Friends after six


“Hello Tip, is it after six o’clock?” the unmistakable voice of president Ronald Reagan sounded through the phone when democrat House Speaker Thomas J. “Tip” O’Neil answered. The joke was a recurring one throughout the course of their warm friendship and sometimes tumultuous professional relationship. Upon Reagan’s arrival in Washington, the Speaker informed him that while during the day they might battle like a pair of dueling generals, after the Washington workday had concluded they could still be friends. 

Theirs was a curious friendship. Reagan was a suave and debonair one-time Hollywood icon, who rose to political prominence by virtue of modern media and mass communication. O’Neil was a scruffy Boston brawler, oft seen roaming the Washington halls, scotch and cigar in hand, twisting arms and selling deals all the way to the top. Reagan was a conservative hardliner, the realization of Goldwater republicans’ small government dreams. O’Neil was a true liberal, who saw government as the primary vehicle for human flourishing.

But as different as the two were, they had many things in common. Both were descendants of Irish-Americans which, in the era they grew up in, meant a lot. O’Neil and Reagan shared a common boyhood political hero, President Franklin Roosevelt, due to their rough childhoods during the depression. Most importantly, both men truly believed that their philosophies, and the corresponding policies they advocated for, were necessary to save the country. 

We live in a day where Washington is devoid of decency, a time in which partisan differences are equated to shortcomings of character or intelligence. A study of these two ideologically opposite men, their friendship, their accomplishments, and their respect for one another, could help assuage the partisan inflammation with which our sick democracy is stricken. 

Early in his first term, President Reagan was shot by a madman. The administration shielded from press and public the severity of his wound. No one, save Nancy, was admitted to see the President for days. When he awoke from his medically induced slumber, the very first person he asked to have visit him was House Speaker Tip O’Neil.  Tip visited Reagan in the hospital with no TV cameras or pressmen. Sitting at the president’s bedside, O’Neil clasped Reagan’s hand as the two prayed the twenty third psalm together. Together, democrat and republican, partisan differences aside, they prayed through the valley of the shadow of death.

The two understood what I’ve been fortunate to learn from people like Ambassador Victor Ashe and Congressman Tim Burchett, that politics is deadly serious, but also it’s sport. You hit the opponent with all you’ve got between the whistles, and when the shoulder pads come off you’re friends again. This is evidenced in a storyChris Matthew’s recounts in his shockingly unbiased book, Tip and the Gipper. Reagan had Tip to the White House one evening for a dinner party with a few other members of congress. During the meal, Reagan exclaimed, “Tip if I had a ticket to heaven and you didn’t, I’d toss it out and go to hell with you.” Sacrilege aside, the joke denotes the warmth of their personal relationship. Immediately following dinner, Tip met with the press on the lawn, and absolutely skewered the President over a recent comment on Social Security. Just business.

Together they architected several deals and compromises to get closer to a balanced budget, keep social security solvent, and promote democracy across the globe. Each time one man came to the table and compromised, the other took care to provide political cover, careful not to gloat or cause trouble for him within his own party. That’s how democracy is supposed to work. After the republican defeat in the 1982 midterm elections, O’Neil had this to say to reporters. “We don’t want anyone to eat crow. The country is in too rough of shape for that.”

To be clear, they had many great public battles as well. O’Neil’s entitlement spending proposals galled Reagan. Reagan’s massive tax-reform was the undoing of decades of O’Neils own work. They often had it out in the press.But through it all, as is reflected in both men’s personal diaries, they understood that the other was doing what he believed in his heart was best for the country. Each in turn took an occasional beating and then moved on to the next one.

John F. Kennedy once said that civility is not a sign of weakness. We have lost sight of that as a country. Look no further than the comments section of any political post or tweet. One might whine that circumstances have never been this bad. Those people need to look at history. We have been far more divided as a nation than we are today, but we found a way out of it. We didn’t do it by the might of keyboard warriors or cable news showmen. We did it through humility and moral courage. Truth is absolute and timeless. There is nothing new under the sun. Again one day Americans will remember that although we have very different ideas of how to attain them, we all want the same things.

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