Matthews’ Reagan, O’Neill “Irishness” myth

MSNBC’s Chris Matthews is drawing criticism for the greenish tint to his portrait of the political and personal relationship between President Ronald Reagan and House Speaker Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill Jr.

In his New York Times review of “Tip and the Gipper: When Politics Worked,” Rutgers University history and journalism professor David Greenberg writes:

The problems begin with the false symmetry Matthews sets up. He paints Reagan and O’Neill as mirror images: two “larger than life” “Irish-American” politicians, titans of their parties, standard-­bearers for their worldviews. … The idea of “two Irishmen” also rings false. O’Neill fit the type, but Reagan, though he sometimes cited the Celtic lineage on his father’s side, was a product of the small-town Protestant Midwest and of Southern California. Having become famous through movies and television, he had none of the hallmarks of the classic Irish-­American politician: no base in urban neighborhoods, no feel for tavern politics, little experience with legislative horse-trading. Irishness was no more part of his persona than it is of Barack Obama’s, and it’s jarring to see Reagan described repeatedly in such terms.

O'Neill and Reagan. Washington Post image

O’Neill and Reagan. Washington Post image

Howell Raines, a former executive editor of the Times, writes in his Washington Post review that “a reader might conclude that the current legislative crises are due to a shortage of Irish Americans in the capital.”

He continues:

Matthews had plenty of company in believing that Irishness was a universal legislative emollient. Indeed, from the start, Reagan aides, O’Neill aides and journalists, including David Broder and James Reston, rallied to what Broder called the “stubborn Irishmen” theory. This book conjures the mood of “The Quiet Man,” in which John Wayne and Victor McLaglen buddy up after a bar brawl.

I haven’t read the book myself, and I haven’t seen any reviews from Irish media sources. Greenberg says Matthews “has a fine appreciation of blarney.” I would suggest the word Greenberg meant to use is “malarkey.”