I’ve had the privilege to be asked to review MSNBC host Chris Matthew’s newest book, “Tip and the Gipper: When Politics Worked.” The relationship between O’Neill and Reagan has been fiercely debated by commentators on both sides, but rarely with much merit, and to settle the argument once and for all, Matthews stepped in.
The book takes the reader through the many highs and lows of the 1980s political arena, from the attempted Reagan assassination to the Iran-Contra affair. First and foremost, the structure of his book is very well thought out. Matthews does a great job of blending his own personal experiences with researched material coming from a vast assortment of credible sources. Matthews begins to explain his journey as a young man fresh out of the Peace Corps and rather quickly makes his way up the ladder to eventually become House Speaker Tip O’Neills top aid. To get to this milestone, Matthews explains that he often looked for employment by Irish-Catholic Democrats in congress just to get his foot in the door. His strategy eventually paid off, but the only paid position he was able to get was one of a Capitol Hill police officer at night, as he worked free in a congressional office during the day.
He then goes on to explain the complicated relationship between his boss Tip O’Neill and President Reagan for the remainder of the book. Matthews acknowledges that this bond between the two was not perfect and in no way attempts to sugar coat the details. He provides an example of this when he cites the two men’s initial encounter of each other when O’Neill tells Reagan “You’re in the big leagues now,” a clear jab at Reagan’s non-existent federal government experience.
Matthews brings information from O’Neill’s and Reagan’s memoirs to support the fact that even during their most fierce battles, they were “always friends after six o’clock and on weekends.” One stand out example he points out is when Speaker O’Neill lead a delegation to Moscow to hand deliver Gorbachev a letter from President Reagan. Reagan could have easily sent a member of his cabinet to Moscow to deliver the letter, but instead reached across the aisle and opted to send O’Neill. He uses this, along with many other examples, to support his general argument.
Matthews presents the book in a kind of “actions speak louder than words” way, which can leave some readers unsure of what to make of O’Neill and Reagan’s relationship. But to a reader who has enough sense can put all of the pieces together and realize that the relationship was very far from perfect, but still much more effective and functional than what the country has today. The reader must realize that no relationship is perfect, but in order for one to prevail, it must function.
You have to look at the book as an argumentative piece, because subtlety throughout the book, it becomes clearer that the motivation behind it all is to provide the reader with factual examples of a time in America “when politics worked.” The book itself is an artful critique of the modern political system that the country is plagued with today, and is Matthews’s symbolic way of showing the great discontent this country has for its leaders.
The facts and examples used throughout the book are done well, but the thing I most admire about the book is the approach taken, which is a factual story with a latent argument beneath all of the surface content. One prime example of this was simply its release – October 1, 2013 – the same day that marked the beginning to the government shut down. The country needed a reminder of what a functional federal government should look like and thankfully Matthews presented it the way it should be, in a professional and practical manner.