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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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.Skip to next paragraph
In Pictures Ronald Reagan through the years
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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.