Chris Matthews Q&A: The right wants the president's cojones!

Chris Matthews shares what the president told him after the first debate, and his secret Hillary Clinton “impulse”

Published October 1, 2013 11:44AM (EDT)

Anyone who enjoys MSNBC’s “Hardball With Chris Matthews” will like his new book,“Tip and the Gipper: When Politics Worked,” because it’s Matthews’ story, too. From a job as a Capitol policeman to a place on Air Force One writing speeches for President Carter to his stint as a special assistant to House Speaker Tip O’Neill throughout most of Ronald Reagan’s presidency, Matthews shows how he developed the ideas about politics he shares with his guests and his viewers daily.

A lot of what he tells President Obama he ought to try, he and O’Neill tried with Ronald Reagan and the 1980s Republicans. And sometimes, it worked.

On both “Hardball” and in “Tip and the Gipper,” Matthews’ realism vies with his romanticism, and his frank desire to like the politicians who serve us – even if they don’t deserve it. His Ronald Reagan is a good guy of genuine if harsh convictions who might have turned out like Tip O’Neill if he’d represented O’Neill’s North Cambridge district, he says. He thinks Rush Limbaugh, who’s railed against the book, would like it, because “it’s good for Reagan, it makes him look good.” Likewise, serving O’Neill when he managed to hammer out two big compromises with Reagan – reforming Social Security in 1983 and a big tax reform act in 1986 – gives him an innate faith that even people from opposite poles of the political spectrum can get things done together – although the extremism of the modern Republican Party proves otherwise every day.

In O’Neill, Matthews saw a liberal partisan who nonetheless recognized that Reagan had won a big mandate and ought to be able to enact much of his program – and then be stuck with the results if they turned out badly, as they did after cutting taxes and slashing benefits led to double-digit unemployment in 1982, and Reagan’s party lost seats in the midterms. Although he wants readers to come away from the book knowing that the GOP’s unwillingness to compromise “is not the norm,” he doesn’t mention Barack Obama, John Boehner or Ted Cruz. But the fundamental difference with the present day – the losing party’s hatred of the president, and its refusal to accept his legitimacy – haunts every chapter.

I talked to Matthews about the book over breakfast early Monday, as the government edged closer to a shutdown. (The book's official release date was Tuesday, the day the government shut down, an amazing coincidence for a book subtitled "When Politics Worked.") The "Hardball" host ordered Corn Flakes with banana slices – “my father’s breakfast” – and talked about Reagan’s appeal to working-class Irish Catholics, “the Irish curse,” why Obama can’t buckle and what Hillary Clinton needs to do to win in a Lyndon Johnson-size landslide in 2016.

So Rush Limbaugh has already railed against the book, agreeing with a listener who was angry that you’re visiting the Reagan Library and said, “To me it's like Satan writing a book about the pope and having a signing at the Vatican.”

Well, yeah, but I sent him a copy of the book. I said look at the book, it’s good for Reagan, it makes him look good. Why would he not like it?

He thinks you’re using Reagan to make today’s Republicans look extremist and bad. You’re exaggerating the extent to which he and the speaker got along …

And you know it happened. It happened. When they knew they had to move on, and get something done, they did. A good parallel today, to this fighting over the continuing resolution, is the Social Security deal. Reagan knew he had to get it off his back, he’d never liked Social Security, he’d said “make it voluntary,” that was the bugaboo of his career. He wanted it behind him. Tip, on the other hand, knew it really was reaching its fiscal deadline. Tip wanted to keep it working for people. So they found a way to compromise: If you made over $20,000 a year, you might have Social Security taxed, they found a way of sort of means testing, and Reagan got the cost of living adjustment delayed for three months. It was a progressive-leaning solution but it benefited Reagan politically, because it got the issue off his back.

Or look at the tax reform of ’86 – it was fabulous, because you had just two rates, 15 percent and 28 percent, but they got rid of a lot of loopholes, and then they equalized – imagine! – they equalized the top marginal rate and the capital gains rate. Imagine Republicans doing that today!

Still, Tip could never figure out Reagan’s hold on people. He’d say, “He’s cutting all these programs!” I mean, Tip thought more like you, he thought in terms of policy, not personality, he couldn’t believe a guy whose policies were tough on working people could win working people …

The Reagan Democrats … my people …

He got the Irish, the Italians ... the “Subway Alumni” [fans of Notre Dame "Fighting Irish" football who didn’t go to Notre Dame], people who didn’t even go to college, because of [his role in] "Knute Rockne, All American" [the biography of the legendary Notre Dame coach in which Reagan played George Gipper].  I think that’s one of the best things in the book, I show how Reagan won the “Subway Alumni.” It’s an old cultural thing. I still check the Notre Dame score  -- they lost to Oklahoma Saturday – and then Holy Cross [Matthews' alma mater]. The first thing Tip and Reagan talked about was Knute Rockne...

The thing I’m struck by is, the speaker accepted the fact that Reagan won, he won big …

He won Massachusetts!

Right, he won Tip O’Neill’s home state! So he accepted that he should get to enact at least some of what people voted for.

He wanted to give him his day in court. That’s what he said …

And also if he gives him his day in court, he gives him his tax cuts and program cuts, well, then Reagan’s going to own what happens, he’s going to own the bad economy, if that happens …

Well, you never know with Tip, how much it was all because he knew the economy was going down. But he did not want to be caught foot dragging and playing games. He believed elections have results.  He was also a human being. He’d sit in that chair, I’d be scared to death. He’s 300 lbs., he’s 6-foot-3 – he was the only white guy in his Weight Watchers group, it was all black women, he would go to these meetings to try to lose weight, but he couldn’t deal with it. But you know what? He liked to eat.

He didn’t just have a bad metabolism …

No, he’d eat corned beef hash with an egg on top, he’d say, “Got another muffin? With butter on it?” When I’d meet him for lunch, sometimes I’d have eaten, and he’d say, “Don’t you dine at noon?” And when we’d go out and have a drink, and I was trying to quit, he’d say, “Can’t you take the stuff?”


And the answer was no, I can’t take the stuff, and I did quit. Reagan didn’t really drink at all, by the way, he was afraid of the Irish curse, his father had it. And you can’t argue with it. It’s the Irish curse.

Yeah, I have it in my family, too. What do you think it is?

I don’t know. Maybe it’s that we still think it’s cute. It’s what you do.

My father had to quit at 35, and some of my uncles had a hard time with it, he was no fun anymore.  One of them used to spike his drinks to try to trick him.

Tip thought it was a discipline issue. He didn’t believe in alcoholism, you just had to control yourself.

I’ve heard you tell the president so many times, that to pass a jobs or infrastructure bill, he ought to get a list of the unsafe bridges and roads in John Boehner’s district, and figure out the unemployment rate, etc., do that with other Republicans --  but I didn’t realize you actually did that for Tip O’Neill, against Bob Michel [then House minority leader].

[Laughs] I did. It’s 1982, unemployment’s bad, so the speaker puts up a jobs bill, about a billion dollars, at least it was something. And Bob Michel gets on the floor, and he just starts making fun of the bill, the little leaf raking jobs it would create. So I got on the phone with the mayor of Peoria, in his district, and he gave me a list of every bridge that was under code, safety code, and he gave me the address. And so Tip, who was usually really buddies with Michel, went out on the floor and started reading the addresses of these bridges, and Bob Michel’s face went scarlet. This was totally against the rules at the time.

But it’s politics.

It is. You’re basically playing clean politics. And it was fun. But even Reagan knew they had to do something on jobs.

And they did, that’s what’s amazing. They passed a jobs bill.

They did. But Reagan – Ron told me this -- he always believed Tip was authentic. He did these things to help people, not to make some constituency group happy.  If you want to be really fair to Reagan, if Reagan had spent 50 years in North Cambridge, representing people with real problems, instead of going to Hollywood, well, Reagan would have been a different guy.

Tip deals all day long with people looking for jobs, their Social Security checks, they’re getting old around him, they’re not that great looking. Life is hard.  And he took pride in the fact that he never left them. Whereas Reagan, he started that way, but remember what Nancy says? “He didn’t want to get stuck.” Nancy told me that: He couldn’t get stuck. Their drive for that second chance in California was so iconic.

You talk about how when Reagan had to raise the debt ceiling, what the speaker does early on is, he gets letters from Reagan praising every Democrat who voted for it, so they are inoculated from a Republican challenger attacking them for it. But you can’t imagine that today. No Republican wants a letter from Barack Obama …

They don’t want a deal. They don’t want to be seen compromising. It’s a new party to the right of Reagan. We’re beyond where we were when Newt did it in ’95. We’d had shutdowns before, but they were a day or two or three. It was a dispute, and you’d fix it. This is not a dispute. This is existential. They want this guy broken, and they know this will break him. If he gives up [implementing Obamacare] for a year, that’s one year less he gets to make it work.

And they’re not going to give it to him next year. Why would they give it to him next year if they don’t give it to him this year?

David Axelrod said it this morning: They’ll take an arm this time, they’ll take a leg next time.

I still think the mistake was entertaining the notion of negotiating over the debt ceiling in 2011. But at the time, he thought they had some common interests, in bringing down the deficit, à la Tip and Reagan: You give on entitlements, you get revenue, a tax hike, and you close the deficit. And everybody suffers a little, and I scream, because I don’t like the entitlement cuts, and the right screams, but they say to each other, this is what you have to do.  But still, he never should have opened that door. Why do you think he did that?

You don’t always know who you’re negotiating with. Churchill never wanted to go to war with the Soviets, but he knew he had to go to war with Hitler. With the Soviets, he didn’t think there were people without rational self-interest. To this day we don’t know what would have satisfied Hitler. I think Obama kept hoping he was dealing with a reasonable person, then he realized Boehner wasn’t the leader. They’d have a deal, then Boehner would get into his car and talk to his chief of staff who’d yell at him, “You can’t agree to that.”

And then he stops returning Obama’s call. Obama thinks he has a deal, but he doesn’t have a deal.

They’ve managed to convince their own people, on the right, that what they’re doing is legitimate: Even though the law passed, and it’s been reviewed by the Supreme Court, and the president was reelected, they believe that it’s quite reasonable for them to demand this. That’s astounding. But their hatred of him, and their hatred of healthcare, I guess justifies it.

You’ve been one of the leading figures calling out that hatred of the president, and the racism against this president from the right, from the beginning, going back to the early days of the birthers. But you’re kind to Reagan on that question in this book. You don’t talk about the way Reagan used race as he rose … especially in his election for California governor. He ran against the Watts rioters.

Yes, I know, and he talked about the young buck who comes in and buys whatever the hell it was …

T-bone steaks …

With his food stamps …

And the Cadillac-driving welfare queen.

Right. I know. I didn’t like what he did on the Vietnam war, one of my issues, he never really championed the war, what he did was attack the students who were against the war, which was so cheap. He was always playing the new money against the students with long hair.

Do you think Hillary Clinton should run in 2016?

You know, I saw her yesterday, I ran into her at the airport. And if she’s as healthy as she looks, she should run. I actually thought, “You know, maybe I should drop everything and help her.” I get these impulses. Because she needs guys around her like me. Guys who have a little more traditional attitude. She should put up with guys like me, because then she’ll win 70 percent.

What would you tell her?

I’d keep a lot of the old Clinton stuff: Stand up for “the people who work hard and play by the rules.” “Make abortion safe, legal and rare.” And work on the culturally conservative people. You’ve already got the left. Be careful on the war issues. Don’t be hawkish. Don’t let Howard Dean or somebody go to your left on the war, and force you to the right. This party was burned by the Iraq War, all the leaders of the party burned us, except for Barack. Biden, Kerry, they were all wrong. They have this default to sign onto war. Which I hate. She starts with the women’s movement, women my age. Then she turns to the white working class, the Appalachian folks, even the folks with race problems like her, she did well with them. She has a chance to be Lyndon Johnson in ’64. I don’t know who could beat her.

So your book is about a time when people compromised to get things done. Is there any chance of that today? 

I think people need some sense of the norm. They need to know: This is not the norm. If you really don’t like Obama, now you vote to shut down the government? I don’t know how Boehner stops it. Ted Cruz is in charge over there. What does the right want from Obama in these next few weeks? Do they think he’ll buckle?

I think they thought he would buckle, based on 2011.

He can’t buckle on healthcare. He could go back and say, “Let’s do something on entitlement reform …” Right? And when does he throw out that alternative?

Well, you know, I personally don’t think he should do that. But he actually has thrown out that alternative. In a lot of his recent speeches, including the last one, he has talked about how he’s open to making entitlement changes that will make parts of his base unhappy. But Chris, they don’t want that anymore. They want Obamacare …

They want his cojones. That’s what they want. And once they do that, he doesn’t exist anymore. That’s why as politicians, I can’t believe they believe he’ll do it. He can’t do it. I mean, if he announced a three-month delay, Bernie Sanders, the black caucus, everyone in the Bay Area, they’d all go crazy –

Yeah, and they’d be right!

I’m with you! I’m with you! He can’t do it. For them to equate the fact that they’ve had mixed success so far in implementing what they’re trying to do, with killing it --  they’re not delaying it so it’ll work, they’re delaying it so they can kill it!

But there’s one thing they should remember. After the first debate [in which Matthews harshly criticized Obama’s performance], I saw the president at the Al Smith dinner, and he told me, I mention you in my speech. And he had that line about “First I caused him a thrill up his leg, and then I caused him a stroke,” which was very funny. And then he comes over afterward, and he says to me, “Look, calm down. I got this.” And I thought: What? What does that mean? Does he mean he knows what the numbers are? He’s going to win? I think that’s the Zen-like confidence he’s channeling right now. I think Plouffe or someone is telling him, upholding the law works. And he’s not buckling.

By Joan Walsh