"They really were grown-ups," he said, adding politicians are elected to reach deals, not to find compromise on everything.
Matthews is less kind about today's political leaders, whom he blames for the "decline in decency." The left is "intransigent" while the right is "crazy." When Reagan first took office, O'Neill gave him a honeymoon period and ensured his bills were voted on by a set deadline. Contrast that with well-documented reports that Republican leaders were determined to debilitate Barack Obama's presidency from the beginning.
The author and television host saved plenty of criticism for Democrats too over their failure so far to defend Obamacare.
"The sales pitch isn't there," Matthews said of Obama's handling of the law's rollout and its problematic website. He questioned why the beneficiaries of reforms haven't stepped up or marched in Washington in defense of the law. He also urged young people to sign up for insurance as a "personal responsibility" to keep the system afloat.
I want the president to hear that message. We need his leadership now more than ever to move health-care reform in the right direction. It's not too late.
In fact, I hope "Tip and The Gipper" is being read by both Obama and House Speaker John Boehner.
They could really use a friendly reminder that it's possible for two ideologically opposed leaders to see the humanity in one another and to make this country a stronger one -- together.
Tan is a writer for The Seattle Times.