Yesterday, Georgetown University in conjunction with the GU Library Associates and the GU Lecture Fund hosted journalist Chris Matthews, former presidential speechwriter and host of Hardball on MSNBC and The Chris Matthews Show on NBC.
Matthews gave the Tanous Family Endowed Lecture entitled: Making Politics Work, which provided a nostalgic look back on his days working on Capitol Hill during the Reagan administration, which he remembers fondly as a time when politics in America were at their best. “I think I saw the American government run the way it was supposed to run back then,” Matthews said. “Things got done for the American people back then.”
Matthews went on to examine the paradoxical relationship between President Ronald Reagan and Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill as a paradigm of the American democratic tradition. “Ronald Reagan couldn’t have been more different than Tip O’Neill, Tip O’Neill couldn’t have been more different than Reagan, except they both loved the country, and in their own ways they wanted it to work,” Matthews said.
Matthews attributed the success to of the Reagan years to the give-and-take dynamic between O’Neill and Reagan. Despite their rivalry in the political arena, Reagan and O’Neill shared a common devotion to the good of America and the good of the American people that allowed them to offset each other’s excesses and keep America afloat throughout their time in office.
According to Matthews, they [Reagan and O’Neill] worked because they respected each other’s offices, they respected the will of the electorate, and, most importantly, they came to Washington, not for the fame and the speeches, but to effect positive change for the American people. “Unlike most people today, they actually tried to get along with each other for the good of the country,” Matthews said. “I really think that in politics you need to understand the politics of the other person, even if you are arguing all the time. You have to understand you’re both in the same world with the same purpose just to make the country work.”
O’Neill and Reagan wanted what was best for the American people. That being said, they disagreed bitterly about how to achieve that goal, and despite their cordial relations outside of politics, in the arena they fought against each other with a passion unprecedented in American politics. “Sometimes the success of the whole thing depends on a good competition, a balance, and when a fight makes both guys look good,” Matthews said.
At the end of the day, O’Neill and Reagan managed to move past their ideological divide because they understood the nature of American politics and the nature of compromise. “That’s the way our system works,” Matthews said. “One party works with the other to make the system better. Unfortunately, today so much of politics is, don’t let them look good, don’t let them do something that works. Use obstacles, use filibusters, use all kinds of tricks so they can’t get anything done.”
In the days of Reagan, Matthews said, “there were no obstacle courses. Tip knew that Reagan won the election; it was his turn at bat.” Both men respected the system, and each other. That respect, said Matthews, is no longer present in our government today.
Matthews called upon the American electorate to revive an age of moderation to our country, and to revive the honor of the American democratic tradition, which Matthews claims has been lost in an era of extremes that has polarized Congress and prevented America from moving forward. “The older I get, the more I believe in the system; I just want it to work. I just want the Right and the Left to get together and negotiate and compromise.”
“I love the monuments…but they are not going to make our government or our society work. Even the beautiful Capitol Building is not going to make it [the government] work, or the White House, or the signs of the city. They are inanimate objects. It is the people that come here that have to make it work.”
When asked how we as a country can get back on track, Matthews simply stated, “The public has to demand compromise. The voters have to not vote for people who do not want to compromise. Voters pick these people.”
Photo Tiffany Lachhonna