Washington decided, quite on its own, that “the country” didn’t need another “failed presidency,” so what is now known as The Village circled the wagons to rescue Reagan from his crimes. There was the customary gathering of Wise Men — The Tower Commission — which buried the true scandal in Beltway off-English and the passive voice. There was a joint congressional investigation that served only to furnish people like Oliver North with legal loopholes that prevented their incarceration. There was poor Lawrence Walsh, the special prosecutor, whom everybody wished would simply go away, but who pressed on, making a case that ultimately forced President Poppy Bush to pardon everyone except Shoeless Joe Jackson on his way out the door in 1992.
The press was next to useless. (Mark Hertsgaard’s On Bended Knee is the essential text here.) Hell, the scandal was uncovered by two guys in Beirut with a mimeograph machine. And while there was some excellent work done in spots by the elite American press, the general tone was that the scandal was “too complex” for the country to follow, which led to its having “dragged on too long” and to the eventual dissipation of its political force. (This was a trial run for the infantilization of political self-government, by which the self-governing public is treated as though it were made of candyglass. The masterwork in this regard was the haste to settle the “dangerous uncertainity” surrounding the 2000 presidential election, when almost every poll indicated that the country was perfectly willing to live through a constitutional crisis so long as the crisis followed the Constitution.) This was, of course, nonsense. The Whitewater scandal was insanely complex, largely because there was virtually nothing to the damned thing, and that dragged on all the way to an impeachment trial in the Senate.
Compared to a real-estate scam masterminded by crooks and loons in Arkansas that somehow led to hearings on what the president did with his pee-pee, Iran-Contra was a straightforward constitutional B&E. The Reagan people wanted to fight a war in Central America. Congress did its constitutional duty and shut off the money. The administration then broke the law by arranging private funding for its pet war. One of the ways it did that was to sell military hardware to the government of Iran, which sponsored not only terrorism, but also the kidnapping of various American citizens abroad. All of this was in service to a private foreign policy, devoid of checks and balances, and based on a fundamental contempt for the Constitution and the rule of law. As Kornbluh writes, the following ensued:
There were illegal arms transfers to Iran, flagrant lying to Congress, soliciting third country funding to circumvent the Congressional ban on financing the contra war in Nicaragua, White House bribes to various generals in Honduras, illegal propaganda and psychological operations directed by the CIA against the U.S. press and public, collaboration with drug kingpins such as Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega, and violating the checks and balances of the Constitution.
Iran-Contra was the moment when the country decided — or, alternatively, when it was decided for the country — that self-government was too damned hard, and that we’re all better off just not knowing. It was the moment when all the checks and balances failed, when our faith in the Constitution was most sorely tested, and when it was found most seriously wanting. Iran-Contra is how all the crimes of the subsequent years became possible. It is when the Constitution became a puppet show.
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