It happened today - November 18, 2015

Speaking of scandals, Nov. 18 is the date a joint Congressional committee issued its final report on the idiotic and baffling Iran-Contra affair, basically concluding with a question I can’t print here. Perhaps Nixon, who was still alive, was wondering why Reagan survived when he didn’t. Partly he was a much nicer guy. And partly it was a better scandal, if you were behind it, because it was incomprehensible.

I mean that in every sense. It was impossible to understand the original plan; the execution was mind-numbingly complex; the lines of accountability were too tangled to follow and the result was … was… say, what happened again?

Oh come now. Surely you remember Bud McFarlane going to Iran with a cake shaped like a key so… I beg your pardon? I’ve wandered into a baroque and implausible spy novel? If only. But actually I haven’t. The original plan, to dignify it with that name, was for the Israelis to sell weapons to Iran, the US would replace the Israeli weapons and get the money, and in return the Iranians would pressure Hezbollah to free seven American hostages in Lebanon.

Hey. Come on. What could go wrong? I’ll tell you. Lt.-Col. Oliver North could get involved, and decide to divert some of the profits from the arms sale to Nicaraguan rebels against the left-wing Sandinista government that, thanks to obtuse Democrats in Congress, the Reagan Administration wasn’t allowed to supply directly at that point. And then you could get found out. Which they did.

Now Reagan escaped partly because there was no evidence that he’d directly authorized the transfer of money to Iran. His subordinates sheltered him loyally (I admire Oliver North’s conduct after the plan started to unravel, while deploring the daffiness of the original scheme), Reagan may not actually have approved the worst bits or key details, and his genial denials and inability to remember everything were made especially plausible by the fact that his enemies had been calling him a genial forgetful dolt for decades. By contrast Nixon was described as some sort of big evil spider controlling everything, watching everything, remembering everything and nursing resentments for decades.

Both descriptions had a certain plausibility, although Reagan was by no means a dolt. Indeed, he made a career of being underestimated, another lesson worth noting in passing. But while he probably wasn’t directly involved, he also probably didn’t remember everything he did hear or even say and no one could pin it to him. Others were charged, prosecuted and in some cases convicted (and then pardoned) but Reagan glided benignly above it all.

Also, by that point Reagan was nearing the end of his second term and his powers, political and personal, genuinely were fading. He didn’t pose, or seem to pose, the menace Nixon did in 1973.

Finally, Nixon’s scandal was at bottom easy to understand: A sinister group of special operatives committing burglaries and wiretappings to try to undermine his political opponents, sheltered by the considerable powers of the American presidency. Reagan’s was, um, what happened again? I just wrote some of it down and you just read it and neither of us knows.

Nor, in the end, did the Congressional investigators. And you can’t impeach a president for what the heck was that all about?

It happened todayJohn Robson