Ronald + Tip
Friends after Six

Reagan on O’Neill: “a round thing that gobbles up money.” O’Neill on Reagan: “Herbert Hoover with a smile.” Yet they “put country ahead of personal belief and party loyalty” and were real friends. After work hours, that is.

Both hailing from Irish-American families, Republican President Ronald Reagan and Democratic Speaker of the House Tip O”Neill were clearly passionate brawlers over the ideals they each held closely – and boy were they different ideals that they went to the mat for. Fur flew between these long-time political rivals through many years of navigating the thorny issues of governance on opposite sides of the aisle. Appropriate to this divergent pair’s heritage, in the words of the fictional Irishman character created by 19th century writer Finley Peter Dunne “politics ain’t beanbag.

Reagan compared O’Neill to Pac-Man — “a round thing that gobbles up money.” O’Neill hardly could have been described as restraining himself either, referring to the president as “Herbert Hoover with a smile” and “a cheerleader for selfishness.” And there’s this: “I’ve known personally every president since Jack Kennedy and I can honestly say that Ronald Reagan was the worst. But, he’d have made a hell of a king.” Not what we think of as the basis of a fast friendship.

O’Neill’s son wrote of his father’s relationship with the president The New York Times in a piece titled “Frenemies: A Story.” Theirs were not theoretical differences, there were pitched battles:

In the fall of 1986, they waged war again over the renewal of the Clean Water Act. Just months before my father retired, after 34 years in the House, leaders in Congress hammered out a compromise agreement that seemed to satisfy all sides; the bill passed in the House by vote of 408 to zero, and in the Senate by 96 to none. When the president later vetoed the bill, my father didn’t relent — urging his former colleagues to override the veto from the sidelines. I remember some of what he said at the time. None of it is printable.

O’Neill’s son also helps us understand the basis for their ability to forge uneasy compromise from opposite ends of the ideological spectrum: “What both men deplored more than the other’s political philosophy was stalemate, and a country that was so polarized by ideology and party politics that it could not move forward.”

While neither man embraced the other’s worldview, each respected the other’s right to hold it. Each respected the other as a man. —Thomas P. O’Neill III

Reagan to O’Neill: “… you also embody so much of what this Nation is all about, the hope that is America. So, you make us proud as well, my friend; you make us proud.” Reagan was the headliner to raise money for the O’Neill library to be built at Tip’s beloved Boston College.  Tip prayed at Reagan’s bedside after the he was shot. They lived out kindnesses toward each other – what friends do.

O’Neill used to say that while they fought during work hours, they were friends after 6 p.m. Reagan answered O’Neill’s calls “Tip, is it after 6 p.m.?” After 6 these two enemies seemed able to enjoy each other’s company and see their common humanity. An ability to separate a rival’s ideological bent from their basic human decency seems in short supply these days.** It’s so rare that what in other times in history this rivalry might have been considered just that, the ability of these men to maintain mutual respect has become the gold standard, inspiring books and regular mentions in the circles of power.


** Wondering what may be culturally afoot that relationships of respect in high conflict situations are so rare today? According to sociologists Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning our culture has shifted from a “dignity culture” (where aggrieved parties tended to let more minor slights go because it was assumed that all people have a central dignity that they don’t need to earn) back to an “honor culture” that we last experienced in the 18th and 19th centuries – where slights had to be avenged. When we had duels. Our colleague Jon Haidt writes of our current culture: “At the same time that it weakens individuals, it creates a society of constant and intense moral conflict.” Uh oh. Read more here.