Ah, the irony. On the very day that Chris Matthews’s book about how government used to work hit the bookshelves, the US government shut down. October 1, 2013 --- a day that will live in infamy? Let us hope not.
It is doubtful that there is any reporter in any medium more knowledgeable about the inner workings of the United States Congress than Chris Matthews. The bombastic political pundit, host of MSNBC’s “Hardball” with its provocative interviews and debates, holds an impressive list of credentials earned on the job. Fresh out of college with a degree in business and two years with the Peace Corps in Africa behind him, he came to Washington in 1971 with one goal: to work at the heart of America’s political system in the Congress.
Matthews worked his way up from Capitol Cop (a surprising number of influential members of Congress started out in that blue uniform and badge with a 38 on their hip) to flunky positions inside the great hall as an intern, until he got a job as a speechwriter on President Carter’s staff. The book opens with vivid insights into Carter’s doomed presidency and why it failed. When Carter was trounced in the 1980 election by Ronald Reagan, Matthews, a keen observer of political animals, watched in a mixture of awe and consternation as the dashing former actor wooed and won American voters with his charisma and witticisms.
"If it were possible to require each and every member of Congress from both parties to read any book on statesmanship, TIP AND THE GIPPER might well serve as a guide to leading our country out of our quagmire."
Matthews soon found himself lucky enough to land a position on Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill’s press staff. There he received an education in political gamesmanship that no university could ever deliver, finally becoming a top aide in O’Neill’s office. He had a front-row seat from 1980 to 1986, as O’Neill and Reagan, as far apart ideologically as two men could possibly be, confronted problems not unlike what we face today. The President found himself with a House of Representatives made up of the opposing party, but was such a persuasive force that longtime Democratic legislators even switched parties. Reagan was determined to turn the government upside down. Yet these two men, at opposite ends of the political spectrum, found a way to work for the common good of America.
O’Neill was an old school, street corner politician who could call the people in his district by name. Unaccustomed to TV cameras and publicity, he got the job done in the time-honored manner of politicians of an earlier time, pressing the flesh and palavering with his fellow Congressmen from both sides of the aisle in late-night poker games and casual dinners. He then went home on weekends to his wife and children, and met with constituents.
But the face of Washington was changing. Reagan arrived on the scene with fanfare. Camera savvy and smooth talking, he was likable even to his staunchest opponents. When the lights came on, he was in his element. For the first time in his long career, O’Neill was at risk of fading into the background --- a tough thing to do when you are 6’3” and weigh over 250 pounds.
Matthews has crafted a behind-the-scenes perspective of the efforts of these two giants of politics, who learned to work together for the common good. As the government is mired in divisive battles in seemingly hopeless gridlock, it is a story for our times. If it were possible to require each and every member of Congress from both parties to read any book on statesmanship, TIP AND THE GIPPER might well serve as a guide to leading our country out of this quagmire.
Together, these two Irishmen found common ground to save Social Security, reform taxes and the welfare system, deal with Cold War covert operations, and bring peace to Northern Ireland. Winning some and losing some were part of the process, but their civility brought about some of the most important legislation of the times. The two most powerful men in Washington were able to put egos aside and do what they were sent there to do: make government work.
Reviewed by Roz Shea on October 4, 2013