Peter Baker, Ben Barnes & The October Surprise Story

There’s been a lot of chatter about a NYT story by Peter Baker on the 1980 presidential election. It claims to reveal that John Connally sabotaged the Carter campaign by urging Arab governments to kneecap negotiations with Iran during the 1979-1980 hostage crisis. According to the hype surrounding Baker’s article, that’s why Jimmy Carter lost in 1980. I beg to differ, but I’ll get to that later.

Team Reagan was capable of pulling an October Surprise. I think they may have even tried. But I’m skeptical of the particulars of Baker’s story. It depicts former Texas politician and Connally crony Ben Barnes as a credible whistleblower. Barnes claims to be doing it for history and because Jimmy Carter is dying. How noble. #sarcasm

Let’s start with Peter Baker. Here’s what I said about him in a 2022 post, Reputation Laundering:

“The NYT’s Peter Baker is the ultimate establishment journalist. He’s been the guardian of the reputation of many establishment figures. 


I don’t think Baker sets out to launder the reputation of Republican insiders, it just turns out that way. He gravitates to the powerful and seems susceptible to flattery.”

Ben Barnes is not a Republican but after retiring from politics he became a powerful and well-connected Washington lobbyist. Just the sort of guy who makes Peter Baker go weak at the knees.

The laundered reputation I referred to in that post was that of Jared Kushner:

“In an article in the NYT, Baker declares Kushner’s hands clean in regard to the Dipshit Insurrection. Why? Because Kushner told him so. The notion that Kushner could be lying to him seems not to occur to the credulous Timesman.”

When it comes to powerful establishment figures, Baker is more of a stenographer than a reporter. Here’s his ode to Ben Barnes from the October Surprise story:

“Mr. Barnes is no shady foreign arms dealer with questionable credibility, like some of the characters who fueled previous iterations of the October surprise theory. He was once one of the most prominent figures in Texas, the youngest speaker of the Texas House of Representatives and later lieutenant governor. He was such an influential figure that he helped a young George W. Bush get into the Texas Air National Guard rather than be exposed to the draft and sent to Vietnam. Lyndon B. Johnson predicted that Mr. Barnes would become president someday.”

Mr. Barnes, however, is an 84-year-old man who loves publicity and seeing his name back in the headlines. It’s good for business. Baker omits the fact that Barnes was one of Dan Rather’s sources for the 2004 story about then President Bush’s draft dodging. It was a plausible story, but full of so many holes that Rather was fired from CBS News. His consolation prize was to be played by Robert Redford in the movie, Truth.

In both the Connally and Bush stories,  I’m inclined to believe the underlying story but to be skeptical of Ben Barnes as a source.

Here’s the passage about Connally and Barnes “don’t free the hostages” tour of the Middle East:

“Mr. Connally said, “‘Look, Ronald Reagan’s going to be elected president and you need to get the word to Iran that they’re going to make a better deal with Reagan than they are Carter,’” Mr. Barnes recalled. “He said, ‘It would be very smart for you to pass the word to the Iranians to wait until after this general election is over.’ And boy, I tell you, I’m sitting there and I heard it and so now it dawns on me, I realize why we’re there.”

Mr. Barnes said that, except for Israel, Mr. Connally repeated the same message at every stop in the region to leaders such as President Anwar el-Sadat of Egypt.”                           

Sadat? Say what? Anwar Sadat had absolutely no influence whatsoever with Iran. Check out this picture:

That’s the dying Shah of Iran in exile in Egypt. Sadat gave the Shah asylum. The Iranian regime was outraged.

Not only did Sadat give the Shah sanctuary, he called Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini at different times ” a lunatic” and “a disgrace to Islam.”

It gets better as you can see from this quote from

“On Oct. 6, 1981, Egypt’s President Anwar Sadat was gunned down by Islamist militants during a military parade marking the anniversary of the 1973 Arab-Israeli War. The world condemned the attack. But in Tehran, the assassination was applauded.


So grateful was Iran for the murder of Sadat that it glorified his assassin, Khalid Islambouli, even naming a street in Tehran after him.”

Only an idiot would have thought that Sadat had any influence with the Iranians. John Connally was no idiot. He was an intelligent, sophisticated, and well-informed man. It’s unlikely that he gave the spiel described by Barnes to Sadat. Not for moral reasons, Connally was amoral, but for practical reasons: Sadat had no influence with the Iranian regime. Besides, Sadat was close to then President Carter. News about Connally lobbying Egypt about the hostages would have gotten back to the Carter administration.

There’s photographic proof of a Barnes-Connally-Sadat meeting but no record of its contents exists. Quite naturally, Peter Baker takes Ben Barnes’ word as to what happened. He always defers to establishment figures. Would a Texas pol turned Washington lobbyist lie?

Is it possible that other parts of Ben Barnes account are true? Yes, but Ben Barnes is an unreliable narrator. I’m not Peter Baker, so I don’t automatically believe powerful people. I have a bullshit detector; something Peter Baker seems to lack.

Any machinations by Team Reagan were unnecessary. Ayatollah Khomeini was a good hater. He hated Jimmy Carter and had no intention of freeing the hostages before the 1980 election. Additionally, Carter was terribly unpopular even among Democrats. I cast my first two presidential ballots for him but held my nose in 1980. I voted for Ted Kennedy in the California primary. Incumbent presidents who face a serious primary challenge don’t win reelection.

I’m not surprised that there’s another story about a 1980 October Surprise. The stories are plausible but collapse upon closer inspection of the details. We’ll never know exactly what happened but, in the end, it’s the Connally-Barnes edition of this quote from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance:

2 thoughts on “Peter Baker, Ben Barnes & The October Surprise Story

  1. You’re really debating whether they did or could have affected the Iran hostage crisis. The real issue/story is whether operatives for Reagan actively tried to extend the imprisonment of Americans by a foreign power for political gain. Whether they succeeded does not affect the immorality at the core of this story.

  2. My post was about the historical record. It was media criticism; something we’ve always done a lot of at First Draft. The Baker story has many holes in it. That was the real issue for me.

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