Unless you’re a member of the Bush Family or some other well-connected Republican, it’s not advised that you try the alibis that cleared Ronald Reagan’s campaign in the 1980 October Surprise case. You also would need to make sure that the “investigators” were lame-brained or weak-kneed Democrats.
For instance, if you’re suspected of being at the scene of a crime, it probably wouldn’t work to use the alibi that someone wrote down your home phone number (supposedly “proving” that you were at home, even if the person didn’t actually reach you at home).
The police also aren’t likely to be impressed if your nephew recalls that his dead father phoned you on a specific day years earlier (when there are no records of the call and your faithful nephew had earlier offered a completely different alibi and backed away after it was proven to be false).
And definitely don’t try this one: Don’t tell the police that you have an alibi witness and will give them the name, but only if they agree never to speak with your witness; that they won't be allowed to check out your alibi. That one only works if you’re actually a member of the Bush Family.
In the world where most of us live, these “alibis” would not be considered very effective and indeed might make you look guiltier. The investigators also might get offended, thinking that you regard them as very stupid. [For the full details on these alibis, see “The Crazy October Surprise Debunking.”]
However, in Official Washington when the political desire is strong to get rid of some messy scandal, alibis of this sort will do just fine, as they did in dispensing with the nasty allegations that Ronald Reagan's campaign sabotaged President Jimmy Carter’s efforts to free 52 American hostages in Iran, a failure that paved the way for Reagan’s historic landslide in 1980.
When a congressional “investigation” swept those allegations under the rug a dozen years later, pretty much everyone was a winner: the Republicans protected the legacies of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush; the Democrats were spared a fierce battle and got praised for their “bipartisanship”; the news media didn’t have to master a complex set of facts; and the voters could go back to sleep.
The only real downside was that American history was miswritten and patterns were set. After all, if a political group becomes confident that it can get away with illegal dirty tricks and other crimes to gain and hold power, it is likely to repeat the process, again and again, knowing that the other actors will play their predictable roles as enablers.
In that sense, the failure of President Lyndon Johnson and his top aides to blow the whistle on Richard Nixon’s sabotage of the Vietnam peace talks in 1968 set the stage for the similar operation against President Jimmy Carter in 1980, involving some of the same operatives. Johnson's Defense Secretary Clark Clifford judged that the 1968 story was “so shocking” that its disclosure before the election would not “be good for the country.”
The success of the Reagan campaign's 1980 October Surprise gambit – undermining Carter on the Iranian hostages without getting caught – then opened the door to other clandestine operations, such as the Iran-Contra arms-for-hostage deals, protection of Nicaraguan contra drug traffickers, and secret military aid to Iraq’s Saddam Hussein.
Sliding away from those scandals in the late 1980s and early 1990s with only minimal damage filled the Republicans with even more confidence as they set about to steal the presidential election in 2000. As George W. Bush elbowed his way to the White House despite Al Gore getting more votes both nationally and in the key state of Florida, the Democrats (and the U.S. news media) again stepped aside.
I learned just recently that a top editor at one major U.S. newspaper opposed the idea of having an independent media examination of the Florida ballots because the discovery of a rightful Gore victory would have undercut Bush’s “legitimacy” and, thus, would not have been “good for the country.” In other words, this editor favored blissful ignorance over troubling reality.
That see-no-Bush-evil sentiment among news executives intensified after the 9/11 attacks, when the media “recount” actually did determine that if all ballots (considered legal under Florida law) had been counted Gore would have prevailed regardless of the standard used for the so-called “chads.”
Faced with that startling result – the wrong man was in the Oval Office – major U.S. news organizations (including the New York Times, the Washington Post and CNN) focused their stories on various hypothetical partial recounts that would have still left Bush slightly ahead. Supposedly for the “good of the country,” these major news outlets buried their own lede.
So, the reason that I have returned from time to time to excavate some of this political history is that I believe that recognizing the hard truth about how Republicans have gained power – and how the Democrats and the major news media have enabled this process – is a necessary first step toward correcting these political distortions and making democracy meaningful again.
Nixon’s tainted victory in 1968 and Reagan’s in 1980 also were not inconsequential events. Neither was George W. Bush’s reversal of the judgment of the American voters in 2000.
Nixon extended and expanded the Vietnam War for four additional years at the cost of a vast loss of human life there and profound social upheaval at home.
In the 1980s, Reagan lurched the United States off on a path that – three decades later – has gone a long way toward gutting the American middle class, delaying progress on alternative energy, and saddling the nation with an unsustainable debt. Reagan also made foreign policy decisions that permitted Pakistan to develop a nuclear bomb and strengthened the rise of Islamic fundamentalism as a supposed counterweight to communism.
Bush’s theft of the White House in 2000 guaranteed that the American people would have no reasonable route back from Reagan’s dead-end. The plight of the middle class worsened, action on climate change was forestalled, the debt deepened – all while the threat from Islamic fundamentalism was intensified by Bush’s authorization of torture, aggressive war and other abuses.
When the Bush-43 era finally ended in 2009, President Barack Obama again listened to the Democratic “wise men” and chose to “look forward, not backward” on Republican crimes. By doing so, Obama reinforced the dangerous pattern that has been the unacknowledged political history of the United States since 1968.
It has been the kind of false history that requires the investigative gymnastics that were on display with the alibis that cleared the Reagan campaign of the 1980 October Surprise case:
Writing down a person’s home phone number “proves” he’s at home; a relative conjuring up an uncorroborated memory of another phone call must be deemed “credible”; identifying an alibi witness but then barring investigators from questioning the witness isn’t suspicious.
Lawrence Barcella, who was the chief counsel to the congressional October Surprise investigation, has accused me of “cherry-picking” in noting the absurdity of these and other alibis, though they were at the heart of his debunking report. But Barcella has refused to “get into a point by point” defense of the alibis, either.
Barcella also has acknowledged that so much evidence of Republican guilt arrived late in his investigation that he believed that a three-month extension was needed to evaluate the new material. He told me that he recommended this extension to the investigation’s chairman, Rep. Lee Hamilton, D-Indiana, but Hamilton chose not to seek the extra time from a new Congress in 1993.
“I told you that Lee was sympathetic to my request to ask for an add'l 3 months, but felt it was quite unrealistic given a new Congress and new President [Bill Clinton],” Barcella wrote in an e-mail on July 30, 2010. “One of the most honest, straight shooters in Congress [Hamilton] told me we wouldn't be able to get a re-authorization.”
So, instead of fighting for a reauthorization, the Hamilton-led investigation simply wrapped up its business without tying down its loose ends.
The alibis, especially those for Reagan’s campaign chief William Casey and then-vice presidential candidate George H.W. Bush, became key pillars in the debunking. (In recent interviews, Hamilton has denied that Barcella asked him for a three-month extension of the investigation.)
Still, the political expediency reflected in not pushing the Republicans to extend the October Surprise inquiry (and similar decisions made by President Clinton not to release key documents regarding the Iran-Contra, Iraq-gate and contra-cocaine scandals) allowed the Republicans to craft their own history of the era, elevating Reagan to an iconic stature and salvaging the Bush Family legacy.
The price that the United States has paid for this neglectful approach toward an accurate writing of the nation’s recent history has been extraordinarily high – and continues. This November, Tea Party Republicans will invoke Reagan’s memory in pushing their anti-government message, and next year, a major national celebration will be held on the 100th anniversary of Reagan’s birth.
The wacky October Surprise “alibis” also remind us that not all Americans are equal. Some are so powerful and important that if they ever find themselves in a tight pinch, they can expect an “investigation” to turn logic on its head to establish their “innocence.”
[For the most detailed account of the October Surprise case, see Robert Parry’s Secrecy & Privilege. It's also available as part of a three-book package for a deeply discounted price.]
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 August 12, 2010.