Visitors to Washington are taken with its quiet grandeur. Just like they saw in the postcards, they witness the beauty of the Mall stretching from one horizon to the other. They see the Capitol itself up there on its hill, pay respects to the beloved Lincoln sitting high in his memorial, and gaze like children at the tall, clean obelisk honoring the city’s namesake.
The truth is, no loud commerce or clanking industry disturbs the peace; no smokestacks darken the skies even in the distance. Tourists, generally speaking, are respectful rather than boisterous. Even the bureaucracy, busy along its daytime corridors, fails to shatter the stillness. Yet for all the statues and monuments loyally attesting to what’s gone before, Washington is very much a living city.
And what makes it so is its jamboree of human voices engaged in discourse, debates, discussion, argument, compromise, leaks, gossip, criticism, and commentary, not to mention speechmaking. Undeniably the city’s signature output, it’s been this way since General Washington and Pierre L’Enfant together on horseback envisioned our new nation’s capital in the late eighteenth century. It’s a place where talking matters, and even more important, who’s talking to whom.
Since the moment of its creation the city has been marked in every era by voices. Year in and year out, the questions they hurl into the air lie at the center of the American conversation, and this ritual of the voices is what animates our government.
And always there come the responding questions from the country: Shall the people hold sway? Will the winning faction deliver on its promises? Will the losing faction give way? Will a divided electorate see a spirit of compromise? These are the recurring quandaries that separate action from stalemate, a working democracy from one seized by dysfunction.
The framers of the American Constitution, who also made Washington the capital, established two great offices. One is the president of the United States; the other, the Speaker of the House of Representatives. The role of the first is to lead the country; the province of the Speaker, through custom and his prerogative to set the House agenda, is to control the government’s purse strings. Not a dollar can be allocated that the Congress hasn’t guaranteed by law or specifically appropriated.
This historic arrangement makes simple human bargaining a central task for the two leaders. The check-and-balance relationship between president and Speaker can either propel the government forward or not. Put plainly, they either talk, or they don’t. When they join in alliance, the government rumbles ahead. When their interests collide, something’s got to give. Either one side prevails, or a compromise is struck. Otherwise, the republic stalls.
This means that, for the Constitution to work, the two must be open to the larger picture, to resist base obstructionism, to accommodate differences for the common good. Historically, this coupling of president and Speaker has been a tricky one that encourages a choreography both quickfooted and wary.
I was witness, with eye and heart, to one of the most celebrated of these pairings. The time was the 1980s, the president was Ronald Reagan, and the Speaker was Thomas P. O’Neill, Jr. Both were Irish-Americans. Both men were larger than life. The former was a California conservative Republican, elected in a landslide. He arrived in Washington to his very first job there, walking into the White House on Inauguration Day 1981. The latter was a New England liberal Democrat, a hardened, blooded Washington veteran who’d entered the House of Representatives in 1953 and had spent the twenty-eight years since finessing and cajoling his way to the top of the Hill.
The outsider and the insider: these two moved together in a remarkable, if sometimes rough, tandem. They argued mightily, each man belting out his separate, deeply cherished political philosophy—but then they would, both together, bow to the country’s judgment. Decisions were made, action taken, outcomes achieved. They honored the voters, respected the other’s role. Each liked to beat the other guy, not sabotage him.
During this period, government met its deadlines. Members of Congress listened and acted. Debates led to solutions. Shutdowns were averted. What needed to proceed did, and America’s citizens were the beneficiaries.
Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill were definite political rivals. Just not always.
People in politics, like everyone else, like to talk about how different things were in the old days. They point to the relationship between President Reagan and Tip O’Neill—old-school guys, only two years apart in age, who were so different yet not, on some level, that different—whose commitment to comity came out of their shared integrity. They disagreed on the role of government, knew it, admitted it face-to-face. But they put concentrated effort into trying to get along even as they challenged each other. Why, we wonder, can’t it be that way again?
Why won’t our leaders work to accommodate each other, employing civility as they cooperate to accomplish goals in the country’s best interests? Why must we continue to suffer their relentless gumming up of the works? What in our national character, in the ways we choose to deal with one another and respect different viewpoints, has changed so since the days of Reagan and O’Neill? How can we win back the faith that our republic is working?
Today we have government by tantrum. Rather than true debate, we get the daily threat of filibuster. Shutdowns are engineered as standard procedure. In place of hard-earned statecraft we witness new tricks of the trade. Presidents make “recess” appointments to end-run Senate consent. Tea Partyers in the House of Representatives act as if voting “Nay” constitutes twenty-first-century governance. Democrats in the Senate, for a while, refused to approve the annual budget—withholding consent to skip the embarrassment of admitting dire fiscal reality. Brinkmanship grabs today’s headlines even as public faith dies a little with each disappointing eleventh-hour deal.
What’s to be done? I truly believe it doesn’t have to be this way. And the story I’m about to tell of these two extraordinary figures will show you why. My goal is to bring you the true account of what took place. Our country is less in need of a myth than a real-life account of one imperfect leader dealing with another. It serves no purpose in this time of habitual conflict to spin a tale of happy harmony; far better to illustrate how two very different figures managed to make politics work.
Ronald Reagan was dismissed by his enemies as a Hollywood lightweight, Tip O’Neill as a Tammany-style ward heeler. I refuse to add a third cartoon to those two. The credit for their civility goes not to their off-duty socializing and shared Irish stories: it was their joint loyalty to American self-government. Tip’s oldest son, an elected politician himself, put it best in a 2012 New York Times column: “What both men deplored more than each other’s political philosophy was stalemate, and a country that was so polarized by ideology and party politics that it could not move forward. There were tough words and important disagreements… yet a stronger commitment to getting things done.” They respected elections, accepted who had won, knew that duty came with office. It’s all true.
I was there.
Tip and the Gipper will be released on Oct. 1.