Reagan, Bush and How Presidents Got To Be Above the Law

Are you frustrated that George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and their minions plotted torture tactics, illegal wiretapping,, political manipulation of the Justice Department and other alledgedly unlawful acts inside the White House - and seem to have gotten away with it? You should be. Are you looking for someone to blame? How about Ronald Reagan? Or more accurately, the politicians and members of the media who let Reagan and some key aides - not to mention Reagan's long-term reputation -- largely get away with one of the worst scandals in White House history.

Because make no mistake, there is a straight line from the great political escape of Ronald Reagan - who went from failed president to near Mt. Rushmore status with the help of a well-oiled myth machine and a national case of amnesia - to the wanton and largely unchallenged lawbreaking at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue under G.W. Bush. The Iran-Contra experience began to solidify the notion that national unity and presidential strength are more important than making sure that presidents or even their key staffers followed the law, and that serious offenses that don't involve petty matters like sex are merely non-prosecutable "policy differences."

As someone who graduated college and launched a career in journalism during Reagan's presidency, I was a little surprised to learn last year - as I researched my book "Tear Down This Myth: How the Reagan Legacy Has Distorted Our Politics and Haunts Our Future" - the extent to which everyday Americans don't remember much about the Iran-Contra affair. I should not have been - after all, there's a whole generation of American voters who was watching "The Smurfs" in Saturday morning when the Gipper was in the White House. But the Iran-contra affair was nothing less than a major subversion of the U.S. Constitution. Democrats in Congress had passed a measure called the Boland Amendment that barred military aid to right-wing rebels in Central America, a lethal pet project of Team Reagan. To undermine that ban, administration aides secretly traded weapons to our supposed adversaries in Iran, seeking to free Middle Eastern hostages, reaped illegal profits from the deals and used those to fund the anti-Communist rebels, in defiance of Congress.

When the scheme unraveled, there were televised hearings, and there was expressed outraged - and one-third of Americans told pollsters that Reagan should resign as Richard Nixon had done a decade earlier. But the '70s were a very different time - members of Congress in both parties took very seriously their job in investigating and then holding impeachment hearings over the Watergate break-in, the cover-up and related offenses. But the aftermath frightened many Americans, who linked the bad news of the later 1970s, from Arab oil embargoes to stagflation to the fall of Saigon and the Iran hostages, to a weakened presidency.

Thus, there was a pre-determined notion not to go after Reagan too hard, especially because many in Congress worried that old age (the Gipper was 76 in 1987) had diminished Reagan's capacities. As I write in "Tear Down This Myth":

As the new Speaker of the House in 1987, Texan Jim Wright would have been tasked to oversee the impeachment of Reagan, and he candidly admitted a few years after the fact that he just didn't have the stomach for that, and that the congressional investigations of Iran-Contra that did take place were therefore rushed. "I hoped there would not be the discovery of an impeachable offense," Wright told reporters in 1993. "I didn't want to focus on such a divisive subject. I may have bent over backwards in error."

In 1990, legendary investigative reporter Seymour Hersh wrote a lengthy investigation of the Iran-Contra probe, focused on how the rules and timing were rigged to avoid finding any culpability for Reagan. Hersh explained the ground rules, set down two months before Reagan himself came clean on what he knew. "At an early caucus in January [1987], according to one participant, the Senators reached one easy consensus. 'We didn't want to go after the president,' the participant said. 'He was too old,' with too little time left in office. The Senators "honestly thought the country didn't need another Watergate. They were urgently hoping to avoid a crisis. There was another consensus, the participant added: the President did not have the mental capacity to understand what had happened."

Few imagined that the Iran-Contra scandal would fade from the American consciousness, but it did, to the extent that the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, Calif., gets away with no mention at all in any of its expansive exhibit spaces. The thing is, it was one easy step from the non-impeachment to the decision by Reagan's successor George H.W. Bush, who had some links to the scandal as the Gipper's vice president, to pardon some key figures like former Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger. By now, the modern template was beginning to take shape, that it was a bad idea to go after White House officials including the president on "policy matters," even if a policy was in clear violation of the law -- as would be the case with torture directives a generation down the road.

Instead, politicians and the press could focus on the seemingly non-partisan (though not really) less murky "objective lie" - the issue that led to the impeachment of Bill Clinton in the Monica Lewinsky scandal, which had none of the Constitutional nor global implications of Iran-Contra. By the time of the Bush outrages, there were now layers of reasons not seriously investigate them -- that - ironically - the Lewinsky experience had soured Congress (but not citizens) on impeachment, and also the notion that Bush could just pardon wrongdoers, maybe even himself, anyway. Now, with a new president who wants to "look forward," it appears highly unlikely that anyone will be ever prosecuted for the Bush offenses, and even more down-to-earth Truth Comission plan is drawing opposition from Congress that it might hurt the American economy.

The end result is this: To make Richard Nixon, sadly, a truth-teller when he told David Frost that "when the President does it, that means it is not illegal."