Ronbo

Michael Rogin

  • Guts and Glory: The Rise and Fall of Oliver North by Ben Bradlee
    Grafton, 572 pp, £14.95, September 1988, ISBN 0 246 13364 3
  • For the Record: From Wall Street to Washington by Donald Regan
    Hutchinson, 397 pp, £16.95, June 1988, ISBN 0 09 173622 6

Ronald Reagan’s autobiography, Where’s the rest of me?, repeated the question the actor had asked in the movie King’s Row, when he woke up in a hospital bed to discover that his legs had been amputated. Reagan lost his legs in Hollywood, the autobiography explains, and recovered ‘the rest of me’ (that phrase is the leitmotif of his text) by fighting Communist influence there, acquiring personal and institutional backing, and marrying Nancy Davis. This reassemblage of the actor/politician made him whole – the cause he supported and the people who supported him constituting the rest of Ronald Reagan.

Dismembered as personal body on film, Ronald Reagan was reassembled as social body, as spectacle. It would be hard to credit the resulting confusion in the Reagan White House between the personal and the political, the historical and the imaginary, were not the evidence offered by the President and his circle so compelling. Guts and Glory portrays Oliver North, who enacted the anti-Communist part of Reagan. For the Record, written by the man who became his chief male caretaker, casts the President’s wife as the villain. When these current extensions of the President implicated him in law-breaking and lies, the Reagan Presidency almost came apart. But it didn’t. These books show how the rest of Ronald Reagan functioned to carry out Presidential desires and protect the President from responsibility for them.

Donald Regan does not remember ever meeting Oliver North; he is certain they were never alone together. That is because the compartmentalised Reagan White House not only separated domestic policy (the responsibility of the Chief of Staff) from foreign affairs (the domain of the National Security Adviser), but also supplied the President with what National Security Adviser John Poindexter called ‘plausible deniability’ by insulating him from the men like North who were actually implementing his covert operations. Split from one another and from Reagan himself, North and Regan were the doubles of the President they served.

‘I am bringing you a playmate your own age,’ Michael Deaver is supposed to have said when he informed the President that his Secretary of the Treasury, Regan, and his Chief of Staff, Jim Baker, were trading places. Struck at their very first meeting by the similarity in their names, Reagan had told Regan a joke about whether his own was pronounced ‘Raygun’ or ‘Reegun’. The President did not mention that the ‘pronunciation’ of his Secretary of the Treasury’s name that he was ‘going to have to get used to’ was the pronunciation of his own name until he entered politics. Reagan pretended to believe that he and Regan were cousins, descended from a common Irish ancestor. He had the Re(a)gan family tree traced back centuries in the old country. And Regan recognised that he was a return of the President’s past.

The two Re(a)gans were self-made men of wealth, typical of Reagan’s Californian backers but not of his Washington circle. They had both endured what each saw as confiscatory tax rates for the top brackets, and Reagan’s old hostility to taxing the rich first brought them together. The links that bound Ronald to Donald were thus very different from those that connected the President to the triumvirate of Deaver, Baker and Edwin Meese, who, joined by William Clark, ran the first term While House. These younger subordinates looked after Reagan; Regan treated him as a peer. Deaver in particular functioned as the Reagans’ factotum, but if he stood in for their estranged sons, he did so by reversing the supporting roles of adult and child. Once asked if he saw Deaver as a son, the President responded that he ‘always thought of him more as a father figure’. ‘I consider Mike’s leaving in the nature of an amputation,’ Reagan said when Deaver resigned from the White House staff. ‘And it is me that is suffering the amputation.’

Donald Regan opposed the overprotectiveness of the first-term White House. Restricting Reagan’s private engagements and public appearances, as Regan saw it, the triumvirate and the President’s wife gave too much power to the press. They governed by selective leaks, planting stories to improve their own influence with the President and to reach him through the papers he read (like the Washington Times). Wanting to ‘let Reagan be Reagan’, Regan battled with the first lady to control the President’s schedule.

But Nancy Reagan, as everyone now knows, had a trump in the Presidential protection game, a ‘friend’ who had access to the stars. The President’s wife has come in for considerable ridicule because she, like so many of the Reagans’ Hollywood friends, consulted an astrologer. But if Ronald Reagan could have his protective, military-industrial star wars in the large, public world, why was Nancy Reagan prohibited from employing her star wars in the more intimate battles of the White House? The President’s wife used the stars to block her husband’s Chief of Staff from letting the President be seen. The list of ‘forbidden and dangerous dates’ on the Presidential calendar around the time of the release of the Tower Commission report on Iran/Contra eliminated virtually the entire first four months of 1987.

Although Regan complains about the astrology, he knew in spite of himself that there were good reasons to protect Reagan by keeping him inaccessible. For one thing, the President wanted to be told what to do and when to do it, where to stand for his photo opportunities, how to enter and exit a room. He never gave orders and, to Regan’s astonishment, responded with silence to Deaver’s announcement that Baker and Regan would be trading jobs – no questions, no directives, no modifications, just assent. Regan should have been accustomed to that ‘management style’, as the Tower Commission would call it, for the President had responded in exactly the same way to Regan’s first report as Secretary of the Treasury. ‘I did not know what to make of his passivity,’ Regan reports about the Baker/Regan switch. ‘One might have thought that the matter had already been settled by some absent party.’ On issues that mattered to him, the absent party was Reagan himself. The President, says Regan, said yes by not saying no. If he did not give orders, he did have wishes. The job of his subordinates, Regan came to understand, was to figure out what the President wanted and how to give it to him. Reagan was an absent presence, governing by desire rather than responsibility.

Donald Regan now criticises himself for indulging Presidential wishes by functioning as the President’s extension. ‘President Reagan and I were too well-suited to each other,’ he writes. ‘The psychic and administrative support that I attempted to provide to him as a means of helping him to achieve his own fundamental objectives, rather than supporting the choices that others wished to make for him, created the impression that he was depending too much upon me.’ Regan pleads guilty to government by wish-fulfilment, but he distances himself from the two Presidential desires that constituted Iran/Contra: Reagan’s desire that his staff keep the Contras’ ‘body and soul together’ after Congress had prohibited it from doing so, and his desire, against his own stated policy, to sell arms to ransom hostages.

President Reagan approved trading arms for hostages, according to Bud MacFarlane, at an August 1985 hospital meeting shortly after his cancer operation. MacFarlane, then the National Security Adviser, was so anxious to see Reagan that he forced an imbroglio between the President’s wife and his Chief of Staff over whether the President was recovered enough to receive visitors. Regan claims that MacFarlane presented no arms-for-hostages proposal in the hospital. But since he reports other arms-for-hostages discussions with Reagan as involving ‘an issue of minor and passing interest’, and since he cannot explain why MacFarlane insisted on seeing the President in hospital, his memory cannot be trusted.

After MacFarlane reminded Reagan that he had signed a Presidential finding authorising arms for hostages, the President so informed the Tower Commission. When Regan claimed he’d signed no such finding, Reagan changed his story, although how the Chief of Staff could have been so sure remains, by his own account of his exclusion from Iran/Contra, a mystery. The President finally decided he couldn’t remember what he had or hadn’t signed. Regan may think he and Reagan shared a relationship to Iran/Contra of amnesia, ignorance and inattention, but Regan was not the President’s fairy godfather who aided the Contras and sold arms to Iran. That figure was Reagan’s ‘national hero’, Lieutenant-Colonel Oliver North.

Oliver North exaggerated his personal closeness to the President. He quoted to his Iranian counterparts words that Reagan never spoke. He falsely told fellow charismatic Christians that he and Reagan prayed together. He reported a colloquy with Reagan that never took place, after American student ‘hostages’ were rescued from Grenada. He told a church group that he briefed Reagan twice a week, and implied to co-workers that he was often alone with ‘the boss’. Reagan may not have stuck with the Contras for the reason North claimed – that ‘the old man loves my ass’ – but in insisting that he was carrying out Presidential orders North was totally accurate. And his imaginative mixing of fact and fantasy (the above are only a few of Bradlee’s examples) was a faithful imitation of his President.

When Reagan praised North by telling him that the events in which he’d been involved would make a great movie, he might have been alluding to his own old films. Reagan’s recent political amnesia contrasts, Bradlee points out, with his recall of the details of movies he made forty years ago. In many of them, like Murder in the Air (1940), Desperate Journey (1942) and Prisoner of War (1955), the future President starred in covert operations against an alien foe. North was well-suited to help Reagan merge his movie past with his political present, for as press spokesman Larry Speakes remarked: ‘I sometimes felt that he was playing some kind of role, that he was watching a movie on the screen with himself the star in it.’

How was North cast to star in Reagan’s movie? First, North’s personal background as loyal son, Annapolis pledge, Marine officer, Vietnam vet, and born-again Christian (North joined a charismatic church after his Marine commander laid hands on and healed his game leg), taught him to turn submission into empowerment. The punishment he endured, from the physical and psychological battering in the Naval Academy, through Vietnam, to the Iran/Contra hearings themselves, filled the Lieutenant-Colonel with a conviction of his own righteousness as the servant of divine anti-Communism.

Second, North linked the Sixties, when Reagan entered national politics, to the Eighties, when he dominated it. Like Reagan, North believed that America could undo Vietnam in Nicaragua, this time winning the war lost at home. Reagan was first elected California Governor by running against the anti-war, student and racial movements of the Sixties. He brought with him to Washington Edwin Meese and Louis Guiffrida, who had organised a California government war game to declare martial law and suppress what Meese called ‘revolutionary activity in our midst’. North worked, under Guiffrida, on a highly classified national successor to that exercise, a plan to suppress domestic opposition to an American military invasion abroad.

Third, by bringing the Sixties into the Eighties, North joined together Middle Eastern terrorism and Latin American revolution. Iran/Contra was a creature of the Reagan doctrine, which connected local conflicts around the world to the international Communist conspiracy. The ideological adventurer, Jack Wheeler, known according to Bradlee as the ‘Indiana Jones of the Right’, had inspired the Reagan doctrine; North, placed in charge both of sustaining the Contras and of combating terrorism, embodied it. The Reagan doctrine declared a worldwide American right of counter-intervention against Communist terrorism. North rehearsed his role running the Contras by superintending the invasion of Grenada. He tried out for Iran by skyjacking the plane carrying the terrorists who had seized the Achille Lauro cruise ship. By merging the Nicaraguan revolution, Communism and terrorism, the Reagan doctrine supplied North with the ‘neat idea’ of using profits generated from arming Iran to arm the Contras as well.

Finally, North’s rise to power reflected the emergence of the National Security Council as the command centre for covert operations. Reagan’s Executive Order 12333 made the NSC the leading intelligence agency, and John Poindexter constructed an expensive computerised NSC ‘Situation Room’ (duplicating those already in existence in the Pentagon, the CIA, the State Department, and elsewhere in the White House). Although no crisis was ever managed from the NSC Situation Room, it was, in the words of one staffer, ‘an attempt to create what everybody who has seen movies ... thinks the Situation Room is’.

Expanded and dominated by military men under Reagan, the NSC circumvented bureaucratic caution, political accountability and obedience to the law. A line of authority running from the President through his National Security Adviser to North, and from North out to arms merchants, mercenaries and ideologues, created, in CIA Director William Casey’s words, an ‘off-the-shelf’ covert capability. MacFarlane, Poindexter, Casey and North were constructing what members of the Select Iran/Contra Congressional Committee were to call an ‘executive junta’.

Ronald Reagan was a member of that junta. He signed one (illegal) Presidential finding retroactively authorising arms for hostages and another which he personally hid from his Secretaries of State and Defence. Although he had also signed an executive order forbidding assassinations, he defended a CIA pamphlet that proposed ‘neutralising’ Sandinista officials (Reagan pretended the pamphlet did not call for assassination, in spite of the words of the text and the bullet-hole-ridden heads on the cover). He permitted the NSC to target Gaddafi for assassination by bombing his Tripoli compound. He authorised the violation of the Arms Control Resupply Act, which prohibited the Israeli transfer of arms to Iran and the American resupply. His executive order giving the NSC intelligence responsibility placed it squarely under the Boland Amendment prohibiting aid to the Contras. Insisting that the NSC was exempt from the Boland prohibition, Reagan also claimed that ‘it does not apply to me.’ Bradlee concludes that Reagan was implicated in Iran/Contra, not, as the Tower Commission imagined, because of his detached management style, but rather, as the Select Congressional Committee decided, because he placed the White House above the law. His management style would save him from suffering the consequences.

The path from Reagan’s wishes to Contra support was straightforward. The President labelled Nicaragua a ‘cancer on the American mainland’ after his own cancer operation, and his illegal, covert war on the Sandinistas was an open secret throughout his first term. It had important support in the national security bureaucracy. The Kissinger Commission on Latin America, for example, warned that ‘the triumph of hostile forces in what the Soviet Union calls the “strategic rear” of the United States would be read as a sign of US impotence.’ The Iran initiative was more complicated than Contra support, however, since Reagan had cast Iran and Libya as the Middle Eastern terrorist counterparts of his ‘malignancy in Managua’. Why, having made the refusal to bargain with terrorists the sign of American toughness, did Reagan authorise North’s covert operation?

The fate of the hostages deeply troubled Reagan, both Bradlee and Regan report, on the eve of his cancer operation. The President’s concern was in part personal, a feeling for the men and their families. It was also political, for Reagan had capitalised on Jimmy Carter’s helplessness over the Iranian hostages to put the finishing touches to Carter’s defeat. Having lost Deaver, and now about to be hospitalised, Reagan wanted to free the hostages and not, like Carter, to be one. William Buckley, the kidnapped CIA station chief in Lebanon, united personal suffering and political vulnerability, for Casey himself had put the all-too-visible Buckley at risk by sending him into enemy territory, and should Buckley break under torture he would expose the American covert network in the Middle East. These considerations came together – a month before the President agreed to trade arms for hostages-in a sign he received from the stars ...

As the scene opens, Sylvester Stallone, back to the camera, breaks rocks in a maximum security prison. The first sentence on the soundtrack – ‘a covert operation is being geared up in the Far East’ – liberates the Vietnam veteran, John Rambo, from jail. Vietnamese Communists, his old military commander tells Rambo, are holding hostage American prisoners of war. Rambo, who wants to know if ‘we get to win this time,’ thinks his mission is to free the prisoners. But the ‘stinking bureaucrat’ in charge of the covert operation has another agenda. The 1972 peace treaty between the United States and Vietnam, he explains, promised war reparations to the Communists. Since the Vietnamese wanted to purchase arms with American money, the United States refused to supply it. The Communists retaliated by holding hostage American prisoners of war. The bureaucrat defends refusing to ‘pay blackmail money to ransom our own men and finance the war effort against our allies’. This Washington official who mouths the public Reagan policy of refusing to trade arms for hostages is the movie’s villain. He abandons Rambo and the other Americans to die.

‘I saw Rambo last night,’ said President Reagan in July 1985, after the 39 Americans on the hijacked TWA airliner held hostage in Beirut were released, ‘and next time this happens I’ll know what to do.’ Reagan thought he could send in a military force to free the remaining hostages. Told of the difficulties in locating the scattered prisoners (difficulties that had not stood in Rambo’s way), Reagan nonetheless (one can imagine) did not want to be one of the bureaucrats – Murdock in the movie he’d just seen, Schultz and Weinberger in his own shooting script – and, like Murdock, abort the rescue mission. That choice, Rambo made clear, would sacrifice the hostages and their liberator. Rambo had to bring his hostages out himself, because the chance of trading arms for hostages had ended before the movie began. But if Rambo and the American prisoners of war had been confined and tortured by the refusal to trade arms for hostages, Reagan would not make the same mistake. Moreover, trading arms for hostages did not escape the personal risks that Rambo had taken. Prisoner of War had sent the character played by Reagan into danger to protect Americans held captive in Korea; when the President sent MacFarlane and North to Teheran, both were prepared to die.

In their open emotional displays, moreover, Reagan and North share an odd peculiarity with the hero of Rambo, which violates the rules governing traditional American manhood. ‘TV loves moist,’ producer Norman Lear remarked during North’s Congressional testimony, explaining the appeal of the national hero who, like Reagan, brings tears to his eyes at will. Neither North nor Reagan has exhibited, to be sure, the prolonged fit of public weeping that closed Rambo’s first movie. But both are moved deeply by the spectacle of innocent Americans tortured by demonic aliens – a feature of Reagan’s own Prisoner of War as well as of Stallone’s Rambo. The classic American distinction between passive, female hostage and active male rescuer breaks down in Rambo, with its close-ups of Rambo’s tortured, mutilated body, and if neither Reagan nor North has allowed himself such extreme, eroticised self-exposure, still North was badly hurt in a car crash and wounded in Vietnam, and Reagan suffer ed amputation in King’s Row and death as the Gipper in Knute Rockne, All American before the real-life assassination attempt and cancer operation. All three – Reagan, Rambo and North – hide insurgency behind counter-insurgency, state terrorism behind counter-terrorism, aggression behind victimisation.

The title of the original Rambo movie, First Blood, justifies the Vietnam veteran’s violence as a response to the brutality inflicted on him. Local police draw first blood in that movie, however, and Rambo turns on Middle America. First Blood depicts a Frankenstein monster created by America in Vietnam, an alien who returns home to play Indian wilderness survivor and devastate an American town. First Blood spoke to the war at home that elected Reagan Governor and President. Washington bureaucrats and Asian villains replace ordinary Americans as Rambo’s enemies in the second film, as America takes to its heart the monster it has created and puts him to use abroad. Now Rambo reunites America in revenge against bureaucrats and aliens. In August 1985, while Reagan was confined to hospital and a month after Rambo pointed out where the rest of him was, the President authorised North’s rescue operation.

Unlike Rambo, however, Oliver North failed. He kept lowering American demands, giving more arms for fewer hostages, and for every American North freed, another was taken captive. Rambo received a Presidential pardon for his mission and North may yet get one too. But the covert operation that redeemed Rambo, in the version carried out by North, turned the Vietnam vet back into a victim at home. Like a film rewinding, Iran/ Contra threatened to rerun First Blood Part One, set America against itself once again, and even drive Reagan (like Nixon before him) from office. Oliver North may go to jail, in default of a pardon, and the Reagans forced Regan into a humiliating resignation. But the country has put Iran/Contra behind it, George Bush (as of this writing) has escaped his intimate connections both to Iranian ransom and to illegal Contra aid, and Reagan will be carried out of office on a wave of nostalgic affection. Why have the Presidential doubles, instead of the President himself, suffered the consequences of letting Reagan be Reagan?

Ronald Reagan insists to this day that he never traded arms for hostages He explained to Donald Regan, in Regan’s words, that ‘the United States had not paid ransom to the kidnappers, but had merely rewarded an intermediary who undertook to arrange for the release of the victims.’ The state that Reagan had called terrorist was now merely a go-between. But so, according to this intermediary theory of the chief executive, was Reagan himself. Poindexter, MacFarlane and North privatised the enterprise. And private enterprise, as Reagan is always reminding us, makes American dreams come true without entailing corresponding responsibilities. Because Richard Nixon needed to issue orders, a ‘smoking gun’ tied him to Watergate. The question Senator Howard Baker had asked, ‘What did the President know and when did he know it,’ which Baker hoped would exculpate Nixon, led straight back to Nixon. Baker had better luck when he replaced Regan as Reagan’s Chief of Staff. Just as there was no smoking gun to tie Khomeini to the kidnappers, so none connected Reagan to North. In the mathematical ratio that produced Iran/Contra. Reagan was to North as Khomeini was to the Hezbollah, The two parties of God, American and Iranian, were, in the Presidential view of accountability, disconnected instruments of the heads of state they served.

So Ronald Reagan seduced and abandoned Donald Regan and North. He fled a meeting with his Chief of Staff about Regan’s fate. Regan was not mollified by the Presidential letter thanking him for his service: ‘In my time with President Reagan, I had seen many such letters, and so I knew that someone else had written it for him.’ Although Regan remains an admirer of Reagan the President, his ‘judgment of him as a man’, he reports, ‘underwent a certain change’. But at the very moment when Donald seems to be about to hold Ronald to account, he lets him off the hook. Regan was betrayed, he concludes, not by Reagan but by those who had attached themselves to his person, his name, or his office’. Perfectly protected by his personal SDI, Ronald Reagan floats serenely above the human world of responsibility where ordinary mortals dwell, while the rest of him takes the blame.