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

In October 1986, CIA recruit Eugene Hasenfus was shot down over Nicaragua while on an arms run to the contras, and the truth came oozing out in the following weeks: the White House had been arming our enemies in secret and using the profits to fund a covert war to kill people who were not our enemy.

While the White House paper shredders were working overtime, Reagan addressed the nation on Nov. 13, 1986. Even more emphatically than our dear Bill Clinton later intoned, "I did not have sex with that woman," Reagan faced the familiar cameras and said, "These charges are utterly false." He proceeded to lie about trading arms for hostages, about the amount of arms traded, and about having kept U.S. officials in the dark.

Six days later, he was back on TV, repeating some of those lies and adding new ones. Though a presidential aide issued corrections within the hour and Reagan's own diaries showed he was in the arms-for-hostages loop, he could never bring himself to admit what he'd done. Rather, he told conflicting stories to the press and three irreconcilable versions of events to Congress.

Others took the fall while staffers raised the shield of "plausible deniability" high around Reagan—raised it so high that, if Bill Clinton had taken a similar tack, he might just as reasonably have argued that he didn't know his own dick was being Hoovered.

During the congressional hearings on the scandal, Senator John Kerry said of the Reagan White House, "They were willing to literally put the Constitution at risk because they believed there was somehow a higher order of things, that the ends do in fact justify the means. That's the most Marxist, totalitarian doctrine I've ever heard of in my life. . . . You've done the very thing that James Madison and others feared when they were struggling to put the Constitution together, which was to create an unaccountable system with runaway power . . . running off against the will of the American people."

At the last Reagan/Gorbachev summit—by which time the changes in the Soviet Union were evident to everyone except Reagan—the Russian leader asked Colin Powell, "What are you going to do now that you've lost your best enemy?"

A good question because, under Reagan, America had ceased being America. It no longer stood for anything, only against some other thing. While Reagan lectured Russian college students about freedom, he had debased the word beyond meaning by his actions in Central America, where we lay abed with tyrants and murderers, and at home, where his government conspired to act in secret for the selfish advantage of a few.

The core values of Reagan's governance lay not in a representative republic or, as Kerry suggested, a communist state, but instead hearkened all the way back to feudalism. Your feudal lord didn't have to heed your wishes or act in your interests. For your allegiance, he only had to offer to protect you from the lord on the next hill, who was pointing your way and telling his vassals the same thing: that a dark woods lay between, where dark things must happen so that you might sleep secure, things you had best not ask about, children.

Who better than a movie star, America's royalty, to convey the message that God shone his grace on some more than others? These chosen ones, your leaders and captains of industry, were more equal than others, capable of handling the secrets and backroom deals, and if they benefited from that, it's because they deserved to. It's no wonder that such men felt a kinship with the despots and satraps of the world, who stood for everything America supposedly didn't.

But what about Reagan's popularity? Those who have recently been rouging Reagan's image like to remind us that he won re-election with the largest total vote count in U.S. history. They are less keen on telling how by 1987, polls showed that Gorbachev was more popular with Americans than their own president was. Nor do they note that the candidate with the second-greatest vote count in our history, Al Gore, wound up teaching college instead of being president.

Still, there's no ignoring that Reagan was—and remains—a very popular American figure. One explanation to me is that when our founding fathers were rebelling against the British monarchy, a lot of Americans didn't share their fervor but preferred to go on clinging to a monarch's hem. I doubt the percentages have changed much since then. There are still many folks who would rather have a daddy figure or lord up on the hill to tell them simple lies, rather than to be accountable themselves for the responsibilities of freedom.

Oliver North and his ilk were only able to work in the dark because so few Americans were willing to shine a light there. To some, it never occurred that unchecked power might be misused. To entirely too many others, a cynical world-view prevailed that it's a compromised, dog-eat-dog world where corruption and injustice are the accepted coin of the realm. And a lot of people simply watched TV.

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