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Ronald Reagan’s Fratricidal Basis of Power

President Reagan walking with Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher at Camp David – Public Domain
As time goes on, we learn just what a disaster Ronald Reagan was—first as a presidential candidate, and then when actually holding the office. At both stages, …

President Reagan walking with Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher at Camp David – Public Domain

As time goes on, we learn just what a disaster Ronald Reagan was—first as a presidential candidate, and then when actually holding the office. At both stages, he broke the law repeatedly in ways that, by comparison, made Richard Nixon look “small time.” Reagan’s most publicly noted crime, the Iran-Contra Affair, was the result of his illegal subsidization of murder squads (Contras), rape and torture, and was certainly egregious enough. However, its horror was somewhat lessened for most Americans because Reagan’s actions mostly did harm to non-citizens. Though less well-known, Reagan had already proven that he had no more concern for the well being of U.S. citizens. Here is how that story goes:

1979-1980 was a seminal time. During this time the Iranian people overthrew the Shah—a dictator who for years had been backed by Washington. The connection, particularly U.S. involvement with the Shah’s secret police, was well-known among the Iranian people. Thus, in the process of revolution (on 4 November 1979 to be exact) 52 American embassy personnel were taken captive. They would be held captive until 20 January 1981—a total of 444 days.

All of this took place in the last year of Jimmy Carter’s Democratic presidency. The hostage crisis, as it was known in the West, became an obsessive subject of the U.S. media and made Carter and his administration look weak. This was so despite the administration’s all out effort to negotiate an end to the crisis. At the time, Carter’s political opponent for the upcoming presidential election was the Republican, Ronald Reagan. Successfully negotiating the release of hostages would have certainly helped Carter’s chances for a second term.

As it turns out, Carter’s efforts to win the release of the hostages failed. A substantial part of the blame for this has to be laid at the feet of Ronald Reagan and those who ran his election campaign. While Carter was trying to gain the freedom of American diplomats in Iran, Reagan’s people were working to prolong their incarceration—hence the “fratricidal” foundation of his eventual presidency.

The Casey-Connelly Scheme

This sordid tale, now 43 years old, was the subject of a recent revelatory article, by Peter Baker, in the 19 March 2023 New York Times (NYT).

In July of 1980, a high ranking Republican operative, John Connally Jr., acting under the direction of William J. Casey, the chairman of Reagan’s election campaign, travelled to Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt. In each case, he met with the country’s leaders and asked them to pass on a message to the new revolutionary government in Iran. “Don’t release the [American] hostages before the [presidential] election. Mr Reagan will win and give you a better deal.” The promise would eventually involve the shipment of weapons to Tehran through Israel once Reagan was in the White House. Iran complied and spurned Carter’s efforts to negotiate. After 444 days of incarceration, Tehran released the American hostages just minutes after Carter left the White House. Subsequently, William Casey became the head of the CIA and John Connally was offered the job of energy secretary (he declined). Ironically, the Reagan election camp had long argued that it was Carter who was attempting to manipulate the hostage crisis so as to pull off an “October Surprise”—the release of the hostages just before the election.

The New York Times tries to qualify its own revelations by asserting that “confirming” the facts is “problematic after so much time.” This might be the case on the Republican side, because Casey and Connally, no doubt purposely, kept no records. The NYT report is based on the 43 year old eyewitness account of Ben Barnes, a protege of Connally who accompanied him on his mission. However, one does not visit the heads of government of six independent countries without leaving a trail. It seems that, as yet, no thorough effort has been made to garner historical evidence from these six sources.

On the other hand, as noted by Branko Marcetic in a piece published by Jacobin in March 2023, in the recent past Connally’s mission has been confirmed by Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, the Iranian president in 1980, Yitzhak Shamir, Israel’s former prime minister, and former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. All American based investigations of the Connally trip predictably denied its treasonous aim.

What Did the President Know?

The only outstanding question is not whether Casey and Connally conspired to prolong the suffering of American diplomatic personnel held captive in Iran. Even given the incomplete nature of the investigation to date, the evidence suggests that this was the case. The question is, did Ronald Reagan know what was taking place.

The answer is that we do not know for sure, though it would certainly be difficult to keep this sort of operation a secret from a leader—in this case your boss—who was paying attention. On the other hand, Ronald Reagan was not your attentive, insightful sort of guy. Actually, he was an expert at selective ignorance, a master rationalizer, a fellow who only knew what he wanted to know, and only understood the world on the most personally complementary and comforting terms. At least by the time he got to the White House, Ronald Reagan was an overly passive personality, easily led along by those advisers who knew how to approach him.

These conclusions are supported by the observations of Edmund Morris, author of the authorized biography of Reagan. Most of what follows is taken from his 20 June 2004 New Yorker magazine piece on Reagan, entitled “The Unknowable.”

Among other things, Morris tells the following:

—Reagan had “a self-centeredness, an imaginative construct in which outside reality was refracted, or reordered, to his liking.”

—“Ronald Reagan was not an initiator; he never called a meeting or drafted a new policy or hired or fired, unless somebody suggested it.”

—“Those who sought to advise him had to come from an approved ideological quarter.” They also had to know how to manipulate someone whose worldview was singularly anti-communist, anti-union, and anti-“federal paternalism.”

—He was also utterly devoid of an accurate knowledge of history. Morris tells us that “By the time he became president, his ignorance had attained a kind of comic poignancy. He thought that trees caused acid rain. He had never heard of “Our Town,” “The Magic Mountain,” “Carmen,” or “Blow-Up.” The names Goethe, Guevara, Disraeli, Knopf, Schumann, Fellini, Hockney, Piaf, and Prospero rang no bell. When I mentioned the Suez Canal, he shook his head sorrowfully and told me that it had been a mistake to give it back to the Panamanians.”

—“Ronald Reagan’s air of gentleness was such that few people noticed, or could believe they were noticing, that he had little private empathy with them. In November of 1988, a delegation of Bangladeshis visited the Oval Office to tell him about the catastrophic effects of the Burhi Ganga floods. After a few minutes, their spokesman stopped, disconcerted by the President’s dreamy smile. “You know,” Reagan said, “I used to work as a lifeguard at Lowell Park beach, on the Rock River in Illinois, and when it rained upstate you wouldn’t believe the trees and trash, and so forth, that used to come down.”

—So, how is it that a man with such a shallow mind and egocentric personality was elected president? Morris thinks it was Reagan’s voice. “Ronald Reagan is inaccurately remembered as a warm man, and I think the voice (which he lubricated with hot lemon water) had much to do with it….He could convey by auditory means alone such reassurance that better times were coming and the nation’s security was guaranteed. Merely by breathing, ‘My fellow-Americans,’ he made his listener trust him.”

—In the end, Edmund Morris was also taken in. “I think Reagan will be remembered, with Truman and Jackson, as one of the great populist Presidents, an instinctual leader who, in body and mind, represented the better temper of his times.” Better temper? Really?

Ronald Reagan, by virtue of who he was, had no clear sense of the rule of law. Compared to his ideologically-determined sense of right and wrong— the law, the acts of congress, the world of facts disappeared. It was a situation ready-made for the right kind of opportunists such as William Casey.

So, in the end, it does not matter, in any literal sense, if Reagan knew of the Connally mission or not. In a genuine sense, he approved it by virtue of his passive way of doing things and who he chose to trust. This sort of situation and the debacles it leads to may be a built in failing of mass democracy because, objectively, Ronald Reagan (like Andrew Jackson before him and George Bush Jr. and Donald Trump after him) was obviously not “presidential material” yet he, perhaps by virtue of his lemon-scented voice, was elected anyway. Even today most Americans do not know who he really was—a moronic Pied Piper. They followed him and he absentmindedly followed unscrupulous advisers—whereupon they all marched right over a cliff and into a figurative briar-patch—a quandary abounding with the most difficult of self-made problems.

This content originally appeared on and was authored by Lawrence Davidson.

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