Good Ol’ Tip

Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill share a laugh.


Listen to O’Neill in 1984: “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.”

Like everyone else of his ilk — there’s a Novak word! — O’Neill was a believer in the nuclear freeze, and he decried almost every move Reagan made in the area of defense. Reagan’s “evil empire” speech, O’Neill scorned as “Red-baiting.”

His view of the Sandinistas was that they were patriotic Nicaraguans who had come to power to undo the harm that America had wreaked on their nation. He fought tooth and nail to block even humanitarian aid to the contras. To him, they were nothing but “bandits,” “butchers,” “maimers,” and “murderers.”

For O’Neill’s role in the Nicaraguan drama — and everything else concerning that drama — consult Robert Kagan, A Twilight Struggle.

When the United States invaded and liberated Grenada, O’Neill compared this action to Soviet adventurism. Just like the Soviets, he said, we were “trampling on another nation.” He said that Reagan had ordered the action only because he wanted Americans “to forget about the tragedy in Beirut” (where people we would later call “jihadists” had blown up barracks full of Marines and others).

“My greatest fear about Reagan’s foreign policy is that 10 years from now we’ll look back on the Grenada incident as a dress rehearsal for our invasion of Nicaragua.”

O’Neill wrote those words in 1987. I knew professors, grad assistants, and undergrads who talked the same way — in fact, almost all of them did. But they weren’t Speaker of the House. They were just Marxist ding-a-lings on campus.

I could spend all day quoting O’Neill’s invective and nonsense, but let me give you just another slice or two. O’Neill said of Reagan, “He only works three to three-and-a-half hours a day. He doesn’t do his homework. He doesn’t read his briefing papers. It’s sinful that this man is president of the United States. [That’s a weighty charge, coming from a faithful Catholic.] He lacks the knowledge that he should have, on every sphere, whether it’s the domestic or whether it’s the international sphere.”

Finally, this, from O’Neill’s memoir: “I’ve known every president since Harry Truman, and there’s no question in my mind that Reagan was the worst.”

Actually, one more thing — you may enjoy this. In 1983, O’Neill said, “A group of old-timers came by yesterday: ‘You’ve been too harsh on our president.’ Boy, I haven’t been too harsh on him. I don’t know whether I’ve been tough enough on him.”

For his part, Reagan never responded in kind. He was “not vindictive,” as his aide Jim Kuhn wrote in a memoir. In this memoir, Kuhn took note of the “sinful” remark — O’Neill’s charge that it was “sinful” that Reagan ever became president. (O’Neill made this charge more than once.) Not many comments about Reagan were worse. But even this one, said Kuhn, Reagan let “roll off his back.”

In 1983, Reagan sent a letter to an old friend, A.C. Lyles, who had produced some kind of film about him. “Now I remember that Hollywood truism that you should never get in a scene with a child and there I was with a group. But I thank you. It’s going to be harder for Tip (you know who) to convince the citizenry that I eat my young.”

See Reagan: A Life in Letters.

Reagan always responded to a portion of mail from ordinary citizens, and in 1984 he wrote back to a man named Jerry Granat. This citizen was upset that the president was treating O’Neill jovially, despite the speaker’s viciousness toward him. Here’s Reagan:

Dear Mr. Granat:
            Thank you for writing as you did and for giving me a chance to reply. I understand your concern. I’ve never quite been able to accept rival lawyers in a trial having lunch together during a recess.
            I don’t think you’ve seen me embracing or being embraced by Speaker O’Neill recently. And yes I find some of his personal attacks hard to forgive. He’s an old line politico. Earlier in my term and before recent events he explained away some of his partisan attacks as politics and that after 6 p.m. we were friends. Well that’s more than a little difficult for me to accept lately.
            But Mr. Granat there are certain things I cannot do if I’m to carry out my responsibilities. I can’t publicly refuse to be civil nor can I show anger and resentment. What we say to each other when the cameras aren’t turning or the press listening in is a different matter.
            I am responsible for the death of any man in uniform in the pursuit of his duty because I assign that duty. It has to be the most difficult burden for any president. [O’Neill must have said that Reagan was eager to send boys to fight and die or something.] But please don’t think refusing to stoop is turning the other cheek.
                                                                                           Ronald Reagan

The roughest Reagan ever got with O’Neill was when he made a fat joke (and I, personally, wish he hadn’t, for it was unbecoming of him). Out on the campaign trail, Reagan said he got his exercise by “jogging three times” around the portly Speaker.