Good Ol’ Tip

Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill share a laugh.


Everyone is sweet about Reagan now. In a way, I liked it better when they were vilifying him. Looking at the Republican field last spring, Obama said that Reagan “could not get through a Republican primary today.” Because Romney et al. are so extreme, you see, and Reagan was a moderate, a lamb.

But in his 1995 memoir, Dreams from My Father, Obama shot straighter. Why had he gone into community organizing? For change — beginning with “change in the White House, where Reagan and his minions were carrying on their dirty deeds.”

That’s more like it!

Let me take you back to the 1992 conventions — the Democratic and the Republican. At the former, the Democrats’ nominee, Bill Clinton, said, “We have won the Cold War.” At the Republican convention, former president Reagan took the podium. He said, “I heard those speakers at that other convention saying, ‘We won the Cold War.’ And I couldn’t help wondering, ‘Just who exactly do they mean by ‘we’?”

The Democrats were stalwart in the Cold War, right up until . . . 1972? From then on, pure McGovernism, baby. (And no, you don’t get to count Scoop Jackson — a party of one.)

For many Democrats, the only good Republican is a dead Republican, or a retired Republican. The present ones are always intolerably extreme; later, they will be sweet moderates, in the Democrats’ telling.

People used to say of Bush 41, “Why does he have to be such an awful right-winger, unlike his sweet moderate father?” (Senator Prescott Bush of Connecticut.) In the 1988 debates, Bush actually had to defend himself against the charge that his father would be ashamed of him. “I think my dad would be pretty proud of me,” he said.

When Bush 43 became president, people said, “Why does he have to be such an awful right-winger, unlike his sweet moderate father?” Just wait until one of 43’s daughters becomes president . . .

Back to this business of naming things — Capitol Hill buildings, golf courses, airports. I was as Reagan-loving as they came. Some classmates, teasingly, called me “Gipp.” But I was against the renaming of National Airport after Reagan. Certainly so soon. I thought it was rude to the Reagan-hating Democrats. I wouldn’t have wanted it done to me — Bill Clinton Airport or something. (That’s in Little Rock.)

We are supposed to forget the worst parts of politicians, and others, and that is to the good, surely. The most prestigious Senate office building, I believe, is the Russell building — named after Senator Richard Russell (1897-1971), a Georgian, a great defense hawk — and an inveterate seg.

In our country, we honor Democrats and we honor Republicans, just as we should: We are a country of Democrats and Republicans. They put up with our heroes, we put up with their heroes. Some even become heroes of us all — Lincoln, FDR, maybe Reagan?

Where Tip O’Neill is concerned, Republicans have done their part. In 1991, the first President Bush hung the Medal of Freedom around his neck. (At the same time, he hung it around the necks of Friedrich von Hayek, Vernon Walters, and William F. Buckley Jr.) Now there is this building — the second O’Neill building on Capitol Hill.

Memories ought to be allowed to fade, yes, and national myths are useful. Remembering can be very important; but so can forgetting. Maybe it should be after 6 o’clock, forever. Maybe the scab should never be flicked off a wound.

But is it of no importance that O’Neill was wrong about virtually everything that mattered? That he tried his utmost to block what Reagan was doing, both at home and abroad? That one man was essentially right, about the economy and the Cold War, and the other man essentially wrong?

When O’Neill died in 1994, President Clinton said, “Tip O’Neill was the nation’s most prominent, powerful, and loyal champion of working people.” Reagan will never be called a champion of working people, even by Barack Obama at his most disingenuous. But who put people back to work? Who tamed inflation (with Paul Volcker, the Democratic Fed chief)? Whose policies led to a rising, dynamic, opportunity-filled economy?

I remember visiting Les Invalides, shortly after reading Paul Johnson’s life of Napoleon. I wrote to him — Johnson, that is, not Napoleon — saying, “I stared hard at his tomb, trying to make sure the old monster was really dead.”

But, oh, how they love him, not just in France but the world over.

A further word on the importance of forgetting — or of not letting memory engulf us: How in the world did America recover, and reunite, after the Civil War? Northerners stand solemnly before Confederate memorials; southerners stand solemnly before Union memorials.

There is a southern section — a Confederate section — in Arlington. One of the most moving of the entire cemetery. (Maybe because they lost?)

A final word on O’Neill, and O’Neill and Reagan. It’s a very interesting experience to see a myth formed in your own lifetime. If people want to think of Tip and Ron as a happy, cooperative pair of Irishmen, fine with me, I guess. But, to borrow language from Bob Dole (his 1996 convention speech), “I say you’re wrong. And I know because I was there. . . . And I remember.”

To order Jay Nordlinger’s book Peace, They Say: A History of the Nobel Peace Prize, the Most Famous and Controversial Prize in the World, go here. To order his collection Here, There & Everywhere, go here.