Thursday, November 30, 2006

Iran-Contra Anniversary

Basically ignored. But Slate reminds us.

I had a job painting dorms during the hearings, and we'd sit there listening to them on the radio, talking about how this obviously insane, utterly full of crap tin soldier was bamboozling the U. S. Congress. None of us could believe it was really happening.

Iran-Contra was perhaps the most disheartening and deflating experience of my political life. I simply couldn't believe how weak was the power of the rule of law, how easily it was shrugged off. I came to realize that a government of laws, not of men was the object of a hope, and not a reality, and that that hope was only imperfectly realized.

I guess it sounds melodramatic, but I've never been the same since Iran-Contra. It changed my view of America, dimmed my optimism. Not until the (semi-)election of 2000 would my conception of America again take such a severe hit.

I once had a rather heated argument with one of my profs in grad school about which national experience had been worse, that of Nixon or that of Reagan, with him arguing for the former position. "You're too young," he said, "you just don't remember what a psychopath Nixon was." "Maybe, I responded, but Reagan got away with it."

O.k., fine, Reagan was all avuncular...but, you see, somehow that just doesn't matter to me. I'd impeach Wilford Brimley, Mr. Rogers, or, for that matter, my uncle if he intentionally violated the Boland Amendment and sold weapons to terrorist nations.

Yes, it gets to me--really gets to me--every time I hear Reagan say "Mr. Gorbachev--tear down this wall." Yes, I think Reagan might very well have been a good person. But good people who commit high crimes must be impeached. Even the rhetorically gifted ones. Even the avuncular ones.

You know, this country wouldn't piss me off so bad if I didn't like it so much. This country'll break your damn heart.


Blogger Tom Van Dyke said...

By the time the scandal broke, the Boland Amendment had already been repealed. Interesting. I never heard that part.

It explains why even though Congressional testimony nailed the conspirators, public sympathy went to Ollie North instead. A good insider's account here.

3:32 AM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

No, that's not why public sympathy went with North--to the extent that it did. The reason is that he's a semi-sane bullshitter of the first water, who used his uniform as a prop, and tricked the public into buying his unutterably absurd load of crap.

Just for the record.

10:06 AM  
Blogger Tom Van Dyke said...

My recollection is that the political climate re the Sandinistas had changed by the time of the hearings, and North successfully sold the contras as good guys (wasn't this around the time that they were transformed into "freedom fighters" from the terrorists who targeted "soft targets" [i.e. women and children and aid workers and gave rise to the Boland Amendment in the first place?).

And I further recall that North sold America his personal loyalty to the contras as his reason for contravening what turned out to be a quickly repealed (read stupid) law.

So even though he was certainly guilty of violating a law (that had no penalties written into it) and that had already been repealed as foolish, public sentiment did not want his head.

Of course the explanation that North's Boy Scout act simply bamboozled America is an equally legitimate explanation, but as you know, I favor explanations of underlying content over form. If North had been helping the tyrant Somoza instead of the anti-Sandinistas, I think it would have gone down differently.

And I really don't mean this pejoratively, WS, but I resist political interpretations of things that conclude the American people are stupid. (Short-sighted, often, but not stupid.) I've previously compared Iran-Contra to FDR's evasion of the Neutrality Acts in assisting Britain and China against the Axis.

As is my usual theme, "rule of law" is not all there is to a society. There is room around the edges for wisdom, when we leave it.

Iran-Contra was a million years ago, and I wasn't terribly tuned into politics at the time. I could be wrong.

3:14 AM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

No, Tom, you prefer explanations that end with the conclusion 'Republicans are wonderful' to explanations that conclude with 'Republicans are less than wonderful.'

There's no relevant form/content distinction here. Every explanation has the same basic form, an explandum that needs explaning and an explanans that putatively explains it. All of them, including yours, including mine.

Your disingenuous insinuation that your explanation is superior to the explanation favored by just about everyone else who watched those hearings because yours is somehow more contentful might work on some people, but...please. It's a fairly transparent sophistry. I'm rather offended that you think I'm so easily bamboozled. I'm not, like, *Congress* or anything...

I'm not sure whether I want to swat this fly or not, in part because I've basically come to the conclusion that you are willing to put up with any amount of lying, cheating, or stealing so long as it keeps the Good and Virtuous Republicans in office.

You want the President to "bend" the laws in accordance with the dictates of what you'd call wisdom. I, on the other hand, believe that if the President blatantly and intentionally breaks a major law of the land, he should be impeached. On those rare occasions when such a thing might be necessary, respect for the institution demands that he resign subsequently. Not skulk around lying about it, breaking even more laws to cover it up, destroyng evidence etc.

Thing is, one can always come up with some lame excuse for just about anything short of baby juggling, thus muddying the waters enough to force the other guy to waste his time replying.

Quasi-defend the psychopath North if you want--whatever. Reagan deserved to be impeached, Jim Wright and the Democrats (and the Republicans, too, probably) knew that.

Wright chose not to impeach Reagan because they didn't think that it would be best for the country to have another impeachment so close to Watergate. (Nixon dodged his, but that's a mere technicality.)

That, in fact, is one of the reasons I secretly love the big dummy Democrats. They did the wrong thing--don't get me wrong. But the did it for something like good reasons.

Compare this to the Republicans who, in essence fabricated a reason in the Lewinsky scandal, and you know much of what you need to know about my attitudes toward the two parties.

Congrats, again, for defending a party that has given us two stupid presidents out of four and three impeach-worthy ones out of four.

Great job, guys.

You must be very proud.

11:20 AM  
Blogger Tom Van Dyke said...

I tried to take it out of partisanship by citing approval of FDR covertly helping the anti-Axis forces. In that case the colors were reversed.

As for flyswatting and alleging sophistries in each other's essays, I agree we shouldn't, and leave that to the gentle readers, if there are any.

I've also previously expressed my disdain for many in the GOP trying to remove Clinton from office on legal technicalities. Fortunately, cooler heads, and the general sentiment of the American people, prevailed.

2:55 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Sorry, Tom, this stuff doesn't work on my anymore. I'm not going to keep swatting the same fly over and over again.

None of this does anything but obfuscate the point: Reagan deserved impeachment, North bullshitted 'em all out of it.

6:57 PM  
Blogger Tom Van Dyke said...

There was not much popular sentiment for impeaching Reagan over evading a law of uncertain constitutionality, and that had already been repealed. Hardly a major law of the land, and I agree with the people's sentiments. Sorry.

And I'm sorry you have no rebuttal to FDR and the Axis. It would have been an experiment in thought.

8:30 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Again, you evade the issue.

You're quite adept at that, Tom.

"Popular sentiment" is not the issue. The rule of law is the issue. The Imperial Presidency is the issue. (And we could even discuss the cult of personality here if we wanted to...)

Furthermore, if you investigated the matter--even a wee bit--you'd realize that Reagan also violated the Arms Export Control Act, not "merely" the Boland Amendment. Then, of course, he covered it up and pretended that he didn't remember what happened. (Actually, he may really have been in the early stages of Alzheimers by that point, so I'm willing to maybe go easy on him on that point.)

And re: FDR and the Axis: didn't say I didn't have a response. Said I wasn't going to swat that fly. Like so many other things, we've discussed that over and over. I actually think it's an interesting point.

My objection isn't to that point, it's to your sophistical arguments concerning the issue at hand, i.e. Iran-Contra.

I know you're committed to this point and won't change your mind. I just want to make it clear that nobody else is buying this stuff.

10:10 AM  
Blogger Tom Van Dyke said...

"Nobody" sounds a lot like "us." And I evade nothing. The core question is the role of law, not the rule of law.

If you're a rule of law type, then you can't be selective and decree that it's OK to lie about sex but not x. (And the theory of the Paula Jones case was that Clinton rewarded the girls who put out, making it a harassment issue.)

But since you're a rebel, I can't see you being such a prig. You violate what you think are bad laws all the time. (And technically, a violation of the Arms Export Control Act was just what they were trying to avoid, by using Israel as the third party. That shows up on Google, too.)

But to stipulate for the sake of the underlying principle that they violated both laws (they certainly did in spirit), we're left with the FDR/Axis problem, which cannot be made into a fly by calling it one. If Reagan should have been impeached, so should FDR.

Popular sentiment is of course a leg of our polity, as it should be. Nobody ;-) wants to live under the inflexible iron fist of the law. "A nation of laws not men" is an argument against capriciousness, not wisdom. In fact, Clinton's impeachment itself was a capricious application of the rule of law, and was not wise.

Now, I'm not saying you're wrong about a single thing. You have the "ought," I'm taking the "is."

5:02 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Jeez, Tom, you never give up, do you?

For one thing, ignoring all the specific points here, it's the *oughts* that matter, not the *is*s.

Glad you've finally seen the light on that. Reagan *ought* to have been impeached. That he *wasn't* is in no way to his credit.

I'd like to go down this list one-by-one and shred the living sh*t out of it, but (a) it's the end of the semester, so there's no time and (b) you and I both know that you don't change your mind about such why persist in this meaningless exchange?

As for not distinguishing between any law and serious laws, though, you're right about that. Some laws DO matter more, and if I said otherwise, then I was wrong.

But there's a big difference between a blowjob and the Boland Amendment. And, again, The Arms Export Control Act. As a defense attorney friend of mine told me: EVERYBODY lies about sex on the witness stand. Nobody even bats an eye. It's expected, and nobody gets prosecuted for it. It's just the way people are, and the legal system recognizes that and doesn't prosecute them for it.

And, finally, it isn't even clear that Clinton lied under oath. What he said about the meaning of 'is', it has been argued, was, in fact, technically correct. The prosecutor had set him up, and was asking irrelevant questions that he had no right to ask. Clinton wasn't going to give him any presents. He was going to make him ask the question in such a way that he (BC) had no legal and moral option but to tell the truth. His answers were evasive, but it isn't clear that he actually lied under oath. He has a preposterous definition of sex, but, again, that was for the prosecutor to dig up and explain. Not Clinton's responsibility.

But go on believing as you will in this matter.

The people loved Reagan, so he didn't deserve impeachment, Ollie North was a hero, Iran-Contra is best forgotten...or however this new medley goes...

10:32 AM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Please to forgive humble self for crankiness and irrationality.

Little sleep, lots of work, classes going disastrously wrong...

I'm just yelling at anybody who comes within range.

Your FDR point is well-taken, Tom.

10:58 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


I would agree that the FDR point is more on-target than Tom's other points.

However, when allowing for moral/ethical permission to contravene or evade a law, the circumstances are extremely important, IMO. With that in mind, it takes a hell of a lot of squinting to look at the situations FDR faced with Hitler and that Reagan faced with the Sandinistas and conclude that the threat to or national interests of the United States were in any way comparable in the two situations.

If they felt they had some personal moral obligation to support the Contras, Ollie and crew could have hopped a private plane down there, suited up, and fought alongside their comrades. However, what they shouldn't have been allowed to do was hijack American foreign policy, illicitly appropriate American weaponry and give arms to a terror-supporting nation to implement their favored policy. A policy which, as Warren Rudman said during the hearings, the American people had "a Constitutional right to be wrong" about.

Again, if there was a mortal threat to the US or its closest allies, I think one could make the case that exigency might force one to take extraordinary, and indeed illegal, steps to address the threat; however, it's laughable to think that the victory of Communist thugs in a Central American backwater represented any kind of serious threat to the US or its interests. Certainly not even in the league of the threat from Hitler and the Axis.

One could argue that Reagan and his gang BELIEVED that the threat was equivalent or near equivalent to that faced in circumstances like those of pre-WW II, but then the issue of colossal idiotic judgment on their part comes into play, and it ain't pretty.

11:42 AM  
Blogger Tom Van Dyke said...

Dennis Prager isn't the best guy to quote at this moment, as he's finally penetrated the national consciousness only because he's manifestly wrong for the first time in my memory.

(Obviously, I admire him.)

But Dennis always says he values clarity over agreement, and we have achieved some measure of the former, which is plenty good enough for me.

Cheers, and thanks, WS and even "Anonymous." We did good on this one.

10:10 PM  

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