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Steve and Cokie Roberts: History teaches good lesson about taking the same side

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BOSTON — In the early 1980s, Tip O’Neill played the same role that John Boehner does now — speaker of the House, while a popular president from the other party dominates the political debate. O’Neill (who left office in 1987 and died in 1994) would have turned 100 this month, so it’s appropriate to contemplate what his relationship with Ronald Reagan teaches about today’s Washington.

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“I think that my father believed, as did Ronald Reagan, that politics was the art of compromise, that you could fight for your ideals — and understand that you’d have to give in while the other side gave in — in order to create progress for our government to move forward,” says his son, Thomas P. O’Neill III.

O’Neill and Reagan were fierce partisans who disdained each other’s politics. But their goal was to beat the other guy at the polls, not burn him at the stake. They were rivals, but not enemies. And that absence of ideological rigidity enabled them to “give in” without selling out. It’s a lot easier to compromise with someone who’s wrong but not evil.

We both covered Congress during O’Neill’s years as speaker — Cokie for NPR, Steve for The New York Times — and we were honored to participate in a recent panel marking O’Neill’s birthday at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston. One theme emerging from the discussion is that the Reagan-O’Neill relationship has been mythologized over the years. They were never great pals who regularly shared Irish stories and spirits after hours.

In a TV documentary narrated by writer Mike Barnicle and shown at the forum, O’Neill sharply criticizes Reagan for failing to grasp and discuss legislative details. TV commentator Chris Matthews, who served as O’Neill’s spokesman, says the speaker used to complain that “the president read everything off 3-by-5 cards.”

But Reagan and O’Neill recognized something important in each other. They were both elected leaders, they both represented strong constituencies, they both held offices that commanded respect. And in Tip’s case, he understood that Reagan’s personal popularity and TV skills made him a particularly powerful adversary.

Matthews, who is writing a book about the two men, put it this way recently in a speech at Georgetown University: “When Reagan came in wanting to push tax cuts and changes in the budget, Tip refused to play any games. There were no filibusters, no efforts to jam things up. No obstacle courses set up. Tip figured Reagan had won the election. He had the votes. It was his turn at bat.”

But a year later, in 1982, the two men hammered out a painful budget deal that raised revenue and cut spending to deal with a growing deficit. Sound familiar? It passed the House with 226 votes — 123 Democrats and 103 Republicans — a measure of bipartisan cooperation that seems totally impossible today.

O’Neill understood that while partisanship is an important value, it is not the only value. At times the national interest has to trump party advantage. Before the vote, the speaker took the floor to explain his support:

“The president and I do not belong to the same political party. We do not share the same philosophy. In fact, we seldom agree. But we do share something together: a deep love for this country and a deep concern for its future ... We are together because we know that if the economy of this nation is not strong and not vigorous, its citizens are going to suffer.”

That was Tip’s touchstone, the well-being of ordinary citizens. He was a classic New Dealer who believed in government’s ability — and obligation — to help people in need. But he developed that philosophy on the streets of Cambridge, Mass., not in the libraries of Harvard, just a few blocks from his boyhood home. Sure, he was a liberal, but he was also a pragmatist, a liberal who could count.

Matthews cites a note Reagan made in his diary after Tip’s floor speech endorsing their budget bill: “Tip O’Neill made a speech to Republicans telling them why they should support me. It seemed strange — both of us on the same side.”

It would seem far stranger today — a speaker and a president from different parties lining up “on the same side” to promote the national interest while facing down the ideological loudmouths in their own ranks. Yet that is what has to happen if the country is to avoid the “fiscal cliff.” Speaker Boehner and President Obama have a lot to learn from the men who held those same offices 30 years ago.

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Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by email at stevecokie@gmail.com.

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