I did not play hardball with Chris Matthews. It was more like batting practice. I pitched him questions and, as the rapid-fire intellectual he is, Matthews drove home his thoughts without hesitation. There is a lot to be learned from a man who engages in daily political debate with the nation’s most prolific politicians. He is not a personality making a name for himself with clever TV shows — NBC’s The Chris Matthews Show and MSNBC’s Hardball with Chris Matthews.

Rather, Matthews built his name as the speechwriter for Jimmy Carter and as Tip O’Neill’s top adviser during the Reagan era. As O’Neill’s adviser, Matthews was privy to a historically profound relationship between O’Neill and Reagan. Matthews will be speaking and sharing his insight on this distinctive time in history this Tuesday, July 20, at the Ronald Reagan Library.

VCR: Care to tell us a bit about what you will be speaking about at the Reagan Library?
Matthews: A year or so ago, [Nancy] Reagan asked me to come out to the library to talk about the relationship between Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill, who was a Democrat during the Reagan administration, and President Reagan and how they got along as political adversaries and friends for about six years. I always thought it would be a great story to tell about how they disagreed on a lot of things, but they were able to get along and be actually friendly in all that time. In a way, I think it’s a good role model for people.

They really had a mutual respect for each other and developed a genuine friendship. I know they played hard and tough against each other on the field, but afterward they would sit down with a beer and actually enjoy each other’s company. But it seems like today that sort of working relationship between the different spectrums of American politics is rarely found, and I’m curious what happened.
You got the question of the ages. What did happen? I’ve heard stories, for example, that Newt Gingrich and Dick Gephardt, who were opposite members on Capitol Hill during, what? The ’90s? were never in a room together alone.
Look, I would say part of it is we don’t have really good one-on-one arguments anymore. It sounds odd, but the best way to get along with somebody on the other side is to argue with them when you’re with them. They (O’Neill and Reagan) would actually make their philosophical points against each other in the room without the cameras on. They would actually respect each other enough to argue with each other. I don’t know whether the president today argues with John Boehner or Mitch McConnell, or if they just go in the room with their armor on and everybody knows what side they’re on and that’s the end of it.

If this sort of vicious, divided politics continues, what are the implications for our democracy? Historically, this kind of extremism has led to despotic regimes. I’m curious what we should be watching for in the U.S. that would be alarming.
It is possible to play scorched earth, to engage in it. Your goal is make sure the other side gets nothing done, and in our system that is doable. You have a 60-vote requirement in the senate now, so if you are willing to filibuster every single bill and neither party gets the majority of the votes, nothing gets done. I do worry about it. I have seen parliamentary systems fail in different countries. Where the public just gets tired . . .. I’ve seen it.

I think the public has to get in on it. The public has to insist that the opposition party be a junior partner to governing. Not an obstruction, but a junior partner. In other words, they don’t get the best call; they get only the minority call.

They get some call in what gets done. The opposition today, a lot of the Republicans do not offer an opposition program. I think that is a problem. If they don’t want health care bill, they don’t want health care bill. If they don’t want stem cell research, they don’t want a stem cell research program . . .. I hope the public just doesn’t reward negativity. I don’t know. It might. You never know.

Do you think Obama is being too moderate in all of this?
He’s stuck with the 60-vote requirement.

I saw on your show recently a really interesting debate about whether Obama is behaving like a one-term president or two-term president.
We’re trying to figure that out sometimes (laughs). I guess we have to assume he’s got David Plouffe planning his re-election. What will the unemployment rate be? Reagan got it down to seven when he ran for re-election, and now it’s around 11. If the unemployment rate is still around 10 and the Republicans have a good candidate, will he lose?

Sure he could. If the Republicans have a weak candidate, then he can win. I think the unemployment rate is probably the key factor. But Reagan was successful because his timing was very good.

In the spirit of “all politics is local,” the latest poll of the California governor’s race is showing Meg Whitman pulling within one point of Jerry Brown. I would like to hear your thoughts about that race.
I like Jerry Brown. I personally like him. He’s a friend of mine. I’m still waiting to see the debate. I think the debate is crucial. I hope there is a series of televised debates, and I hope they are broadly watched. And that should decide it. I don’t think people are going to vote, in the end, based on TV advertising. I may be wrong. It may be close because of TV advertising, but if that is the case then Jerry Brown would have won the senator’s race in ’82. You can’t just buy your way into this thing. I think you can buy your way up to the thing, but at some point the voters are going to make up their minds based upon what they see as the best hope for the state. I’ve never actually seen Meg Whitman in action. Have you?

I don’t know many who have.
Well, that is the question ….

The Reagan Library presents the Reagan Forum with Chris Matthews, which will be held on Tuesday, July 20, at 6 p.m. Tickets are $45 per person and include dinner. The Reagan Library is located at 40 Presidential Drive in Simi Valley.

For more information and/or to order tickets, go to www.reaganlibrary.com or call 522-2977.

shane@vcreporter.com