President Reagan and Tip O'Neill

Earlier this month, the University of Ulster announced it would be establishing the John Hume and Tip O’Neill Chair in Peace, designed so that the school in Northern Ireland would become a world leader in peace and conflict resolution studies.

O’Neill’s association with this university stems, of course, from the late House speaker’s longtime interest in Northern Ireland. He was one of the famous “Four Horseman” of Irish American politics -- along with Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Ted Kennedy and Hugh Carey -- who pressed leaders in Ireland, Britain and the North to peacefully resolve the ancient conflict.

But O’Neill was quite good at conflict resolution on this side of the Atlantic. And a lot of Americans would be quite thankful, this holiday week, if we had some political representatives like O’Neill today.

It would also be helpful if people reacquainted themselves with an Irish American guy who served as president from 1980 to 1988. He is an idol of the conservative right, yet worked with the liberal likes of O’Neill, and even -- gasp! -- agreed to tax hikes while he served as president.

You don’t hear that from the Tea Party, do you?

Not that it’s just Republicans who are to blame here. Democrats haven’t exactly come out looking like statesmen, either.

Indeed, even if the so-called congressional super-committee in Washington manages to come up with a last-minute compromise (which looked like a dim prospect as the Irish Voice went to press), not much has been done in the last week to enhance our view of Washington. Compromise remains a dirty word, and neither the Republicans nor Democrats seem willing to do anything to change that.

This was not always the case. Consider the two Irish giants of the 1980s political scene –O’Neill and Reagan.

They were quite different. Reagan’s great-grandfather was from Tipperary, but his background was deeply American as his family settled in the generally non-ethnic Midwest and then California.

O’Neill, on the other hand, was an East Coast ethnic kid, an old style pol who knew, as his famous saying put it, that “all politics is local.”

Also, O’Neill was an old-style New Deal liberal, while Reagan was an icon of the Republican party.

And yet, somehow, the duo managed to work together, in a way that seems unthinkable today.

When you hear the likes of Michele Bachmann bow at the altar of Reagan, you think she is talking about a man who was so ideologically pure that he could not utter the word “Democrat,” much less work closely with such a creature to come up with a compromise economic plan.

And yet, O’Neill and Reagan -- and even a Republican senator named Bob Dole -- did that throughout the 1980s.

Yes, there were early tax cuts Reagan and his allies supported. But when it was clear the U.S. budget was going bust (in part because of Republican support for military spending), Reagan agreed to tax hikes nearly a dozen times in order to keep the country functional.

Now, this is not to pretend that these were the good old days. Many people saw Reagan as a right wing devil and O’Neill as a sell-out.

But it must be said that both Reagan and O’Neill understood something about the Founding Fathers that many of today’s strident political types do not.

Compromise is not a very sexy thing. There’s a fine line between compromise and selling out.
When everyone is cutting deals in a smoke-filled room, we often crave someone who is willing to stand up and be independent.

But the famous Federalist Papers written at the time of America’s founding speak at length about how political factions must compromise.

And make no mistake about it. Irish machine politicians like O’Neill knew a lot about compromising.
From Chicago to New York, they were often challenged by idealistic reformers who had lots of big ideas but knew precious little about actually getting things accomplished.

Yes, the Tea Partiers and others can claim that it is time to break away from a system they view as inherently corrupt. They can claim that the likes of Tip O’Neill were part of the problem, rather than the solution.
But they’d pretty much have to say the same thing about that notorious tax-and-spender Ronald Reagan.

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