Washington remembered: Chris Matthews looks back at a time when politics worked

Jonathan Karl, Richard Coolidge and Jordyn Phelps
Power Players

Politics Confidential

There was a time when politics worked, rivals compromised and grand bargains were achievable.

So says Chris Matthews, who was a trusted top aide to Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill, D – Mass, during the Reagan years.

“The old days, there was a pattern,” Matthews said. “You argued in politics, you would have an agreement, you would have a signing ceremony where they would be smiling at each other … and everybody would be happy. They would move on to the next topic.”

Matthews sat down with “Politics Confidential” to talk about his new book, "Tip and the Gipper: When Politics Worked," in which he offers a personal history of the Reagan years and his time working under O’Neill.

Reagan and O’Neill had a publicly contentious relationship – with O’Neill even calling Reagan “the worst president ever" on one occasion – but Matthews makes the case that the two would ultimately come together for the sake of compromise and progress.

“It was all clean and fun,” said Matthews, now the host of "Hardball" on MSNBC. “It was exciting. And two big Irish guys fighting left and right, you always knew where they stood, every cab driver in DC knew where Reagan stood on those things and they knew where Tip stood.”

But times have changed, Matthews said.

“Now, you just sort of accumulate things to fight about, and they never really get behind us," Matthews said. "It makes politics very depressing.”

Back during the Reagan years, O’Neill and Reagan could be seen enjoying each other’s company in both political and non-political settings.

“Tip never had a problem putting his arm around Reagan like on the cover of my book, hanging out together, St. Patrick's Day party,” Matthews said. “They sat there drinking all afternoon. … The physical, just palpable connection with each other, tangible being together was the norm. You were both Americans. You're both trying to run the country, running it together.”

Such gestures are rare in the current political climate. Matthews said, for example, that President Obama has not had a bipartisan bill signing ceremony during his administration – something that was commonplace during the Reagan years.

“He does it in his own office or something; he doesn't try to make it a sign of agreement,” Matthews said. “And on the other side, the Republicans don't want to be seen with him.”

For more of the interview with Matthews, including his explanation of why he thinks things are so different today, check out this episode of “Politics Confidential.”

ABC’s Betsy Klein, Misyrlena Egkolfopoulou, Gary Westphalen, Wayne Boyd, and John Glennon contributed to this episode.