Happy birthday, Iran-Contra!

Gossip, speculation, and scuttlebutt about politics.
Nov. 29 2006 4:22 PM

Happy Birthday, Iran-Contra!

An anniversary the press ignored.

Editors, my Slate colleague Jack Shafer has oft noted, swoon before anniversaries. Shafer's particular bête noire is magazines that celebrate their own anniversaries, but anniversary mania also extends to newspapers and their commemoration of big public events, the most notable recent example being the flood of stories prompted by the fifth anniversary of 9/11. Editors adore anniversaries because they possess a quality prized by managers but rare amid the rude hurly-burly of news: They are predictable. Stories, page layouts, even entire special sections can be planned out well in advance.

This anniversary fixation makes it all the more baffling that one particularly significant anniversary recently went unnoticed: the 20th anniversary, on Nov. 25, of the Iran-Contra scandal. On that day in 1986, Attorney General Ed Meese confirmed press reports that the Reagan White House had sold arms secretly to Iran and, defying legislation passed by Congress and signed by the president, gave the proceeds to a group (the "Contras") that was trying to overthrow the government of Nicaragua. An independent prosecutor was promptly assigned to the case, and Congress created a joint investigative committee that many believed would lead to the impeachment of President Reagan. That didn't happen, of course. But Iran-Contra was a hugely significant political event.

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Why no anniversary coverage? It certainly wasn't because that date was crowded with other news. Nov. 25 fell this year on a Saturday during the Thanksgiving holiday weekend. Newsrooms were half-empty, and front pages were padded out with stories like "Cities Compete In Hipness Battle to Attract Young" (New York Times). Yet apart from an AP story about the National Security Archive's document-rich commemoration, I found preciselyzero newspaper or magazine articles when I checked the Nexis and Google News databases for recent stories containing the words Iran, Contra, anniversary, and 20. (The Nation magazine covered the anniversary via David Corn's "Capital Games" Web log, but even that came three days late.)

In puzzling over this omission, I have arrived at two hypotheses:

1.) The Iran-Contra scandal, though important, was also mind-numbingly complex. Political junkies had perhaps been spoiled by Watergate, the most gratifyingly novelistic political scandal that this country managed to produce during the 20th century. Writing in the New York Times Book Review, Wilfrid Sheed advised readers to approach Watergate "like Madame Bovary, with a minimum of interpretation and extraneous blather. Just let it happen to you." Iran-Contra was more like Finnegans Wake. Where Watergate had boasted a spectacularly paranoid president, a bungled break-in whose perps landed in jail, and transcripts of actual White House conversations, Iran-Contra substituted a president sliding (or pretending to slide) into a baffled dotage, legally dubious financial transactions, shadowy meetings with third-party funding sources, and a very spotty documentary record, this last because many of the relevant documents were either shredded well before the investigators were set loose or made unavailable to prosecutors on (often shaky) grounds of national security. Iran-Contra's interdisciplinarity, reflected in the scandal's very name, added another layer of difficulty. Like quarrelsome Joyce scholars feuding over textual corruptions, experts on Iran-Contra argue to this day about whether the scandal's center of gravity was the arming of Iran (a violation of the Arms Export Control Act) or use of the proceeds to arm the Nicaraguan Contras (a violation of the Boland Amendment). Writing about all this can give even the most dedicated journalist a migraine. (If you nonetheless want to read Independent Counsel Lawrence Walsh's final report, click here.)

2.) To the extent one can tease out a story line, the Iran-Contra saga is at odds with what we "know" about some of the characters involved, a great many of whom hold positions of power in the current Bush administration. For example, the conventional wisdom holds that Robert Gates is a white knight brought in to restore to greatness to a Pentagon yoked for six years to a preening blowhard. Yet Gates, who served as a high-ranking CIA official during the Reagan administration, appears to have been well aware at the time of illegal White House activities concerning the Contras and was not especially candid about this to Iran-Contra investigators. (For the evidence, click here and scroll down to documents 6a, 6b, and 6c.)

Another contemporary narrative holds that President George W. Bush is dwarfed in stature by his statesmanlike father. But that isn't easy to square with the conclusion of Independent Counsel Lawrence Walsh—a Republican—that Bush senior, "[c]ontrary to his public statements … was fully aware of the Iran arms sales" and some of the Contra-related shenanigans, too. Walsh further hinted that the elder Bush, at the end of his presidency, pardoned Reagan Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger in order to avoid being called as a witness at Weinberger's trial, a circumstance that would have required the ex-president to come clean about his own involvement in the scandal.

Iran-Contra's 20th anniversary may not be worth commemorating for its own sake. But the absence of a birthday celebration deprives the public of three lessons that would come in handy right now:

1.) Vice President Dick Cheney's metamorphosis from consensus builder to bomb thrower was not as much of a transformation as we might suppose. The Iran-Contra scandal afforded Cheney (then the top House Republican on the investigative committee) an opportunity to articulate what would become the Cheney Doctrine, which holds that the president can do any damn thing he pleases. "I personally do not believe the Boland Amendment applied to the president, nor to his immediate staff," Cheney declared back in 1987. Cheney's presidential-power Iago, then as now, was David Addington, then a Republican staffer on the committee and now Cheney's vice presidential chief of staff.

2.) Even when Congress forbids specified activities touching on national security, presidents will be tempted to ignore the law, and when they do, they will tend not to suffer many consequences. (See wiretaps, illegal.) Ronald Reagan is not remembered as a disgraced president; retrospective analyses of his presidency seldom dwell on Iran-Contra. Congress, far from being the power-grabbing government branch that Cheney and Addington imagine, is in reality very timid about enforcing its constitutional prerogatives in this area. The preferred alternative is to make a lot of noise and then do nothing. This is true even when Congress and the White House are controlled by different political parties, as was the case during Iran-contra and will soon be so again. The 1973 War Powers Act  theoretically gives Congress the power to halt military actions undertaken by the president, but that power has never been used and is seldom even acknowledged by legislators. Members of Congress don't want to be held responsible for military interventions gone sour.

3.) Daniel Ortega can't be stopped. Twenty years after Ed Meese's press conference, Ortega just got re-elected president of Nicaragua. And guess what? On abortion, the guy is positioned to the right of George W. Bush! Under a new Nicaraguan law, abortions are forbidden even when a pregnancy endangers the mother's life. The bill was signed into law by Ortega's predecessor, but, as Alexandra Starr reported earlier this month in Slate, the recovering Marxist helped shepherd the ban through the legislature because he wanted to patch things up with the Catholic Church. The anti-abortion law has already led to at least one death, but I wouldn't hold your breath waiting for President Bush to denounce this particular human rights violation.

What if the United States were to seek third-party covert funding once again to support a Contra-style Nicaraguan resistance off the books? History suggests that Cheney wouldn't oppose it and that Congress would try not to notice. Funding could be a problem. Iran would likely say thank you, Great Satan, but who needs TOWs when you've got nukes? But fear not, freedom lovers. There's always NARAL.

Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His  book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.

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