Not Too Late for a War Crimes Tribunal

He turns 91 this week, so its possible Ronald Reagan cant remember. But Jim Washburn cant forget

While his acting career had sputtered by the 1960s, he had become such a popular and well-paid conservative speaker that when he decided to run for office, he didn't work his way up the political ranks but aimed right for governor of California.

With substantial financial backing from MCA, two oilmen and a car dealer, his campaign presented a near-first in politics: instead of being managed by the party, Reagan hired outside consultants, who in turn employed psychologists at the Behavioral Sciences Corp. to package their candidate and craft position papers that would push the public's buttons. All this for a man who touted himself as an aw-shucks, common-sense political outsider. Even before Reagan moved into the governor's mansion, the same team of admen and psychologists went to work on a White House run. Against party wishes, he subsequently ran in presidential primaries against Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford.

His record as governor is mixed. Despite his tax-cutting cant as a candidate, he gave California the biggest tax increase in its history (a necessary one, granted, because exiting Governor Pat Brown, a Democrat, had left a deficit). Though he later claimed he hadn't understood it, Reagan signed one of the nation's most liberal abortion laws. On the other hand, when the legislature annually voted to repeal old laws that made felonies of sex acts most couples engage in, Reagan vetoed them each time, true to the Republican hypocrisy of wanting government out of the boardroom but not the bedroom.

In actual accomplishment, his two terms in Sacramento were notable for their inertia; little action followed the fiery rhetoric Reagan employed on the stump. On that front, at least, he was a firebrand, with his tough-guy talk against hippies, war protesters and campus activists—"If it's a bloodbath they want, so be it"—creating the "law and order" message his rival Richard Nixon rode to the White House.

Reagan's growing reputation for ignoring facts when they didn't conform to his vision—such as his justification of our involvement in Vietnam by claiming it had historically been two countries—accelerated when he set his sights on the White House. Campaigning against Gerald Ford in 1976, Reagan asserted Ford was weak on defense and had let the U.S. become No. 2 in the world, neither of which was true. He repeated the same charges four years later against Jimmy Carter, who had merely served as an officer on a nuclear sub as opposed to Reagan's sterling military record as a movie pretty boy. Carter had backed numerous new weapons programs and increased military spending every year he was in office (just as Bill Clinton did, regardless of George W. Bush's similar claims).

Running against Carter in 1980, Reagan again campaigned as the quintessential outsider and Everyman, despite having spent his life as a Hollywood movie star, high-paid corporate shill and professional politician with a $3 million home. With ex-CIA director George Bush onboard as his running mate, most Everymen also didn't have former and active CIA agents providing them with intelligence on the sitting president's foreign-policy moves. Those connections may also have come in handy in the theft of Carter's debate notes for Reagan.

We will not dwell here on the controversial allegations of the October Surprise, in which the Reagan camp reputedly negotiated with Iran to deny Carter an election boost by delaying the release of 52 American hostages, beyond saying that former Reagan campaign and White House aide Barbara Honegger makes a compelling case against the man she once revered in her book, October Surprise. That treasonous deal, she asserts, explains why the secret arms shipments to Iran didn't begin in 1985 but in 1981 and continued, she writes, "regardless of whether American captives were released, tortured, killed or seized anew in Lebanon. It explains why U.S. arms shipments to Iran continued even after Iran's culpability in the bombing of the U.S. barracks and U.S. embassies in Beirut and Kuwait had been clearly demonstrated." And that raises a good question: Why, unless there was an incriminating debt owed, would a U.S. administration trade arms for any reason to a country that had cold-bloodedly murdered 241 of our Marines, sailors and soldiers in their bunks in a Beirut outpost?

I may be wrong, but I'm never in doubt.

—Ronald Reagan

One thing that sets Reagan apart from Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon and other lying presidents is that Reagan believed his own lies. Even in the thick of the Iran-contra scandal—when Reagan was caught in one untruth after another and a Los Angeles Times poll showed that only 14 percent of Americans believed he wasn't lying—he was never contrite. From his perspective, I suspect, he wasn't lying: his reality was simply too great to be contained by the truth.

Some have argued that Reagan literally couldn't tell the difference between his role as president and roles he'd played or seen in the make-believe world of movies. When addressing an audience of Congressional Medal of Honor winners, Reagan told them the tear-welling story of one medal winner, a B-17 pilot who had gone down with his plane rather than abandon a trapped, injured gunner. It was a touching story, but it never happened. Rather than recount the story of one of the genuine heroes seated before him, Reagan's tale was from the 1944 film A Wing and a Prayer, fiction recycled as fact.

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