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Trading Hostages for power? Rethinking Reagan’s morality and legacy

AP Photo/Barry Thumma
FILE – In this Jan. 5, 1988 file photo, President Ronald Reagan gestures while speaking at the White House in Washington.

Every failed president’s downfall has stemmed, in part, from an original political or moral sin.

Political sins generally harm institutions and parties more than individuals. For example, John Quincy Adams’s “corrupt bargain” with Henry Clay, which catapulted the former to the White House and the latter to Secretary of State, might be viewed primarily through a political lens.

A deadlocked election compelled the U.S. House of Representatives to select the winner, and thus, challenged Adams and Andrew Jackson — the two top vote getters — to try to outmaneuver each other for support. Adams won the battle and ascended to the presidency. But it also mobilized and motivated congressional Jacksonian Democrats, who made it their mission to stymie Adams and render him futile in the eyes of the electorate.

Their obstruction worked. Adams’s re-election defeat could be traced back directly to the corrupt bargain: his original political sin.

Similarly, Andrew Johnson’s original sin was political in nature. Despite moral failings that were objectively obscene even by some 1860s standards, Johnson’s disastrous presidency stemmed primarily from his political isolation as the only southern senator to have remained loyal to the Union during the Civil War.

His ascension to the vice presidency was viewed at the time as GOP ticket balancing, but in the end left him — a Democrat replacing a widely revered, assassinated Republican — without the broad and deep political alliances that any chief executive needs. Because neither party trusted him. And while his reckless actions didn’t do him any favors, his status as a political pariah doomed him from the start.

Original moral sins are tougher to pin down, primarily because moral norms aren’t constant.

Herbert Hoover comes to mind. In 1962, 75 historians participated in the famed Schlesinger survey of presidential greatness. They ranked Hoover ahead of Dwight Eisenhower (strange as it sounds).

In the ensuing decades, the “American values” that somewhat burnished Hoover’s record began to rust. His failings at the dawn of the Great Depression surely were political and policy related. His unwavering free market / capitalistic belief system prevented him from identifying meaningful ways for the White House to address the rapidly growing economic crisis.

And yet, this is what makes Hoover an interesting case. His view that “economic depression cannot be cured by legislative action or executive pronouncement” eventually became anathema to a large sector of U.S. sensibilities. And more specifically, his horrendous treatment of long unemployed veterans demanding an early dispersal of promised bonuses reinforced his standing as a disdainful bureaucrat inured to others’ suffering.

Morality intertwined with politics and policy. Willfully shrinking from responsibility, rather than rising to the occasion. A deeply talented and flawed individual who revealed his worst impulses when the nation needed him most.

And sometimes, original moral sins are more clear-cut. They jump out at us like a nightmare to a child.

A few days ago, The New York Times’ Peter Baker wrote a bombshell article in which longtime politico Ben Barnes confirmed the previously unsubstantiated rumor that Republican operatives in 1980 lobbied leaders of Middle Eastern nations to urge Iran to continue holding 52 Americans hostages … until after the November election.

Barnes also confirmed that this covert operation was coordinated with the campaign of the GOP presidential candidate, Ronald Reagan.

Their actions were, of course, in direct conflict with U.S. government policy. But more than that, they were in direct conflict with basic moral norms.

This was a major national party trying to stop the potentially imminent release of Americans from foreign captivity — so that if they won the upcoming election, they could get the credit.

Barnes’s account is more than newsworthy. It calls into question what Reagan’s role was in this scheme, and whether he — a private citizen — deliberately placed his own political career above the lives and freedom of 52 Americans.

Barnes’s account necessitates a reexamination of both Reagan the president and Reagan the man. Long deified by nearly half the country as the father of today’s conservative movement and — until recently — as the unrivaled hero of the modern-day Republican Party, Reagan has skyrocketed in prestige among historians, rising from the ranks of middling chief executives to “near-greats.”

Working against the U.S. government to delay American hostages’ release for months would constitute an original moral sin. Whether Reagan owns this sin is perhaps unanswerable. But given how many people in his direct orbit were involved, historians — and frankly, all Americans — should reassess his legacy in light of his team’s successful efforts to trade hostages for power.

B.J. Rudell is a longtime political strategist, former associate director for Duke University’s Center for Politics, and recent North Carolina Democratic Party operative. In a career encompassing stints on Capitol Hill, on presidential campaigns, in a newsroom, in classrooms, and for a consulting firm, he has authored three books and has shared political insights across all media platforms, including for CNN and Fox News.

Tags 1979 Iranian hostage crisis American hostages Andrew Jackson Andrew Johnson Herbert Hoover Iran Iran hostage crisis Iran–United States relations Jimmy Carter John Quincy Adams Morality Presidency of Jimmy Carter Presidency of Ronald Reagan Ronald Reagan

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