Now that The Tower Commission has released its report, severely criticizing Ronald Reagan and his White House subordinates in the Iran-Contra affair, the real investigations are just beginning by the Special Prosecutor Lawrence Walsh and two congressional committees.
Unlike the Watergate scandal, these investigations do not start with the question addressed to Richard Nixon: what did he know and when did he know it? With Mr. Reagan the question is; what did he forget and when did he forget it? For he approved of the policy of selling arms to Iran and of using his offices to raise money for the contras in direct contradiction to federal laws. The activities, which were conducted in his own White House basement over many months, bypassed the State Department, the Department of Defense and the CIA.
How did Mr. Reagan get himself in such an outlaw conspiracy which has damaged the nation’s credibility, violated his constitutional duty to “take care that the laws be faithfully executed”, resulting in over half of the American people believing he has lied. For any close Reagan watchers who went beyond the easy “teflon” explanation of his six year escape from accountability for doubletalk, fibs, huge deficits and selectively cruel program cutbacks, the signs of trouble were apparent early in his regime.
In June 1982, in the introduction to our book Reagan’s Ruling Class, I wrote: “Old Washington hands sense a fertile breeding ground for larger scandals later in the Administration.” The receipe for trouble contained five ingredients: (1) obsessive secrecy in government, (2) ideological zealotry, (3) a cavalier attitude toward legalities, (4) an arrogance of power bred by a landslide election and relatively high popularity in the polls, and (5) an ingrained inattentiveness to the daily processes of governing.
This is the portentous brew that Ronald Reagan brought to his exalted office in this 200th year of the drafting of the U.S. Constitution. It will take long hours for Prosecutor Walsh’s team of lawyers to add up how many civil and criminal laws were violated from the conversion of government funds for illegal purposes to perjury before congressional committees to coverups and obstruction of justice.
Enough is known already to conclude that the National Security Council operatives were working under specific policy direction by the President. Selling arms to Iran, given a federal ban on such sales. could not be legal and nor could the means employed toward that end by lawful.
For weeks, the spotlight was on Donald Regan, the President’s Chief of Staff, for allegedly not adequately advising the President. Now that Nancy Reagan has pushed Donald Regan from his job, the President’s chief lightning rod for criticism goes with him.
The spotlight now turns to the Oval Office. As lower level White House personnel are accorded immunity in return for telling the truth about their superiors, the prosecutors climb to the top will accelerate in their search for how deeply the chief was involved in this intricate and lengthy drive toward fundamental abuse of presidential power.
Mr. Reagan’s new chief of staff, former senator Howard Baker, is being touted by the White House as getting Reagan back on track and up in the polls. Mr. Baker is no mega-magician. He can do nothing about the violations of the past. These violations are now confronting an institutional momentum of official investigations.
Ronald Reagan’s choices are narrow. The most he can claim is that he presided, without detailed knowledge, over constitutional and statutory subversions by his intimate advisors in the White House. But even this claim is very unlikely to go unchallenged by the evidence now being amassed from Congress, the special prosecutor, and a belatedly awakened media.
Before The Tower Commission report was released, I had occasion to observe to two senators that Mr. Reagan would decide before the end of the year that he could no longer govern and resign his office. The Senators replied that they thought it would be earlier than the end of the year. Trading with his declared enemy is bad enough many Americans are saying but secretly selling arms to a government that Mr. Reagan himself believed was involved in the destruction of 241 marines would not soon be forgotten by those same Americans.