Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill: A Real-life Friendship

Much has been written about the friendship — both political and personal — between Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill during the 1980s. In this next phase of the series, New Year; New Types of Friends, I’ll provide several examples of real-life friendship in politics, sports, literature, and entertainment. This first one is between the president and one of his rivals, which shows a friendship that fulfills more than one of the trusted friendships every man needs.

As I wrote in the Introduction to Examples of Real-life Friendships, every man needs to include and connect often with six “archetypes” of friends who become his inner circle. By definition, an archetype is a pattern of behavior, prototype, or object to copy, emulate, or merge into that motivate human behavior, influence feelings, and affect our degree of consciousness.

It’s said that people become the average of the five people with whom they spend the most time. The aforementioned post suggests five archetypes but I’m adding my concept called the GodBuddy, which provides expertise on faith matters and spiritual growth. While these archetypes may vary for each guy, your inner circle should include:

  • The Mentor 
  • The Wingman/Bachelor
  • The Handyman
  • The Fitness Buff
  • The Work Pal
  • The GodBuddy

Some friends may fit several archetypes, but having an inner circle helps make life easier since the strengths and talents of these friends can counterbalance your weaknesses and close the gaps in your abilities. 

This was certainly the case for Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill.

The Friendship of Reagan and O’Neill

Ronald Wilson Reagan (February 6, 1911 – June 5, 2004), the 40th President of the United States, and Thomas Phillip “Tip” O’Neill, Jr. (December 9, 1912 – January 5, 1994), Speaker of the House of Representatives from 1977 to 1987, were two political opposites. While much of their political partnership was based on smart gamesmanship, Reagan, the Republican, and O’Neill, the Democrat, could put aside their party differences to find solutions. They had mutual respect for each other that separated their ideological bent from the need for basic human decency. Reportedly, the two political rivals were good friends who frequently enjoyed a drink together at the end of the day. 

A Friendship of Mutual Respect

In his book, “Tip and the Gipper: When Politics Worked,” MSNBC talk show host and author, Chris Matthews, describes a scene that exemplifies the close between Reagan and O’Neill.

Following the assassination attempt, former Reagan aide, Max Friedersdorf told Matthews that O’Neill was one of the first people the President let visit him at George Washington University Hospital. Friedersdorf observed that when O’Neill entered Reagan’s hospital room, “he nodded my way and walked over to the bed and grasped both the president’s hands, and said, God bless you, Mr. President.’ The president still seemed groggy … with lots of tubes and needles running in and out of his body. But when he saw Tip, he lit up and gave the speaker a big smile, and said, ‘Thanks for coming, Tip.’ Then, still holding one of the president’s hands, the speaker got down on his knees and said he would like to offer a prayer for the president, choosing the 23rd Psalm.” Then O’Neill kissed Reagan on the forehead.

Matthews says this kind of relationship is sorely lacking in today’s Washington. “There were rules in those days,” Matthews said. “Tip would say, ‘I’ll cut a deal on Social Security if you let me focus on taxing the wealthier people.’ There was always a deal. It’s not that they always found common ground, it’s that they each got something out of every deal. … A lot of times it was just getting something from the other guy.”  “There was a tremendous respect for deadlines in those days. You had to get the budget resolution in the spring, then you had to get the appropriations bill done by October 1. There wasn’t this thing about brinkmanship. You had to get this stuff done. … There was a respect for each other and a respect for institutions.”

Matthews, an aide to O’Neill at the time, said the heavily emphasized social component is overstated. However, a post on the website, Respect + Rebellion, indicates Reagan often answered O’Neill’s calls “Tip, is it after 6 p.m.?” since he and O’Neill often fought during work hours. But after 6, these two enemies enjoy each other’s company.  

What’s Unique about their Friendship?

Matthews explains that Reagan and O’Neill genuinely liked each other. The two also didn’t suspect the worse of each other. “Reagan was fond of Tip and completely believed that Tip wanted to help the little people. He just disagreed about how to do it.” Matthews continued, “Reagan was his party. Tip was his party. It wasn’t like [John] Boehner trying to deal with people who are a little different than him.” It was clear that each man truly represented their party in full.

To further validate their admiration for each other, the speaker’s son, Thomas P. O’Neill III, once wrote about the relationship between his father and the president:

“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, Frenemies: a Story, The New York Times

At a retirement party for O’Neill in 1986, Reagan said, “Mr. Speaker, I’m grateful you have permitted me in the past, and I hope in the future, that singular honor—the honor of calling you my friend.”

Reagan’s Other Friends

Reportedly, President Reagan developed a close friendship with Mikhail Gorbachev, president of the Soviet Union. These unusual bedfellows forged a political relationship built on mutual respect but their friendship helped end the geopolitical tension between the two countries that began after World War II. 

A New York Times article titled Reagan’s First Friend stated Paul Laxalt, a junior Senator from Nevada may have been the President’s ”best friend.” Laxalt was part of Reagan’s trusted political friends, along with Senate majority leader, Senator Howard Baker Jr. of Tennessee, and House minority leader, Robert H. Michel of Illinois. In his unprecedented role in Reagan’s Washington, Laxalt was the truthteller, the man who whispers in the ear of the leader. Laxalt explained, ”Because of my relationship with the President, I can say things in a manner that others can’t.”

Conversely, Reagan’s son, Ron, divulged in a 1998 TV documentary that his dad really had no close friends. Most nights at the White House, the first couple dined alone. Even the second couple, George H.W. and Barbara Bush did not dine in the Reagan family quarters during their eight years in office. Reagan also kept his distance from his four children, even when he was seriously ill.

The Reagan’s certainly made a lot of friends during their Hollywood days. But, you might categorize the president’s friendships as utilitarian; one of the purposes I wrote about in The History of Friendship.

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GodBuddy Focus

The friendship between Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill exemplifies the archetypes of both a wingman and work pal. The two worked closely together but one was clearly in charge. The two also had each other’s backs when one lost the view of the end goal. 

Regardless of your party affiliation, the friendship between Reagan and O’Neill seemed to work well. They disagreed often but still worked toward the common goal of making our country better. The president’s strength was finding common ground, which helped him earn the respect of both his allies and his rivals. Reagan may not have had any close friends who knew him deeply, but his truth-tellers did influence him. Even a president needs trusted advisors.

GodBuddies also have a common goal: making each other better men. Their friendship is built on mutual respect. It includes prayer and support in tough decisions. It relies on each other’s strengths to fill in gaps and speak the truth whenever there’s a shortcoming. They celebrate a great friendship at the end of the day. Most importantly, this is such a good model that you should apply the principles, especially when you have political or ideological differences.

My next post goes further back in political history to explore the selfless friendships of Winston Churchill.

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