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Jack Zaleski, Published February 15 2014

Zaleski: Good reads: Tip, the Gipper and JFK

If you’re a fan of political history, I recommend two books that were published late last year. One is a marvelous personal insight into two of the 20th century’s giants. The other is a scholarly and accessible examination of how a president and his advisers negotiated crises that brought the nation to the brink of nuclear war.

“Tip and the Gipper. When Politics Worked” (Simon & Schuster, 2013) is a work of love by Chris Matthews, best known as host of MSNBC’s “Hard Ball.” The book is an insider’s view of the relationship between President Ronald Reagan and Speaker of the U.S. House Tip O’Neill. As a young speech writer for the speaker, Matthews had a front-row seat into the personalities and politics of two men who, despite their polar opposite political beliefs, found ways to move important legislation through Congress.

The subtitle, “When Politics Worked,” is the theme of the story. Reagan and O’Neill shared Irish roots, and that factor proved to be the opening that brought them together to accomplish a lot. They never agreed politically, but they developed a grudging respect for each other. O’Neill in particular found himself in hot water with his liberal base when he, on occasion, deferred to Reagan because “we only have one president.”

Matthews’ affection for O’Neill is on every page; but he recognized and admired Reagan’s commitment to his core principles and the Gipper’s unparalleled communication and leadership skills – that often drove O’Neill to distraction.

The book is lively because of Matthews’ style, and also because the author had access to both men’s diaries and letters.

“Camelot’s Court. Inside the Kennedy White House” (Harper, 2013) is another of Robert Dallek’s excellent histories and biographies of 20th-century political figures. In this book, which was published as the nation observed the 50th anniversary of the JFK assassination, Dallek examines the role of the president’s advisers during the Bay of Pigs fiasco, the Cuban missile crisis and the entanglement in Vietnam that would lead to a decade of tragedy.

It’s a compelling and disturbing account of how men who were supposed to be the best and the brightest failed the president at every critical moment. But Dallek does not sugar-coat Kennedy’s culpability. The president’s indecisiveness, his overwrought worry about angering the Soviet Union and his reluctance to act on civil rights are chronicled without the patina of JFK-worship, which afflicts many other historians.

Nonetheless, Dallek’s account reveals a president who learned from his errors. He gauged the weaknesses and biases of his advisers. He learned to resist pressures and to take his own counsel, which turned the tide for him. At the time of his death, JFK’s popularity was above 75 percent.

Dallek concludes his meticulously researched book with an epilogue that speculates what a second term might have looked like. It’s fascinating material. A very good read.