In recent years, the Washington political dynamic has often resembled an abusive marriage, in which the bullying husband (the Republicans) slaps the wife and kids around, and the battered wife (the Democrats) makes excuses and hides the ugly bruises from outsiders to keep the family together.
So, when the Republicans are in a position of power, they throw their weight around, break the rules, and taunt: “Whaddya gonna do ‘bout it?”
Then, when the Republicans do the political equivalent of passing out on the couch, the Democrats use their time in control, tiptoeing around, tidying up the house and cringing at every angry grunt from the snoring figure on the couch.
This pattern, which now appears to be repeating itself with President Barack Obama’s unwillingness to hold ex-President George W. Bush and his subordinates accountable for a host of crimes including torture, may have had its origins 40 years ago in Campaign 1968 when the Vietnam War was raging.
President Lyndon Johnson felt he was on the verge of achieving a negotiated peace settlement when he learned in late October 1968 that operatives working for Republican presidential candidate Richard Nixon were secretly sabotaging the Paris peace talks.
Nixon, who was getting classified briefings on the talks’ progress, feared that an imminent peace accord might catapult Vice President Hubert Humphrey to victory. So, Nixon’s team sent secret messages to South Vietnamese leaders offering them a better deal if they boycotted Johnson’s talks and helped Nixon to victory, which they agreed to do.
Johnson learned about Nixon’s gambit through wiretaps of the South Vietnamese embassy and he confronted Nixon by phone (only to get an unconvincing denial). At that point, Johnson knew his only hope was to expose Nixon’s maneuver which Johnson called “treason” since it endangered the lives of a half million American soldiers in the war zone.
As a Christian Science Monitor reporter sniffed out the story and sought confirmation, Johnson consulted Secretary of State Dean Rusk and Defense Secretary Clark Clifford about whether to expose Nixon’s ploy right before the election. Both Rusk and Clifford urged Johnson to stay silent.
In what would become a Democratic refrain in the years ahead, Clifford said in a Nov. 4, 1968, conference call that “Some elements of the story are so shocking in their nature that I’m wondering whether it would be good for the country to disclose the story and then possibly have a certain individual [Nixon] elected. It could cast his whole administration under such doubt that I think it would be inimical to our country’s interests.”
So, Johnson stayed silent “for the good of the country”; Nixon eked out a narrow victory over Humphrey; the Vietnam War continued for another four years with an additional 20,763 U.S. dead and 111,230 wounded and more than a million more Vietnamese killed.
Over the years, as bits and pieces of this story have dribbled out – including confirmation from audiotapes released by the LBJ Library in December 2008 – the Democrats and the mainstream news media have never made much out of Nixon’s deadly treachery. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “The Significance of Nixon’s Treason.”]
The one exception to this pattern of the Democrats’ “battered wife syndrome” may have been the Watergate case in which Nixon sought to secure his second term, in part, by spying on his political rivals, including putting bugs on phones at the Democratic National Committee.
When Nixon’s team was caught in a second break-in – trying to add more bugs – the scandal erupted.
Even then, however, key Democrats, such as Democratic National Chairman Robert Strauss, tried to shut down the Watergate investigation as it was expanding early in Nixon’s second term. Strauss argued that the inquiries would hurt the country, but enough other Democrats and an energized Washington press corps overcame the resistance. [For details, see Robert Parry’s Secrecy & Privilege.]
With Nixon’s Watergate-compelled resignation in August 1974, the Republicans were at a crossroads. In one direction, they could start playing by the rules and seek to be a responsible political party. Or they could internalize Nixon’s pugnacious style and build an infrastructure to punish anyone who tried to hold them accountable in the future.
Essentially, the Republicans picked option two. Under the guidance of Nixon’s Treasury Secretary William Simon, right-wing foundations collaborated to build a powerful new infrastructure, pooling resources to finance right-wing publications, think tanks and anti-journalism attack groups. As this infrastructure took shape in the late 1970s, it imbued the Republicans with more confidence.
So, before Election 1980, the Republican campaign – bolstered by former CIA operatives loyal to former CIA Director George H.W. Bush – resorted to Nixon-style tactics in exploiting President Jimmy Carter’s failure to free 52 American hostages then held in Iran.
The evidence is now overwhelming that Republican operatives, including campaign chief Bill Casey and some of his close associates, had back-channel contacts with Iran’s Islamic regime and other foreign governments to confound Carter’s hostage negotiations. Though much of this evidence has seeped out over the past 29 years, some was known in real time.
For instance, Iran’s acting foreign minister Sadegh Ghotbzadeh told Agence France Press on Sept. 6, 1980, that he knew that Republican candidate Ronald Reagan was “trying to block a solution” to the hostage impasse.
Senior Carter administration officials, such as National Security Council aide Gary Sick, also were hearing rumors about Republican interference, and President Carter concluded that Israel’s hard-line Likud leaders had “cast their lot with Reagan,” according to notes I found of a congressional task force interview with Carter a dozen years later.
Carter traced the Israeli opposition to him to a “lingering concern [among] Jewish leaders that I was too friendly with Arabs.”
Israel already had begun playing a key middleman role in delivering secret military shipments to Iran, as Carter knew.
But – again for “the good of the country” – Carter and his White House kept silent.
Since the first anniversary of the hostage crisis coincidentally fell on Election Day 1980, Reagan benefited from the voters' anger over the national humiliation and scored a resounding victory. [For more details on the 1980 “October Surprise” case, see Parry’s Secrecy & Privilege.]
Though much of the public saw Reagan as a tough guy who had frightened the Iranians into surrendering the hostages on Inauguration Day 1981, the behind-the-scenes reality was different.
In secret, the Reagan administration winked at Israeli weapons shipments to Iran in the first half of 1981, what appeared to be a payoff for Iran’s cooperation in sabotaging Carter. Nicholas Veliotes, who was then assistant secretary of state, told a PBS interviewer that he saw those secret shipments as an outgrowth of the covert Republican-Iranian contacts from the campaign.
Veliotes added that those early shipments then became the “germs” of the later Iran-Contra arms-for-hostages scandal.
But the Republicans seemed to have little to fear from exposure. Their media infrastructure was rapidly expanding – for instance, the right-wing Washington Times opened in 1982 – and America’s Left didn’t see the need to counter this growing media power on the Right.
The right-wing attack groups also had success targeting mainstream journalists who dug up information that didn’t fit with Reagan's propaganda themes – the likes of the New York Times Raymond Bonner, whose brave reporting about right-wing death squads in Central America led to his recall from the region and his resignation from the Times.
This new right-wing muscle, combined with Ronald Reagan’s political popularity, made Democrats and mainstream journalists evermore hesitant to pursue negative stories about Republican policies, including evidence that Reagan’s favorite “freedom fighters,” the Nicaraguan contras, were dabbling in cocaine trafficking and that an illegal contra-aid operation was set up inside the White House.
In mid-1986, when my Associated Press colleague Brian Barger and I put together a story citing two dozen sources about the work of NSC official Oliver North, congressional Democrats were hesitant to follow up on the disclosures.
Finally in August 1986, the House Intelligence Committee, then chaired by Democrat Lee Hamilton and including Republican Rep. Dick Cheney, met with North and other White House officials in the Situation Room and were told that the AP story was untrue. With no further investigation, the Democratic-led committee accepted the word of North and his superiors.
It was only an unlikely occurrence on Oct. 5, 1986, the shooting down of one of North’s supply planes over Nicaragua and a confession by the one survivor, Eugene Hasenfus, that put the House Intelligence Committee’s gullibility into focus.
The plane shoot-down – and disclosures from the Middle East about secret U.S. arms sales to Iran – forced the Iran-Contra scandal into public view. The congressional Democrats responded by authorizing a joint House-Senate investigation, with Hamilton as one of the mild-mannered co-chairs and Cheney again leading the GOP’s tough-guy defense.
While the Republicans worked to undermine the investigation, the Democrats looked for a bipartisan solution that would avoid a messy confrontation with President Reagan and Vice President Bush. That solution was to put most of the blame on North and a few of his superiors, such as NSC adviser John Poindexter and the then-deceased CIA Director Bill Casey.
The congressional investigation also made a hasty decision, supported by Hamilton and the Republicans but opposed by most Democrats, to give limited immunity to secure the testimony of North.
Hamilton agreed to this immunity without knowing what North would say. Rather than show any contrition, North used his immunized testimony to rally Republicans and other Americans in support of Reagan’s aggressive, above-the-law tactics.
The immunity also crippled later attempts by special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh to hold North and Poindexter accountable under the law. Though Walsh won convictions against the pair in federal court, the judgments were overturned by right-wing judges on the U.S. Court of Appeals citing the immunity granted by Congress.
By the early 1990s, the pattern was set. Whenever new evidence emerged of Republican wrongdoing – such as disclosures about contra-drug trafficking, secret military support for Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and those early Republican-Iran contacts of 1980 – the Republicans would lash out in fury and the Democrats would try to calm things down.
Lee Hamilton became the Republicans’ favorite Democratic investigator because he exemplified this approach of conducting “bipartisan” investigations, rather than aggressively pursuing the facts wherever they might lead. While in position to seek the truth, Hamilton ignored the contra-drug scandal and swept the Iraq-gate and October Surprise issues under a very lumpy rug.
In 1992, I interviewed Spencer Oliver, a Democratic staffer whose phone at the Watergate building had been bugged by Nixon’s operatives 20 years earlier. Since then, Oliver had served as the chief counsel on the House Foreign Affairs Committee and had observed this pattern of Republican abuses and Democratic excuses.
Oliver said: “What [the Republicans] learned from Watergate was not ‘don’t do it,’ but ‘cover it up more effectively.’ They have learned that they have to frustrate congressional oversight and press scrutiny in a way that will avoid another major scandal.”
The final chance for exposing the Republican crimes of the 1980s fell to Bill Clinton after he defeated President George H.W. Bush in 1992.
Before leaving office, however, Bush-41 torpedoed the ongoing Iran-Contra criminal investigation by issuing six pardons, including one to former Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger whose cover-up trial was set to begin in early 1993.
Special prosecutor Walsh – a lifelong Republican albeit from the old Eisenhower wing of the party – denounced the pardons as another obstruction of justice. "George Bush's misuse of the pardon power made the cover-up complete," Walsh later wrote in his book Firewall.
However, the Iran-Contra investigation was not yet dead. Indeed, Walsh was considering empanelling a new grand jury. Walsh also had come to suspect that the origins of the scandal traced back to the October Surprise of 1980, with his investigators questioning former CIA officer Donald Gregg about his alleged role in that prequel to Iran-Contra.
The new Democratic President could have helped Walsh by declassifying key documents that the Reagan-Bush-41 team had withheld from various investigations. But Clinton followed advice from Hamilton and other senior Democrats who feared stirring partisan anger among Republicans.
Later, in a May 1994 conversation with documentary filmmaker Stuart Sender, Clinton explained that he had opposed pursuing these Republican scandals because, according to Sender, “he was going to try to work with these guys, compromise, build working relationships. ...
“It seemed even at the time terribly naïve that these same Republicans were going to work with him if he backed off on congressional hearings or possible independent prosecutor investigations.” [See Parry’s Secrecy & Privilege.]
But the Democrats – like the battered wife who keeps hoping her abusive husband will change – found a different reality as the decade played out.
Rather than thanking Clinton, the Republicans bullied him with endless investigations about his family finances, the ethics of his appointees – and his personal morality, ultimately impeaching him in 1998 for lying about a sexual affair (though he survived the Senate trial in 1999).
After the impeachment battle, the Republicans – joined by both the right-wing and mainstream news media – kept battering Clinton and his heir apparent, Vice President Al Gore, who was mocked for his choice of clothing and denounced for his supposed exaggerations.
Though Gore still managed to win the popular vote in Election 2000 and apparently would have prevailed if all legally cast votes had been counted in Florida, the Republicans made clear that wasn’t going to happen, even dispatching rioters from Washington to disrupt a recount in Miami.
George W. Bush’s bullying victory – which was finalized by five Republican partisans on the U.S. Supreme Court – was met with polite acceptance by the Democrats who again seemed to hope for the best from the newly empowered Republicans. [For details on Election 2000, see our book, Neck Deep.]
Instead, after the 9/11 attacks, Bush-43 grabbed unprecedented powers; he authorized torture and warrantless wiretaps; he pressured Democrats into accepting an unprovoked war in Iraq; and he sought to damage his critics, such as former Ambassador Joseph Wilson.
Now, after eight destructive years, the Democrats have again gained control of the White House and Congress, but they seem intent on once more not provoking the Republicans, rather than holding them accountable.
Though President Barack Obama has released some of the key documents underpinning Bush-43’s actions, he opposes any formal commission of inquiry and has discouraged any prosecutions for violations of federal law. Obama has said he wants “to look forward as opposed to looking backward.”
In dismissing the idea of a “truth and reconciliation commission,” Obama also recognizes that the Republicans would show no remorse for the Bush administration’s actions; that they would insist that there is nothing to “reconcile”; and that they would stay on the attack, pummeling the Democrats as weak, overly sympathetic to terrorists, and endangering national security.
On Thursday, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs admitted as much, saying that Obama rejected the idea of a bipartisan “truth commission” because it was apparent that there was no feasible way to get the Republicans to be bipartisan.
“The President determined the concept didn’t seem altogether workable in this case,” Gibbs said, citing the partisan atmosphere that already has surrounded the torture issue. “The last few days might be evidence of why something like this might just become a political back and forth.”
In other words, the Republicans are rousing themselves from the couch and getting angry, while the Democrats are prancing about, hands out front, trying to calm things down and avoid a confrontation.
The Democrats hope against hope that if they tolerate the latest Republican outrages maybe there will be some reciprocity, maybe there will be some GOP votes on Democratic policy initiatives.
But there’s no logical reason to think so. That isn’t how the Republicans and their right-wing media allies do things; they simply get angrier because belligerence has worked so well for so long.
On the other hand, Democratic wishful thinking is the essence of this political “battered wife syndrome,” dreaming about a behavioral transformation when all the evidence – and four decades of experience – tell you that the bullying husband isn’t going to change.
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there. Or go to Amazon.com.
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This story was published on April 26, 2009.