Let's Remember the Time Ronald Reagan Accidentally Revealed Iran-Contra During an Election Debate

In Depth

The Republican deification of Ronald Reagan has been sharply focused, effective, and completely revisionist, particularly since his death in 2004. Reagan’s canonization as the president of small government and austerity—the first president to campaign on “making America great again”—is a convenient narrative for a party so focused on selectively elevating heroes that they’re happy to lionize his history of pouring astronomical sums of money into defense spending (over a billion dollars over the course of eight years), while scapegoating, casting out, and summarily ignoring the country’s most vulnerable.

Not that the Republican Party has a reputation for giving a shit about people. But journalist and documentarian Matt Tyrnauer’s four-part Showtime series The Reagans, which aired its final episode Sunday night, has underscored the banality of both Ronald and Nancy, a refresher for viewers who might have forgotten or were too young for the details. It’s a spotlight on their many incursions for those who might have been too cowed by the all-American superman image Reagan worked very hard to cultivate as a politician. (As longtime journalist Lesley Stahl noted in the final episode, the press went easy on him during his tenure, sometimes being told by higher-ups to spitshine their stories lest their outlets run too far afoul of public opinion.)

I grew up during the Reagan era but was too young at the time to fully process what his presidency tangibly meant. Apart from the D.A.R.E. program and believing by age six that I would probably die in a mushroom cloud, my most critical memory of Ronald Reagan comes courtesy of Genesis’s “Land of Confusion” video, in which a puppet in his likeness accidentally presses the nuclear button. The Reagans has been a transfixing, informative, at times revolting series for filling in some of those gaps, particularly regarding Reagan’s virulent racism—he learned early on that racist dog whistles would help him earn votes in the South, and capitalized on that, and there’s a particularly telling scene where he angrily faces off with protesters in the south Bronx—and Nancy’s monarchical narcissism. For instance, I hadn’t realized that in the same week the administration famously suggested classifying ketchup and pickle relish as vegetables in Reagan’s drastically slashed school lunch program regulations, Nancy was brandishing $210,000 worth of new table settings to fete foreign dignitaries—factoring inflation, that’s around $610,000 now. If you watch this series for just one reason, watch it for Nancy biographer Kitty Kelley administering deft shade about the incident.

The Reagans’ clear depiction of the administration’s worst traits draws sharp parallels to the Trumps’—their unquenchable thirst for money and social status; their transparent contempt for all but the most powerful Americans; their lack of curiosity about, if not outward disdain for, functioning government infrastructure; and, most obviously, their shared ability to foster a cult of personality that transcended reason and facts. The Reagans is not too heavy-handed on this point—most of the Trump parallels are implied or left to be deduced rather than stated outright, and certainly, Reagan’s legacy provides an unspoken through-line to the current American predicament.

That’s where one of the most galling points of the series comes in, an astonishing throwback moment that is both instructive of Reagan’s unfitness and feels almost like a character study that could have come at any point over the past year: A little over two years before news of the Iran-Contra scandal broke, Ronald Reagan accidentally told everyone about it on national television, during an October 22, 1984 debate with Democratic presidential candidate Walter Mondale. (Reagan also revealed an ongoing C.I.A. action in the process.) Watching this clip, which you can see above, I nearly passed out from the horror and hilarity of his oafish, nationally-compromising foible.

A shorthand refresher: The Iran-Contra scandal was a C.I.A. program in which the United States traded missiles in exchange for the freedom of American hostages held in Iran. The agency also funneled just a little money, as a treat, to support and arm a group of drug-smuggling Nicaraguan rebel-guerillas called the Contras, who were battling the ruling political party, the Sandinista National Liberation Front. (The Sandinistas were socialists aligned with Cuba and therefore apparently more dangerous to the U.S. than mass-murdering rapists fueled by cocaine money and an intimate relationship with Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega; also, American Made is a “fun” historical movie about this time.)

Obviously, the United States funding another covert operation to overthrow a democratically elected government in Latin America was extremely stupid and imperialist, as well as in violation of international law. Once the operation became public, it put Reagan’s presidency on thin ice around the world, but most Americans forgave him after he delivered a very soft-voiced, plausible deniability speech on national television. (I just recalled another amorphous memory I have from my youth in the Reagan era: the distinctly grey visage of Oliver North testifying on my mother’s TV in the summer of ’87.)

The moment in the Reagan-Mondale debate, the second in their campaign cycle, is so laughably familiar—as is Reagan’s attempt to walk back his nationally televised disclosure of a literal C.I.A. op which would blow up in his face two years later—that once moderator Dorothy S. Ridings questioned him about it, he responded with the presidential equivalent of “whoopsie!” The transcript, viewable here via the New York Times:

REAGAN: No, but I’m glad you asked that question because I know it’s on many people’s minds. I have ordered an investigation; I know that the C.I.A. is already going forward with one. We have a gentleman down in Nicaragua who is on contract to the C.I.A., advising supposedly on military tactics, the Contras. And he drew up this manual. It was turned over to the agency head of the C.I.A. in Nicaragua to be printed, and a number of pages were excised by that agency head there, the man in charge, and he sent it on up here to C.I.A., where more pages were excised before it was printed. But some way or other, there were 12 of the original copies that got out down there and were not submitted for this printing process by the C.I.A. Now those are the details as we have them, and as soon as we have an investigation and find out where any blame lies for the few that did not get excised or changed, we certainly are going to do something about that. We’ll take the proper action at the proper time.
I was very interested to hear about Central America and our process down there, and I thought for a moment that instead of a debate I was going to find Mr. Mondale in complete agreement with what we’re doing because the plan that he has outlined is the one we’ve been following for quite some time, including diplomatic processes throughout Central America and working closely with the Contadora Group. So I can only tell you, about the manual, that we’re not in the habit of assigning guilt before there has been proper evidence produced in proof of that guilt; but if guilt is established, whoever is guilty, we will treat with that situation then and they will be removed.
Q: Well, Mr. President, you are implying then that the C.I.A. in Nicaragua is directing the Contras there. I’d also like to ask whether having the C.I.A. investigate its own manual in such a sensitive area is not sort of like sending the fox into the chicken coop a second time.
REAGAN: I’m afraid I misspoke when I said a C.I.A. head in Nicaragua. There’s not someone there directing all of this activity. There are, as you know, C.I.A. men stationed in other countries in the world, and certainly in Central America, and so it was a man down there in that area that this was delivered to. And he recognized that what was in that manual was a direct contravention of my own executive order in December of 1981, that we would have nothing to do with regard to political assassinations.

As Jezebel’s Kelly Faircloth put it to me in a text, “Man, we really survived the ‘80s by the skin of our fucking teeth, huh.” A fine reminder that Republican leaders love to teeter the U.S. on the brink.

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