some of our ultra pure conservatives deserted. Now I’m packing to leave for Phoenix & my Sweetheart.”
The vote on TEFRA, while little noticed in history, was a true profile in courage by the House majority. There was really nothing in the bill to benefit either Republican or Democrat — not really. How could you go home and brag you’d just raised taxes? That said, something had to give. With the country still punished by high interest rates, a spike in federal deficits could have killed the hoped-for recovery.
I remember standing near a Democratic member from upstate New York, Henry Nowak, as he cast his “Aye” vote. “My opponent doesn’t have an issue,” he said, if only to himself. Then, pushing his member’s card into the voting slot, he said: “Now he does.”
After the vote, the president called Tip to thank him for his support. In return, the Speaker offered a treasured story. “Did you hear that the Irish gave the bagpipe to the Scots and they took it seriously?” Yes, it was a gift, what they’d done, but one of unclear political value.
My own diary — “Friday — August 20. Leave for vacation today — (with a new baby!) New Jersey tonight, NY Sat. Mass. Sunday. Tip did solid job on floor yesterday. He [is] quoted throughout paper today saying that young Republicans should vote for Reagan because 30 of them came to the House on his coattails. Peter Hart [the pollster], Kirk tells me, will be happy at fact that Tip is not acting partisan but being cooperative in his opposition.”
Mary McGrory appreciated the irony. of the occasion. A liberal true believer in Jack Kennedy and Gene McCarthy both, she had a good deal in common with Tip O’Neill, whom she much admired, being an Irish-American from Massachusetts just as he was. However, Mary had beat him to Washington, having come to live and work there in 1947, six years before he arrived as a young first-term representative. From their different vantage points, they were both old-guard Democrats now and seasoned watchers of the partisan wars.
In her Washington Post column of August 24, she wrote, shrewdly of the startling history that had just been made, coming to the conclusion that “bipartisanship can be fun.”
It happened last Thursday when House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O’Neill Jr. (D-Mass.) lumbered to the well and had the incomparable experience of lecturing the opposition on the subject of loyalty to Ronald Reagan.
Seldom does statesmanship come in the form of sweet revenge. In the dead still of the chamber, O’Neill instructed the younger House Republicans on their debt and duty to their leader.
What the Speaker had told the potential Republican bolters was this: “You are here because of Reagan. You are here because he was elected president of the United States. He brought you to the Congress of the United States, and now we are on the eve of an election and he is asking for a change of policy. Are you going to follow the leader that brought you here, or are you going to run? I ask you just to think of that.”
McGrory applauded his statesmanship. “If he could put aside his differences with the president (“We seldom agree,” O’Neill said), they could, he told them. One hundred and three Republicans gritted their teeth, and voted for the bill Ronald Reagan had to swallow so hard to accept.”
It had “seemed strange,” wrote Ronald Reagan, this joining together with Tip. But it would prove good politics — for both of them.
Chris Matthews is the host of MSNBC’s Hardball. His most recent bestseller is Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero, which spent three months on the New York Times bestseller list. He is also the author of Hardball; Kennedy and Nixon; Now, Let Me Tell You What I Really Think; and American: Beyond Our Grandest Notion.