Ronald Reagan, Tip O'Neill and the Clash of the Titans

Both the president and the House Speaker believed they were elected to make things happen.

By + More

When House Speaker Tip O'Neill first came across the likes of Ronald Reagan, he didn't quite know what he was up against. Tip respected the president's 44-state mandate, and he knew he was a likable-enough fellow, but who knew how good a pol Reagan really was? Or that perhaps they actually had something in common? O'Neill, after all, was the product of working-class New England, a shot-and-a-beer guy who still lived in the old neighborhood. Reagan was from the small-town Midwest, a handsome lifeguard who started out as a Democrat only to wind up a Hollywood star and a Republican. Sure, both Irishmen enjoyed a good joke and could spin a good yarn, but that was as far as it went. And as for their beliefs, the chasm was far too wide to bridge: Differences over the size and role of government, the virtue of tax cuts, and the benefits of social programs merely topped the list.

They didn't differ about everything, though. Both men revered the presidency, and both believed they were elected to make things happen. For them, partisanship--while completely appropriate in politics--always had a natural endpoint. "After the second Tuesday in November, we all started to figure out how to get things done," former House Ways and Means Committee chairman Dan Rostenkowski tells me. "None of this putting off the tough decisions until another day." Imagine: They just wanted to work.

Reagan vs. O'Neill was a true clash of the titans. It started out cordially enough, with the speaker believing the president should be given a chance to pass his programs, given his impressive victory. Besides, Tip figured the presidency had suffered enough in the four years of Jimmy Carter. Tip took a pounding from his liberal flank, but he was determined to let Reagan have his votes on his tax cuts. This, of course, was not done without some political consideration. "Give him enough rope," Tip used to confide to journalists like me. He was convinced that Reagan would hand the Democrats a platform to run on in 1982.

Which Reagan did, serving up the issue of Social Security. When an administration plan to cut benefits for early retirees leaked, O'Neill pounced. "Despicable," he said, calling it a "rotten thing to do." Then came Reagan's tax-cut plan. O'Neill was all over it. "He has no concern, no regard, no care for the little man of America," O'Neill thundered. "And I understand that. Because of his lifestyle, he never meets those people." It was pure Tip. But Reagan hurled it right back at him, calling his statement "sheer demagoguery." As John Farrell recounts in his superb biography, Tip O'Neill and the Democratic Century, the speaker went to the press gallery to try to claim the high road, saying, "I would never accuse a president, whoever he was, of being a demagogue." Farrell writes that the president phoned O'Neill the next day to call a truce. "Ronnie called him to clear the air, and Tip told him right then, 'Old buddy, that's politics--after 6 o'clock we can be friends; but before 6, it's politics.'"

There's no need to romanticize the relationship. They were not best friends. "I think that maybe Tip had a little Irish jealousy [of Reagan]," says Rosty. O'Neill and Reagan continued to fight, with Republicans happily using O'Neill as Reagan's foil. When it came to tax reform, in Reagan's second term, Tip privately accused Rostenkowski of "being a goddamn Republican" as he worked toward a package. But Rosty finally got it--largely because the president gave him his word that he would not criticize the tax bill as it was being written. "If you start talking about this bill, it will fall apart," Rosty recalls telling Reagan. The president called in his chief of staff, Don Regan, and informed him of the deal he had made. "And Reagan kept his word," says Rosty. "For two years."

Imagine that. Then imagine Reagan inviting Democrats and Republicans over for drinks every month or two--usually when Nancy was away. "Hell," Rosty recalls, "Reagan used to have six or seven of us over to the White House just to tell jokes." One time, he smiles, "Reagan wore that plaid sports jacket, and he offered me Campari. I told him if he didn't have any gin, I would go out and buy some." Then it was down to business. "I told him, 'You and I can write some history,' " recalls the chairman of the tax-writing committee. It was the beginning of tax reform. "It's so sad now," says Rosty. "These people [in Washington] are so angry they don't even talk to each other."