1987 was quite a year, both for America’s scandal enthusiasts, and me personally.
In May 1987, I had just finished my freshman year at Pittsburgh’s Point Park College (now University) and began what I consider my first “real job” in my field. I became a summer copy clerk at one of my two hometown newspapers, The York Dispatch.
It was a great introduction to the news world. I had relatively simple tasks, such as gathering mailed-in obituaries and typing them up. I also cleared the photo wire, and moved them over to the various editor’s desks (more on how that got annoyingly redundant below). York is a very old city and The Dispatch was in a very old building, so despite the computers and other at-the-time modern office items, it very much had the feel of an old-timey newspaper.
1987 was also the Year of Scandals. Gary Hart, who was an early favorite to win the 1988 Democratic nomination, was sunk due to rumors of an affair with a woman named Donna Rice that blew wide open. He announced he was suspending his campaign in early May, and then in late May Noted Slinger of Mud The National Enquirer published the infamous Monkey Business photo of Rice sitting on Hart’s lap. Earlier that year, the twin infamous PTL scandals had burned brightly, ending the grift-filled career of Jim Bakker for the illegal misuse of ministry funds and for sexual misconduct with his secretary, Jessica Hahn.
But the big kahuna scandal of that summer was by far Iran-Contra. On May 7, congressional hearings on the Iran Contra scandal began. It would be the first of 41 days of hearings. For those who do not recall, the scandal was about Reagan officials illegally selling missiles and other arms to Iran to fight Iraq and in turn, we would get seven American hostages held in Lebanon by the terror group Hezbollah freed in return. Those profits were then funneled by the CIA to help Nicaraguan rebels fight communism. The problem with that was there was a congressional ban on such military aid to the Contra rebels.
Ronald Reagan, who was known as The Teflon President right before this for his seemingly superhuman ability to have scandals bounce off him, issued this crazy statement in a televised speech in March 1987:
“A few months ago, I told the American people I did not trade arms for hostages. My heart and my best intentions still tell me that’s true, but the facts and the evidence tell me it is not.”
And you thought Republicans saying nutty things only started recently.
Lt. Col. Oliver North of the National Security Council was fingered as the main driver behind the secret operations. On July 7, North, in full Marine Corps regalia complete with medals, took the stand for multiple days of testimony.
I know this because I became deeply tired of seeing Ollie’s mug, over and over and over again, coming across the AP/UPI photo wires at The Dispatch offices that week. I saw angry Ollie, taking-the-oath Ollie, even teary Ollie…I started to see the guy in my sleep.
What was insane about North’s testimony was he gleefully admitted to doing all of it. And he also said his secretary, Fawn Hall, helped him, smuggling documents in her boots and blouse. Like Hawn and Rice, Hall was a very attractive woman and the idea of a beautiful woman stuffing illegal docs down her blouse?
Hot damn, said the collected media, shit just got sexy, and so soon Ollie’s mug was replaced with Rice’s mug on the photo wires as she took the stand. Being a 20-year-old straight guy, this was much more acceptable to pull off the wire every day.
The hearings ended in early August after 250 hours of testimony. Chair of the hearings, Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) said this in closing:
“I believe these hearings will be remembered longest not for the facts they elicited, but for the extraordinary and extraordinarily frightening views of government they exposed.”
Well, Dan, I like the sentiment but that was wishful thinking. More on that in a second.
Lawmakers weren’t sure how involved Bush and Reagan were, but 11 convictions happened. North’s was overturned in 1990, Bush pardoned six others. I went back to college in early September with some new-found experience, including some newspaper bylines for my future job hunt portfolio.
And here we are, yet again. I’m still writing, including for my day job as a science writer at Penn State, and there are hearings for a major political scandal. Iran-Contra was many times worse than Watergate, and this current January 6 is many times worse than Iran-Contra. But there’s a thread running through all of them.
Nixon was pardoned by Ford. The Iran-Contra investigation was shut down and special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh was dismissed, with the usual hollow “we must move on” tripe that you hear when such things happen. People soon largely forgot about just how serious Iran-Contra was.
In both instances, the general idea was that the American people could not handle the truth, given we are all so very fragile. Charlie Pierce has outlined the tragedy in how Iran-Contra played out very well, how treating the American people as a group of anxious jittery four-year-olds has not served us very well. How it does not bode well for the future. This was written in 2011, and here we are.
Given his deep involvement that later came out in his diary despite public denials, George H. W. Bush should never have been allowed to run for president (this was not his first contempt for the rule of law rodeo, see his role in Watergate). Our checks and balances had failed, and it set us on a course that has led us to this moment.
Will the January 6 Commission lead the Department of Justice finally do the right thing when faced with such a scandal, to actually LISTEN to the American people and not treated us like we might curl up in a ball and start crying if we learn that daddy broke the law? To pay attention to polls right now that, like in the late 80s, Americans aren’t weepy milquetoasts but actually thirst for real justice?
I am optimistic that there will be consequences this time, but the voices demanding we move on and not indict a former president are not silent. These people often think of themselves as reasoned brokers who are calm in the face of chaos, but so were the people praising Bush for pardoning criminals in 1992. Again, however, this does feel different.
It better be, because if we keep letting the powerful off the hook, what would prevent bad actors from sinking us even further in the near future? And why would decent Americans ever trust the system again?
The last word goes to John Lennon, requesting some truth, please…