Charles Pierce on the impending 25th anniversary of Iran-Contra:
It remains the great lost opportunity. If the crimes of what became known as the Iran-Contra scandal had been investigated the way they should have been — which is to say, had they been investigated all the way up to criminal indictments at the top of the executive branch, and impeachment inquiries into the conduct of relevant officials, including the president — the political world would have been changed utterly, as Mr. Yeats once put it. The ongoing project of turning Reagan into a secular saint at least would have been slowed to a crawl had an inquiry proven in court that he engaged in peddling arms to a terrorist-sponsoring state. (Instead, when we all went nutty on the subject of terrorism in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, Iran-Contra hardly got a mention and, to this day, people seem more concerned about the Muslim influence on Butterball turkeys than in the fact that Saint Ronnie once sold missiles to the mullahs.) The George H.W. Bush administration might never have happened, for all that would have meant to George W. Bush’s eventual career. Criminalizing the constitutional crimes that are the inevitable result of the theory of the “unitary executive” might have encouraged the nation to ignore the ravings of an authoritarian lycanthrope like Richard Cheney.
I can remember what happened instead. Washington decided, quite on its own, that “the country” didn’t need another “failed presidency,” so what is now known as The Village circled the wagons to rescue Reagan from his crimes. There was the customary gathering of Wise Men — The Tower Commission — which buried the true scandal in Beltway off-English and the passive voice. There was a joint congressional investigation that served only to furnish people like Oliver North with legal loopholes that prevented their incarceration. There was poor Lawrence Walsh, the special prosecutor, whom everybody wished would simply go away, but who pressed on, making a case that ultimately forced President Poppy Bush to pardon everyone except Shoeless Joe Jackson on his way out the door in 1992.
The press was next to useless. (Mark Hertsgaard’s On Bended Knee is the essential text here.) Hell, the scandal was uncovered by two guys in Beirut with a mimeograph machine. And while there was some excellent work done in spots by the elite American press, the general tone was that the scandal was “too complex” for the country to follow, which led to its having “dragged on too long” and to the eventual dissipation of its political force. (This was a trial run for the infantilization of political self-government, by which the self-governing public is treated as though it were made of candyglass. The masterwork in this regard was the haste to settle the “dangerous uncertainity” surrounding the 2000 presidential election, when almost every poll indicated that the country was perfectly willing to live through a constitutional crisis so long as the crisis followed the Constitution.) This was, of course, nonsense. The Whitewater scandal was insanely complex, largely because there was virtually nothing to the damned thing, and that dragged on all the way to an impeachment trial in the Senate.
Compared to a real-estate scam masterminded by crooks and loons in Arkansas that somehow led to hearings on what the president did with his pee-pee, Iran-Contra was a straightforward constitutional B&E. The Reagan people wanted to fight a war in Central America. Congress did its constitutional duty and shut off the money. The administration then broke the law by arranging private funding for its pet war. One of the ways it did that was to sell military hardware to the government of Iran, which sponsored not only terrorism, but also the kidnapping of various American citizens abroad. All of this was in service to a private foreign policy, devoid of checks and balances, and based on a fundamental contempt for the Constitution and the rule of law. As [the National Security Archive’s Peter] Kornbluh writes, the following ensued:
There were illegal arms transfers to Iran, flagrant lying to Congress, soliciting third country funding to circumvent the Congressional ban on financing the contra war in Nicaragua, White House bribes to various generals in Honduras, illegal propaganda and psychological operations directed by the CIA against the U.S. press and public, collaboration with drug kingpins such as Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega, and violating the checks and balances of the Constitution.
Iran-Contra was the moment when the country decided — or, alternatively, when it was decided for the country — that self-government was too damned hard, and that we’re all better off just not knowing. It was the moment when all the checks and balances failed, when our faith in the Constitution was most sorely tested, and when it was found most seriously wanting. Iran-Contra is how all the crimes of the subsequent years became possible.
I would make three additional points.
First, contra (pardon the pun) Pierce, the Archive’s Christian Mixter makes clear that although Reagan broke the law, prosecuting him would have been “a close call” because he had been advised by then-Attorney General Ed Meese that the sales of missiles to Iran via Israel were legal. (Lawyers supposedly can’t just pull this stuff out of their rear ends and get away with it, and yet they do.)
Second, if the news media ever were liberal, they stopped being liberal the instant Jimmy Carter was elected (remember how allegations that Hamilton Jordan had used cocaine were pursued as feverishly as Watergate had been?).
Third, it’s true that Iran-Contra made the crimes of the Bush 43 administration possible, but I return again to this: The pardon of Richard Nixon by Gerald Ford for the crimes of Watergate made Iran-Contra possible.
I miss the rule of law.