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Reagan, O'Neill, & Someone Named Chris

Tip O'Neill and Ronald Reagan
An actual history should be written someday about Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill. But not by Chris Matthews.


Matthews’s new book, “Tip and the Gipper,” is not the history of Ronald Reagan and neither is it the history of Thomas P. O’Neill III. It is the history of Chris Matthews before he became the Chris Matthews we see on cable television today. It falls into the category of micro personal history, but is so elfin as to be inconsequential.

There are several reasons for this. Matthews has assured Washington for years that he was a close aide and confidant to the former speaker of the House. Presumably in support of this narrative, Matthews invites readers of “Tip and the Gipper” to also look at O’Neill’s autobiography, “Man of the House.” That book provided some important source material for his own, says Matthews.

So this historian closely examined O’Neill’s book -- and found no mention of Chris Matthews in the index. The photo section was also inspected. No pictures of Matthews. Was Matthews the “ghost” on O’Neill’s book? No -- William Novak aided in this task. So is Matthews in the dedication, then? No again. Only in the acknowledgements section does his name appear, but only alongside the names of dozens of other staffers and individuals.

Other than that, there is no mention -- zip, nada -- of Matthews in the body of Tip O’Neill’s tome, though plenty of other aides and individuals are mentioned throughout and often warmly. “Man of the House,” by the way, is a treasure-trove of Reagan bashing, despite the hollow plea of Matthews that the two men were really the best of friends.

Tip O’Neill said it was “sinful” that Reagan had been elected president. He said Reagan didn’t care about the poor, and that Reagan would have made a better “king” than a president -- and that, in any event, Reagan was the “worst” president of his lifetime; a period that encompassed Jimmy Carter and Richard Nixon. There are dozens of other examples of Reagan-bashing, not excluding O’Neill’s ungentlemanly claim that Nancy Reagan was “the queen of Beverly Hills.”

He attacked Reagan for calling the Soviet Union “evil” and “godless” after it had murdered millions of people and outlawed religion. Indeed, one entire chapter of “Man of the House” is devoted mostly to harsh criticism of Reagan. In 1984, O’Neill advised Democratic nominee Walter Mondale that he had to “remove the evil that’s in the White House at the present time.” What was that about close friends?

But back to Chris Matthews.

It is possible to be overlooked by your own mentor, and it’s happened to better men than Chris Matthews, but it’s still telling to contrast how Matthews views his own role in history with how O’Neill and other contemporaries viewed it. (Matthews is not mentioned Reagan’s diaries or autobiography and appears in no other important books about the events of the 1980s, either.)

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