The political cartoon above depicts an incident in 1856 in which the South Carolina Congressman Preston Brooks nearly killed the Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner with a cane a few days after Sumner delivered a fiery anti-slavery speech.
After this incident, Senators were accustomed to carrying canes and revolvers with them at the Capitol in order to protect themselves.
We have since abolished slavery, but you wouldn’t know it if you listened to some of the crazy charges and overheated rhetoric coming out of Washington these days. Some conservatives have compared Obamacare to slavery. Some liberals have compared Republicans to Civil War Confederates.
It hasn’t always been this way.
In a speech at The Nantucket Project, a festival of ideas on Nantucket, MA, MCNBC host and former political operative Chris Matthews describes what it was like to work as a top aide to Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill at a time when Democrats held the House of Representatives and Ronald Reagan was in the White House.
Matthews says he has a nostalgia for “those two big Irish guys” – Tip and the Gipper – who used to fight with each other every day. Their dispute at the time was “the pure question of the role of government in our lives,” a debate that Matthews says American democracy will always be renegotiating, along with the question of what our role in the world should be.
For six years Matthews worked behind the scenes with O’Neill as the two plotted their moves in the media war between Reagan and O’Neill that Matthews has recounted in his book Tip and the Gipper: When Politics Worked.
What Matthews feels nostalgia for, more than anything, was a time when politics had rules, or simple constraints that he says both men followed. When they crossed the line, they tried to correct the mistake. For instance, in 1981, Reagan called O’Neill a demagogue. O’Neill said “Don’t call me a demagogue, I’m the Speaker of the House.” The next day, Matthews says, Reagan was on the phone apologizing.
That respect that people had for each other’s office, Matthews says, is completely missing today.