Opinion

Ronald Reagan at 100: How America's 40th president passed a key test of character

Ronald Reagan wasn't perfect. He even lied to the American public. But I saw first hand how his commitment to integrity restored his presidency and helped him become the transformational leader America needed to win the cold war.

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In the midst of the many events marking the 100th birthday celebration of President Ronald Reagan on February 6, 2011, a bust of the 40th president will be unveiled at the Ronald Reagan Airport. However good the likeness, it will only be able to hint at what made Reagan the kind of president he was – and indeed what makes any man the kind of leader he becomes: his character.

We may not be able to see such character cast in bronze, but I had a glimpse of it in the 1980s, when I served as US ambassdor to NATO and then as special counselor during the Iran-Contra affair.

In 1986, when Reagan met Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev alone at their summit in Reykjavik, Iceland, it was a critical time in NATO history. As ambassador, I was trying to reenergize an alliance that appeared to be losing the final battle of the cold war because it was unwilling to match the deployment of the Soviet Union’s intermediate range missiles. Reagan and Gorbachev were together for over an hour. US advisers were beginning to fear when Reagan emerged to tell them, “This man is in trouble and looking for a way out.” They thought their president had been duped. But Reagan alone saw the opportunity to start the dance that ended the cold war without firing a shot. It was a time to transform history.

A stunning account

Immediately following Reagan’s meeting at the Reykjavik summit, he met with me, other ambassadors, and heads of government at NATO. Reagan gave a stunning account of what had happened. Throughout, Secretary of State George Shultz was on the edge of his chair for fear Reagan might trip up on the details, yet Reagan was surefooted throughout. The president of France, Francois Mitterrand, commented to me on the way out, “Votre president est magnifique.”

Then came Reagan’s big test of personal character. One of my duties at NATO was to chastise ambassadorial colleagues for their nation’s sale of arms to nations supporting terrorism. Iran was at the top of the terrorist list because of its support of Hezbollah. In November 1986, there appeared a story in a Lebanese newspaper, Al-Shiraa, saying the US had sold forbidden arms to Iran in an attempted swap for several hostages held by Hezbollah, including the CIA chief of station.

A major mistake

When the story broke, Reagan made a disastrous mistake. Heeding poor counsel from one of his advisers, Reagan lied about these attempts at a press conference, and then did so again in a speech to the nation. He did it in order to protect the hostages’ lives, but he was not a good liar. He couldn’t even act the part, and looked like a kid caught lying to his teacher with fingers crossed. The presidency was sinking in quicksand for the next six weeks. Only 14 percent of the public believed him, and his credibility was damaged around the world. Winning the cold war was in doubt.

Things only became worse. Attorney General Edwin Meese, at the president’s request, began an information investigation among White House staff to see if there was more being kept from the president. Mr. Meese discovered Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North’s assistant busily shredding top secret documents in the Old Executive office Building. Mr. North was the secret author of the illegal transfer of arms for hostages.

Meese rescued one document showing that North, in a covert operation from the Old Executive Building, had directed the profits from Iranian arm sales to the Contras, the “freedom fighters” in Central America. Plainly, this transfer violated the Constitution: it was a misappropriation of funds, grounds for impeachment if the president was a party to the decision. The public problem would be that Reagan was the outspoken supporter of these “freedom fighters.” The famous Watergate question reemerged: “What did the president know and when did he know it?”

A distressed Meese took the news directly to the Oval Office. Reagan was stricken when confronted for the first time with what North had done. But then the breakout began that was, I believe, unparalleled in presidential history.

Bold steps to restore integrity

As a first step, Reagan formed a special board to spend two months reporting on what went wrong and why the NSC failed so badly. The members appointed were Senator John Tower as Chair, former Secretary of State Ed Muskie, a Democratic presidential candidate, and finally General Brent Scowcroft. The congressional hearings, as well as the investigators of the Independent Counsel, Judge Lawrence Walsh, would take most of the next year, or longer.

Second, Reagan called me at NATO to come immediately to the White House as special counselor for three months. I was given absolute authority to manage the executive branch, interface with the investigations in Congress, and establish liaisons with the newly appointed Independent Counsel, Judge Walsh. I would report not through the chief of staff, Don Regan, but directly to the president. To enhance my own independent legal advice, I accepted the president’s call on condition that I bring in as my deputy Judge Charles Brower from the International Court at The Hague.

'I have nothing to hide'

Reagan told me, “There will be no executive privilege. I have nothing to hide.” Considering that the FBI had already tagged 3,000 documents as relevant, this was a tremendous statement. It was that statement of his commitment to integrity that enabled me to harness the bipartisan support for the president on Capitol Hill.

When the Tower Board Report was ready, the president faced another dilemma. He could accept it in full, or accept some portions and take issue with the particularly critical parts. The report was critical of chief of staff Regan, Secretary of State Schultz, and Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, and all three men wanted the president to publicly not accept the report as written. But in a meeting alone with the president just before he met with the Tower group, I argued that regardless of the merits of their cases, he should accept it in full. Otherwise, the press would fasten on the White House’s hedging and qualifications and the path to recovery (for both his presidency and his leadership of the Western world) would be blocked. The president did that famous head tilt and said, “Don’t worry, Dave, I’m with you. I must do it.” With the report in hand and after a highly successful meeting with the elated Tower Board, the president prepared a speech outlining the steps that he had taken to restore integrity to his presidency.

As distinguished author and Professor Dick Neustadt argued, Reagan was a transformational president. But President Richard Nixon was too. He opened up China, ended the Vietnam War and successfully negotiated a détente with the Soviet Union. However, one major difference is that Reagan helped to change history with an act of character, while many remember that Nixon made history with his failure of character. Amidst the qualities needed for a great presidency, character counts.

David M. Abshire, a former US Ambassador to NATO and Special Counselor to President Ronald Reagan during the Iran-Contra affair, is president of The Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress.

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