Spurs that jingo jangle jingo
Once upon a time, it was a big joke that a B movie actor, Ronald Reagan, could think he might be president of the United States. In 1976, when he attempted to unseat a sitting repug president, Gerald Ford, he lost the first six primaries. But then he hit upon a theme that would propel him into national prominence: The bad feelings over the Vietnam debacle were fodder for a “New Day in America,” where it felt good to be bad-ass again. Thus was born the Era of the Chickenhawk (Reagan himself spent the Big One, WWII, making propaganda films), and as Rachel notes, so began the slide into a modern militaristic imperialism that has impaled this country on a cross of iron. Writing in the chapter “A Nation at Peace Everywhere in the World,” she picks up on his “New Day in America” theme:
“There is one problem which must be solved or everything else is meaningless. I am speaking of the problem of our national security. Our nation is in danger, and the danger grows greater with each passing day.” The Ford administration was asleep at the wheel while Cuba’s Communist strongman Fidel Castro continued to “export revolution” to Puerto Rico and Angola and a score of places in between, Reagan said. We had sacrificed democratic Taiwan to Communist China. Then there was the Panama giveaway. And worst of all, the Soviets were cleaning our clocks in war-making capabilities: “The Soviet Army outnumbers ours more than two to one and in Reserves four to one. They outspend us on weapons by fifty percent. Their Navy outnumbers ours in surface ships and submarines two to one. We’re outgunned in artillery three to one and their tanks outnumber ours four to one. Their strategic nuclear missiles are larger, more powerful, and more numerous than ours.”
None of these stark and terrifying “facts” about Soviet military superiority were true, but really, that was beside the point. “The evidence mounts that we are Number Two in a world where it’s dangerous, if not fatal, to be second best.” He believed in peace “as much as any man,” he said. “But peace does not come from weakness or from retreat. It comes from the restoration of American military superiority.”
The turnaround after North Carolina was dramatic: After going 0 for 6 at the start of the primary season, Reagan won four of the next six primaries, swept up every delegate in Texas, Alabama, and Georgia, and extended the race all the way to the convention that summer. He did grudgingly concede to Gerald Ford at that convention, but Ronald Reagan never again took his eyes off the White House. He had made himself a big pin on the political map and he understood exactly how he’d done it. When something worked for Reagan, he stuck with it. So while the new Democratic president who defeated Ford, Jimmy Carter, picked up the Ford policy and negotiated a strategically beneficial treaty with Panama, while mainstream Democrats and Republicans in the Senate joined together to work toward the two-thirds vote necessary for ratification, while right-wing archbishop William F. Buckley and America’s beloved tough guy John Wayne (yes, that John Wayne) campaigned full-on for the ratification of Carter’s treaty, Reagan demagogued with a vengeance. “The loss of the Panama Canal,” Reagan said in one of his weekly radio addresses, “would contribute to the encirclement of the US by hostile naval forces, and thereby [threaten] our ability to survive.”
Even after John Wayne sent Reagan a private and personal note offering to show him “point by goddamn point in the treaty where you are misinforming people,” and offering fair warning that it was time for the Gipper to shut his piehole (“If you continue to make these erroneous remarks, someone will publicize your letter to prove that you are not as thorough in your reviewing of this treaty as you say or are damned obtuse when it comes to reading the English language”), Ronald Reagan doubled down. He cited a former “defense intelligence” expert, Gen. Daniel 0. Graham (and put a pin in that name), who said rumors of Castro’s Communist minions at work in the fields of Panama were based on “pretty solid evidence.” He also cited a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs who “expressed the gravest concern about surrendering the canal to a leftist oriented government allied with Cuba, citing the danger of giving this advantage to a man who might permit Soviet power and influence to prevail by proxy over the canal. He said the ‘economic lifeline of the entire Western hemisphere would be jeopardized.’ ”
In private correspondence with his good friend Bill Buckley, leading up to their nationally televised 1978 Firing Line debate on the Panama issue, Reagan professed a much more accommodating view, one that involved maybe internationalizing the operation of the Canal. But on TV he stuck to his crowd-pleasing hard line. “We bought it, we paid for it, we built it, and we intend to keep it!” was not a slogan that invited waffling. “We would become a laughingstock by surrendering to unreasonable demands, and by doing so, I think we cloak weakness in the suit of virtue” was how Reagan closed the Firing Line debate. “I think that the world would see it as, once again, Uncle Sam putting his tail between his legs and creeping away rather than face trouble.”
Buckley was on the right side of history in his argument for the treaty. Panama’s subsequent control of the Canal did not create a threat to “the economic lifeline of the entire western hemisphere,” or any other kind of threat to the United States. It’s been a technocratic nonissue for the most part. But the intellectual father of the modern conservative movement still marveled at the rewarding political vein Reagan had tapped. “I think that Governor Reagan put his finger on it when he said the reason this treaty is unpopular is because we’re tired of being pushed around.”
By the time the Canal treaty made it to the Senate floor for ratification, Reagan’s histrionics had almost torpedoed the thing, aided by millions of desperate, pants-on-fire direct-mail appeals from the Conservative Caucus, and by the American Conservative Union’s “documentary ” with the self-parodying title “There Is No Panama Canal . . . There Is an American Canal in Panama.” “This may be the most important TV program you’ve ever watched,” an ACU spokesman blared on the eve of the broadcast. What should have been a slam-dunk ratification became an act of political courage in the Senate. Reagan and his growing right-wing “truth” machine had stirred public opinion to such a frothy head that Senate Minority Leader Howard Baker was warned that a vote for the treaty would cost him any chance at the GOP presidential nomination in 1980. On the way to the Senate floor to cast his aye vote, a popular centrist Democrat from New Hampshire asked his wife to “come on and watch me lose my seat.”
The treaty squeaked through by a single vote, but it gave Reagan and the right wing of the Republican Party an issue that kept on giving. The next two election cycles were bloodbaths for the Senate Democrats. That New Hampshire senator lost his seat; so did the treaty’s floor manager, four-term senator Frank Church, who could not overcome a last-minute conservative ad blitz funded by the National Conservative Political Action Committee: “Now that all the shouting is over, remember the Panama Canal, built with American blood and treasure. Frank Church voted to give it away.” Birch Bayh of Indiana lost to a callow, lightweight Republican named Dan Quayle, and the 1972 presidential nominee George McGovern lost his South Dakota seat in an embarrassing 58-39 landslide.
But the Reagan assault didn’t stop at the party line. A slew of moderate Republicans who had supported the treaty were swept aside for being weak-kneed, such as Kansan James B. Pearson, who retired amid catcalls that he was not “Republican enough,” and old lions like Clifford Case and Jacob Javits, who lost ignominiously in the primary to a county supervisor from Long Island named Alfonse D’Amato. In November 1980, when Republicans gained control of the Senate for the first time since the end of 1954, this was not your father’s Republican Party. The Senate newbies were amped up, doctrinaire, undistracted by facts on the ground, and primed for a fight in which America could prove itself mighty once again. And at the head of the parade was the new president-elect, Ronald Wilson Reagan.
All that should have changed with the total unraveling of the Reagan administration, when the Iran-Contra arms scandal came to light—not to mention that fact that Ron’s “diminished capacity” became more and more apparent. But the long-lasting effects of the actions of his minions haunt us to this day:
Even before all the indictments and the convictions of senior administration officials, Reagan’s new way—the president can do anything so long as the president thinks it’s okay—looked like toast. In fact, Reagan looked like toast. Whatever his presidency had meant up until that point, Iran-Contra was such an embarrassment, such a toxic combination of illegality and sheer stupidity, that even the conservatives of his own party were disgusted. “He will never again be the Reagan that he was before he blew it,” said a little-known Republican congressman from Georgia by the name of Newt Gingrich. “He is not going to regain our trust and our faith easily.”
The president had been caught red-handed. Congress had exercised its legal and constitutional prerogative to restrain the executive branch from waging a war in Nicaragua. Reagan responded by breaking the law, waging the war anyway, and funding it by illegal and secret weapons deals that the president insisted weren’t happening. The secretary of defense was indicted on multiple counts, as were two national security advisers, an assistant secretary of state, the chief of Covert Ops at the CIA, and two other senior CIA officials. The president himself escaped largely by pleading exhaustive ignorance and confusion: ”I’m afraid that I let myself be influenced by others’ recollections, not my own . . . the simple truth is, I don’t remember—period.” The Reagan presidency—the whole mythology of Reagan’s leadership—was laid bare. This was competence?
But a funny thing happened on the way to the burial of those tough-guy president-can-do-anything ideas. The lesson of the whole affair didn’t really take hold. The Tower Commission and the congressional investigating committee and the independent counsel expended their resources and energies on personalities like North and Secord and McFarlane and Poindexter, and Reagan got a pass. Which meant that in the not very much longer term, Reagan could be reimagined and reinvented by conservatives as an executive who had done no wrong: the gold standard of Republican presidents. By 2011, Newt Gingrich was trying to pave his own path to the presidency with Gingrich Productions “documentaries” like Ronald Reagan:Rendezvous with Destiny. “I knew Ronald Reagan; I began working with Ronald Reagan in 1974 when I first ran for Congress,” Gingrich was thundering from the podium at conservative conferences. “And I hate to tell this to our friends at MSNBC and elsewhere: Barack Obama is no Ronald Reagan!” (Newt’s Reagan movie kind of glossed over the whole Iran-Contra thing, when the extent of Newt Gingrich’s “working with” Ronald Reagan was throwing him under the bus, as the untrustworthy president who “blew it.”)
The Iran-Contra scandal hasn’t exactly turned into a badge of honor for those who had starring roles, but neither does it tarnish the high sheen retrospectively applied to the Reagan presidency or those who did his illegal or extra-constitutional bidding. Reagan’s successor, George H. W. Bush, pardoned most of the Iran-Contra convicts; Bush’s son George W. hired on a number of the scandal’s key players for his own administration. The Obama administration kept W’s defense secretary, Robert M. Gates, whose name is the title of chapter 16 of the Iran-Contra independent counsel report. (“The evidence established,” said the report, “that Gates was exposed to information about North’s connections to the private resupply operation that would have raised concern in the minds of most reasonable persons about the propriety of a Government officer having such an operational role.”)
But even more dangerous was the sad fact that the shameful Meese-made legal arguments about nearly unlimited executive power were not seen as the crazy talk they were, and killed off for good. One leader in Congress was instrumental in making sure this executive-power argument remained politically viable, by loudly declaiming at the time of Iran-Contra, in the midst of the scandal, that Reagan was right to do what he did. As the main author of the minority’s 145-page written dissent from the congressional investigation of Iran-Contra, Wyoming Rep resentative Dick Cheney insisted, radically, that Iran-Contra was no crime, that Reagan was right to defy Congress, because there was nothing in Congress, nothing anywhere in America’s political structure, that could constrain a president from waging any war he wanted, however he wanted. It was an extreme view of executive power, a minority view when written, but it quickly became a blueprint for the next generation of Republican thinking about war and its limits. “The President was expected to have the primary role of conducting the foreign policy of the United States,” Cheney argued in his minority report on Iran-Contra. “Congressional actions to limit the President in this area therefore should be reviewed with a considerable degree of skepticism. If they interfere with core presidential foreign policy functions, they should be struck down. Moreover, the lesson of our constitutional history is that doubtful cases should be decided in favor of the President.”
And who won this argument? The answer is kind of surprising, but sadly obvious today, when we find ourselves in a succession of indefinite hot wars the country does not really want.
Remember the words of James Madison: “The Constitution supposes, what the History of all Governments demonstrates, that the Executive is the branch of power most interested in war, and most prone to it. It has accordingly with studied care vested the question of war in the Legislature.” The “studied care” Madison describes behind that “vesting” has not been matched by any equal and opposite studied care in recent decades, as we’ve divested that same power. It’s not a conspiracy. Rational political actors, acting rationally to achieve rational (if sometimes dumb) political goals, have attacked and undermined our constitutional inheritance from men like Madison. For the most part, though, they’ve not done it to fundamentally alter the country’s course but just to get around understandably frustrating impediments to their political goals. The ropes we had used to lash down presidential war-making capacity, bindings that by design made it hard for an American president to use military force without the nation’s full and considered buy-in, have been hacked at with very little appreciation about why they were put there in the first place.
When Ronald Reagan extricated himself from the Iran-Contra scandal by cutting one of those crucial mooring lines—without considered forethought or specific course headings in mind—it set the country adrift and heading into a dangerous tide.
Congress has never since effectively asserted itself to stop a president with a bead on war. It was true of George Herbert Walker Bush. It was true of Bill Clinton. And by September 11, 2001, even if there had been real resistance to Vice President Cheney and President George W. Bush starting the next war (or two), there were no institutional barriers strong enough to have realistically stopped them. By 9/11, the war-making authority in the United States had become, for all intents and purposes, uncontested and unilateral: one man’s decision to make.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this.