Chris Matthews films the early 1980s through a gauze-covered long-distance lens:
Reagan had a basic philosophy: Cut taxes, cut the size of government and beat the Soviets. Tip believed that Social Security had alleviated the fear millions once had of old age, and that the GI Bill and other government programs built the American middle class. Yet, occasionally, the two found common ground.
“Tip had the last word and it was good one,” Reagan jotted in his diary after one meeting. Another entry: “I’m having more luck with Demos than Repubs. Asked O’Neill if I could address a joint session next week. He agreed.”
To soften the edges, they would share lunches from time to time, and always on St. Patrick’s Day.
“It’s Tip’s birthday and we had a good time telling stories – Irish stories,” Reagan wrote. That lunch, his aide Ken Duberstein later told me, lasted till 3 p.m.
Their disagreements over the country’s direction were impassioned and sincere.
Of course, Chris has long had a funny sense of sincerity, Steven Hayward writes:
Matthews seems to forget or gloss over the fact that the “tone” of public discourse in the 1980s was just as bad as today. For example, here’s a public comment from O’Neill about Reagan that seems not to be in Matthews’s archive:
“The evil is in the White House at the present time. And that evil is a man who has no care and no concern for the working class of America and the future generations of America, and who likes to ride a horse. He’s cold. He’s mean. He’s got ice water for blood.”
That’s just a warm up. Democratic Congressman William Clay of Missouri charged that Reagan was “trying to replace the Bill of Rights with fascist precepts lifted verbatim from Mein Kampf.” Who can forget the desperate Jimmy Carter charging that Reagan was engaging in “stirrings of hate” in the 1980s campaign. Los Angeles Times cartoonist Paul Conrad drew a panel depicting Reagan plotting a fascist putsch in a darkened Munich beer hall. Harry Stein (nowadays a conservative convert) wrote in Esquire that the voters who supported Reagan were like the “good Germans” in “Hitler’s Germany.” In The Nation, Alan Wolfe wrote: “[T]he United States has embarked on a course so deeply reactionary, so negative and mean-spirited, so chauvinistic and self-deceptive that our times may soon rival the McCarthy era.”
OK, to be fair, Wolfe may have been onto something there, but quite the opposite of how feverishly imagined it.