Agreeing to make government work

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Let me finish tonight with a political story of my own, from when I was in the business myself. Last night I spoke at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library north of Los Angeles. I talked about the old-time relationship between two politicians, Reagan and Speaker Tip O’Neill, and how they carried on their rivalry which involved some pretty big stuff. Reagan was a conservative Republican who came to the presidency with two goals: to cut the size of government by first cutting taxes; second, to defeat the Soviet Union relying ultimately on our country’s dynamic, decisive edge in innovative technology. Tip O’Neill, my boss, thought the prime purpose of government was to help the people in this country who couldn’t help themselves: the old, the poor, the disabled, the young working class kid who needed help for college. He cared about the person who got left out in the fast-paced competitive, capitalist society, whether it was the woman with breast cancer or the kid born a dwarf. I’m telling you, that’s how he felt, that’s how he thought. It’s what kind of politician he was, an unapologetic liberal. And he didn’t trust historic U.S. involvement in third world, poor countries. He remembered how United Fruit had exploited Latin America. So here you had these two guys who destined to be - in the words of Barack Obama - one of the truly “transformative” American presidents who managed to bring the Cold War to an end, and one of the great, refusing-to-quit New Deal Democrats. And yet through a half-dozen years of disputing the proper role of government they managed to maintain a civil relationship, even a cordial one. As President Reagan reminded me when I met him on the evening of a State of the Union address: “The Speaker says we’re all friends after six.” And they were, to a surprising extent, without ever giving up the grand argument that separated them. “Always be able to talk,” my friend and colleague in the Speaker’s office, the late Kirk O’ Donnell, used to say. “Always be able to talk.” Because they did, they were able to reach compromise on a number of vital issues, including Social Security reform. I am convinced that the truly great political figures - and both of these men left office with high personal poll numbers, Tip O’Neill had a 67 percent job approval in the Harris Poll - knew how to fight and still show a measure of regard for the other guy. As Jack Kennedy once said, “Civility is not a sign of weakness.” I want to thank my good friend Nancy Reagan for inviting me out to the beautiful Ronald Reagan Presidential Library to tell the great old Reagan-O’Neill story the best way I could.

Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama

Agreeing to make government work

Updated