Iran-Contra: The Mystery Solved

Turmoil and Triumph: My Years as Secretary of State

by George P. Shultz
Scribner’s, 1,184 pp., $30.00

Fourth Interim Report to Congress

by Lawrence E. Walsh. Independent Counsel for Iran/Contra Matters

With Reagan: The Inside Story

by Edwin Meese III
Regnery Gateway, 362 pp., $24.95


Like Secretary of State George Shultz, Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger strongly opposed the policy of trading arms for hostages when that policy came up for discussion on December 7, 1985, and January 7, 1986. Afterward, however, Weinberger took a different path. As in the case of Shultz, but in his own way, Weinberger raises a peculiarly American problem.

What should a leading member of an administration do if he opposes a policy which he considers to be disastrous to the interests of the country? After January 7, 1986, Weinberger starkly faced this question.

Much attention has been paid to the charges of Lawrence Walsh, the independent counsel, about what Weinberger knew but did not reveal to Congress. This claim about Weinberger’s behavior was made possible by the discovery of his voluminous notes and diaries in the Library of Congress. Unfortunately, former President George Bush’s pardon of Weinberger cut short the legal process whereby Walsh’s evidence could have been presented in court and Weinberger could have had the opportunity to explain his words and actions.

My main interest is not the same as that of the independent counsel. He was interested in establishing conflicts between what Weinberger knew and what he said he knew, and for this purpose he produced those notes and diaries. I am more interested in what they tell us about the events themselves and Weinberger’s part in them.

We already had one version from Weinberger. In 1990, he published a book, Fighting for Peace, in which he has a chapter on “Iran and the Hostages.” These pages can only be described as a travesty of the events. Weinberger made former National Security Adviser Robert McFarlane almost wholly responsible for all that went wrong. But McFarlane had resigned in December 1985. Most of the deals and the “diversion” to the contras had taken place in 1986 under his successor, Admiral John Poindexter, who barely gets mentioned. According to Weinberger, President Reagan was merely an innocent victim of McFarlane’s machinations, whereas Shultz in his book Turmoil and Triumph had made him a victim of Poindexter’s. As for his own role, after telling about his opposition on December 7, 1985, and January 7, 1986, Weinberger has little to say about himself—with one notable exception.

In January 1986, the Defense Department was told to provide arms to Iran. Weinberger objected on the ground that a direct transfer violated the Arms Export Control Act and he insisted that the arms had to go through the CIA. When he had his way, he cooperated in the slightly more roundabout route. In his book, he revealed that he had “seriously contemplated resignation” when Admiral Poindexter informed him that President Reagan had approved the transfer through the CIA. But he did not resign, ostensibly because the transaction was secret, and he could not “have been able to make any kind of a statement that would be effective in stopping the operation.”1

Both Weinberger and Shultz basically opposed the operation for much the same reason—that it violated the publicly announced policy of “not ransoming hostages,” especially by trading arms for them, directly or indirectly. Both were especially troubled by the duplicity of conducting a secret operation to deliver arms to Iran, while, as Shultz puts it, we “preached to and pressured” other governments not to do what we were doing. Weinberger believed that it “could only bring great harm and damage to the President and America.” Shultz was convinced that it had “a crushing impact” on his conduct of foreign policy.2 For both, this was not an ordinary political dispute; it was a choice between what was good and what was disastrous for the country.

Instead of resigning, Weinberger gave up the struggle against the operation. He made himself an accessory by legalistically preferring one way of getting the missiles to Iran to another. Nothing could have shaken President Reagan’s determination to go through with the transfer of arms to Iran more than the resignation of his secretary of defense or secretary of state, and especially both. Once Weinberger decided to stifle his qualms, he became a hostage to a policy that he says he detested and which greatly harmed the country. By contemplating resignation, he clearly recognized that he was being told to violate his deepest convictions. Yet, when he had to choose between his loyalties and his conscience, his conscience did not win out. It prevails so rarely in American politics that one is not even surprised by his choice.

Weinberger opened himself to one of Walsh’s counts against him by denying in his testimony to Congress that he had known about the November 1985 arms-for-hostages operation. His notes published in Walsh’s Fourth Interim Report to Congress show that he was kept closely informed by McFarlane and immediately objected. A note on November 9, 1985, reads in part:

Bud McFarlane…wants to start negot[iations]. Exploration with Iranians (& Israelis) to give Iranian weapons for our hostages—I objected.3

This statement is typical of the evidence Walsh wanted to use in his case against Weinberger, which hinged on what the latter denied he knew. On December 10, 1985, three days after the meeting at which he registered his strong opposition, Weinberger attended another meeting at the White House at which McFarlane reported in detail on options for rescuing the hostages. Weinberger made a note:

President—worried about hostages—let Israelis go ahead with arms sales—we’ll get hostages back.4

From this, it is clear that Weinberger had no illusions about Reagan’s backing of an arms-for-hostages deal, though at this early stage the President wanted to do it through Israel. Except for his objection to a direct delivery to Iran, which he considered to be illegal, Weinberger went along as a good soldier taking orders from above. The haunting question is whether someone in his position should have taken the easy way out and for months merely relapsed into silence.

Once Weinberger decided to stay on, he deliberately stayed out of the line of fire until the arms deal with Iran was publicly revealed by a Lebanese weekly, Al-Shiraa, on November 3, 1986. From then on, we can pick up his trail again and see how he reacted to the ensuing crisis.

On November 5, 1986, Weinberger made the following note in his diary:

Called John Poindexter—Shultz has suggested “telling all” on attempts to deal with Iran to get their help—strongly objected. I said we should simply say nothing—John agrees.5

At this point, then, Weinberger and Shultz went their separate ways. Walsh carefully excludes Weinberger from those who conspired to cover up the shipment of HAWK missiles to Iran in November 1985. Instead, Walsh accuses Weinberger of attending a meeting on November 10, 1986, at which Poindexter told a cock-and-bull story about the early deals with Iran. Weinberger is said to have known that it was false but said nothing. It was at this meeting that Shultz began to raise inconvenient questions and finally settled for the omission of one word in the collective statement, changing “unanimous support for the President’s decision” to “unanimous support for the President.” On this occasion, Weinberger’s comments were marginal. Afterward, Weinberger and Shultz discussed the situation at lunch. Shultz reported to Charles Hill, his executive assistant, “He sort of supports me. But not vehemently.”6

Weinberger and Shultz then drew further and further apart. On November 16, Weinberger told Poindexter that Shultz was “distancing himself” from the Iran arms sales—noteworthy only because Weinberger was not distancing himself.7 On the same day, Shultz reluctantly admitted in a television program that he did not speak for the administration. As a result, he had to make up his mind whether to resign. On November 19, Shultz told Reagan, “I can’t exist as Secretary of State in this environment.” Notes made by Charles Hill that day are headed “Shultz to Resign?” Hill wrote: “White House aides furious with Shultz but fear his resignation would make it worse.” Shultz himself said: “I see no alternative to resigning.” But when the press picked up a rumor that Shultz had resigned, he held back: “I’m still Secretary of State, as of now.”8

Shultz, as we have seen, appeased his conscience by telling himself that he had the mission of saving Reagan from himself. This rationale made it possible for Shultz to avoid going through with his many threatened resignations, despite his repeated failure to convince Reagan that he was being misled and deceived.

While Shultz labored in vain after November 10, 1986, Weinberger increasingly separated himself from Shultz. When Shultz advocated coming out with the story of the deals, Weinberger moved over to the side of Poindexter, who adamantly resisted making any public accounting. On November 21, Weinberger met with the President and Poindexter, and Weinberger noted in his diary: “Also re Iran—I urged that we all stop talking about it.”9 Earlier that same day, Weinberger received a telephone call from William P. Clark, one of Reagan’s intimates, the former national security adviser and then secretary of the interior. Clark, Weinberger noted, “wants me to be Secretary of State & if he’d come back as NSC adviser to President.” 10

As the crisis proceeded inexorably toward a climax, Weinberger continued to say nothing to displease Reagan. On November 24, 1986, at the last top-level meeting before Meese’s revelations the next day, Weinberger let Shultz do all the dissenting. Shultz reported testily: “Cap [Weinberger] talked for a long time, but I was the only one who challenged it.”11

Weinberger and Shultz were the only leading officials who offered any opposition to the arms-for-hostages deals. They were unable to stop them, Shultz because he failed to convince Reagan, Weinberger because he stopped trying. Once he decided to favor loyalty at the expense of conscience, Weinberger took the line that the whole thing would go away if everyone simply stopped talking about it. It did not go away, and for almost a year he did nothing to make it go away.12


Reagan’s attorney general, Edwin Meese III, has two chapters on the Iran-contra affairs in his new book, With Reagan: The Inside Story. According to him, the policy was perfectly legal and constitutionally unassailable. He offers little of substantive value to our knowledge of the affairs, and the chief interest in his book is the way he goes about defending the indefensible.

Meese rests his case mainly on the claim that the arms-for-hostages deals were indirect. Thus Meese pleads that the President was “dealing, not with the hostage takers, but with third parties who had a degree of influence over them.”

In fact, Meese cites me as authority for the statement that “the Americans had to negotiate with the Iranians, and the Iranians with the Lebanese.”13 But he neglects to mention, as I also pointed out, that this three-way negotiation only emerged in May 1986, almost a year after the first deal with Iran through Israel, during the illfated McFarlane-led mission to Tehran. Until then, I wrote, the Americans “had been working on the premise that the hostages were Iran’s to release, or at least that Iran had enough influence with the Lebanese captors to get them released if Iran was paid enough.”14 They continued to work on this premise after May 1986, because it was still an arms-for-hostages deal whether or not the payment went to Iran or to the hostage takers.

Meese’s version of the November 1985 abortive arms-for-hostages deal immediately gets him into trouble. The delivery of the missiles to Iran was entrusted to a CIA “proprietary” airline in Frankfurt, West Germany.15 The unauthorized use of the proprietary airline caused John N. McMahon, the CIA deputy director, to insist on a presidential Finding. Meese’s problem is to explain what the CIA had to do with the operation.16

Meese’s first move is to maintain, on page 266, that “there was no operational involvement by the CIA.” But he cannot hold onto this act of denial for even a paragraph. Four lines down, “no operational involvement” becomes a “peripheral involvement.” And in a footnote on the next page, “peripheral involvement” becomes “the marginal nature of the agency’s involvement.”

The agency’s involvement was neither peripheral nor marginal, because its ownership of the airline was neither peripheral nor marginal. The CIA owned it lock, stock, and barrel, which was the reason it could give orders to its management, even for so dangerous a mission as the transport of missiles from Israel to Iran.

This dodge is of a piece with Meese’s other mystifications about the “indirect” dealings with Iran, which is his chief expedient for getting the administration off the hook in its dealings with Iran. Anything that can be used, however specious, to get around the law and the Constitution was good enough for this chief law-enforcement official of the government, even retrospectively. In fact, the CIA was up to its collective neck in both the Iran and contra affairs. Oliver North could not have managed without the support of the CIA and approval of Director William Casey. Typically, North went to the CIA to get the proprietary airline to deliver the missiles when the Israelis were unable to do the job. Casey brought George Cave, the CIA’s Farsi-speaking expert, out of retirement to help North, and authorized two of his top officials, Charles E. Allen, the National Intelligence Officer, and Tom Twetten, the deputy chief of the Near East Division, to work closely with North.

Meese’s book is another indication of a persistent weakness in the American system of government. Attorney generals have traditionally been appointed to protect the political rear of the presidents who appoint them, not to hold presidents to the highest standards of conduct and legality. Meese is a particularly egregious example of the type, and he has written a book to prove it.


New light has also been cast on the role of Vice-President Bush, whose diary entries on the Iran-contra matter were made public by Walsh in February.

Bush could have saved himself much trouble if he had not taken fright and denied so much. The vice-presidency is not an operational job, and this vice-president could not have hoped to get Reagan’s imprimatur to succeed him if he had shown any independence of Reagan’s policies. Everything we know about Bush’s performance as vice-president indicates that he saw his role as Reagan’s yes-man. Yet Bush could not resist running for cover as soon as he realized that any implication in the arms-for-hostages deals might tarnish his reputation and endanger his subsequent candidacy. His political instinct told him to remove himself as far as possible from the scene of the crime as a way of establishing his innocence.

Shultz takes particular satisfaction in reminding his readers of what Bush told David Broder in The Washington Post of August 6, 1987:

If I had sat there and heard George Shultz and Cap [Weinberger] express it [opposition to Iran arms sales] strongly, maybe I would have had a stronger view. But when you don’t know something, it’s hard to react…. We were not in the loop.17

Shultz and Weinberger reacted to this with disbelief. Shultz told his staff:

VP [Bush] in papers yesterday said he [was] not exposed to Cap or my arguments on Iran arms. Cap called me and said that’s terrible. He was on the other side. It’s on the record. Why did he say that?18

It is on the record that Bush was present at the meeting on January 7, 1986, at which Shultz and Weinberger had unsuccessfully opposed the arms-for-hostages plan. That Bush had favored the plan had been previously reported by Shultz,19 but we now have confirmation from Weinberger’s diary:

Met with President, Shultz, Poindexter, Bill Casey, Ed Meese in Oval Office—President decided to go with Israeli-Iranian offer to release our 5 hostages in return for the sale of 4000 TOWs to Iran by Israel—George Shultz and I opposed—Bill Casey, Ed Meese and VP [Bush] favored—as did Poindexter.20

It is on the record that Reagan, Bush, and the chief of staff met every morning at 9 AM, and Reagan, Bush, and the national security adviser met at 9:30 AM, whenever Bush was in Washington, which was most of the time. At these meetings Reagan invariably brought up the hostages.21 Amiram Nir, the Israeli go-between, had fully briefed Bush in Jerusalem in July 1986. Characteristically, Bush later claimed that he had not understood what Nir had been talking about, though there is a detailed account of Nir’s briefing by Craig L. Fuller, Bush’s chief of staff, who had no difficulty understanding what Nir had been talking about.

The new material enables us to get a better understanding of Bush’s pathetic effort to escape responsibility by claiming that he had not known of Shultz’s and Weinberger’s opposition to the Iran arms sales and that he had not been “in the loop.” The forty-five pages of extracts from the diary kept by Bush from November 4, 1986, to January 2, 1987, that is, from the first public revelations in the Lebanese magazine Al-Shiraa to the denouement in Washington, afford more insight into what Bush knew and what he tried to cover up.

The mission to Tehran in May 1986 by McFarlane’s group was so secret that nothing had leaked out until it was revealed in the article in Al-Shiraa on November 3, 1986. On November 5, Bush wrote in his diary:

On the news at this time is the question of hostages. There is some discussion of Bud McFarlane having been held prisoner in Iran for 4 days. I’m one of the few people that know fully the details, and there is a lot of flack and mis-information out there. It is not a subject we can talk about.

If Bush was one of the few people who knew fully about this ultrasecret mission, he could not have been as completely “out of the loop” as he later pretended to have been.

On November 7, 1986, Prince Bandar bin Sultan came to see Bush. The Saudi ambassador was worried that US policy might have changed as a result of the shock brought about by the Al-Shiraa story. Bush’s diary for that date reads in part:

The Saudi Arabian Ambassador, Bandar, came in to see me, and…his majesty wanted to know exactly if there was some shift in our policy with Iran. I assured him that there was no shift in our policy—no change.

If Bush took it upon himself to give such assurances to Bandar, he was clearly privy to all or at least enough of what had been going on in the administration’s highest circles. In fact, it is significant that Bandar should have sought out Bush for an answer.

On November 9, 1986, Shultz came to see Bush who was “concerned about talk that he [Shultz] might resign.” Bush knew that Shultz felt “cut out.” Shultz advised Bush not to “get involved in this.” Shultz gave Bush this advice because he “does not want this to rub off on me for the…run for the Presidency.” The next day Bush told Reagan about his meeting with Shultz. Shultz, said Bush, “thought a lot of things were happening that, in my view, were not happening…on this Iran deal.” Bush found that Reagan was “very suspicious of the State Department bureaucracy….wondered if perhaps the State Department people were perhaps playing games and trying to undermine the policy.” In effect, Bush gratuitously reinforced Reagan’s self-induced belief that nothing that troubled Shultz was happening.

By this time, November 10, 1986, Bush, who had never before expressed any opposition to the arms-for-hostages policy, knew enough to confide to his diary: “But, though I don’t like the concept of arms for hostages, there is enough removal on this and enough good things, such as the release of the hostages and contact with moderates, will in the long run,—in my view—off-set this.” The “contact with moderates” in Iran was a myth, about which Bush should have known better by this time.22 This reflection shows Bush’s main concern—how the arms-for-hostages policy might be offset by “enough removal” on his part.

Bush’s diary confirms how secretive Reagan had been in carrying out the sale of arms to Iran, which had required the Finding of January 17, 1986. This Finding had been kept from Shultz and Weinberger, but the entry in Bush’s diary for November 12, 1986, claims that he had also been unaware of it:

I am now a little concerned about the finding…who knew what when. Apparently there was some meeting in the residence that I did not go to where the plan was devised. But then the “finding” thing is strange…. It should not be done leaving some in and some out….

By November 13, 1986, Bush was self-righteously indignant about how Reagan was handling the disclosure of the Iran arms policy, especially the effort on November 10 to make everyone stand up and be counted in Reagan’s support. Bush now feared the worst, and wrote as if he could be dragged down with the rest—a threat which made him feel that things should have been done differently:

There’s tension between the various players…a tendency to say everybody knew it when Shultz himself has felt clued out. I am urging being very careful of what is said…not trying to say the whole Cabinet was involved, when they weren’t. Not trying to put the facts beyond where they are. I remember Watergate. I remember the way things oozed out. It is important to be level, to be honest, to be direct. We are not to say anything. The damn gates are open. Everybody is making judgments based on erroneous information and it is a flood of wrong facts coming out. It really is hemorrhaging and the President now is going with his speech.

He also saw fit to associate himself with Shultz’s demand for full disclosure, at least in the privacy of his diary:

I keep urging total disclosure, and not making statements that are not accurate. I know George Shultz feels this way. Also, being sure that our mechanical procedures inside the White House are proper. It leads me to feel, again, certainly for the future, that we should not have CIA Director as part of the Cabinet; that all findings should be properly found.

All this was implicitly critical of Reagan’s way of doing things. Yet, at the meeting on November 10, 1986, three days earlier, when Bush had had the opportunity to say something in support of Shultz, he had said nothing and permitted Shultz to be “the problem child,” as Shultz called himself.23 It was as if there were two Bushes—one who set down proper thoughts in his diary and another who did nothing to carry them out in practice.

Increasingly, Shultz’s defection occupied Bush’s diary. On November 17, Bush wrote, Chief of Staff Regan

leaned over [in a helicopter] and said Shultz isn’t on board on this Iran. I called him today to see what he meant and he said that Shultz wanted to come out and say, “Well, from now on, it would all be done in the State Department and no more arms of any kind to Iran.” Regan’s point is that this makes the President look like he was “wrong”…. I’m not sure that we’ve [seen the] end of all of this. 24

Bush’s references to the President continued to be both ambivalent and protective. On November 19, he again met with Reagan alone, “encouraging him to iron out the difficulties with Shultz and the White House.” He thought that Reagan did “very well” in his press conference that day, which was in fact the most disastrous of his presidency. At this point, Bush confided that he was more self-protective of himself than of Reagan: “My gut instinct is to rise to Reagan’s defense and jump into the fray. But, you don’t want to shout into a hurricane. You want to say something that can be effective.” He may have wanted to, but he never said it.

Repeatedly, Bush could not decide whether he wanted to “jump into the fray” or not. On November 21, Bush learned about a meeting attended by Reagan, Meese, Poindexter, and Regan, “excluding me.” He could not make up his mind whether to be sad or glad:

I am a statutory member. I am the one guy that can give the President objective advice and I have felt a twinge as to why the hell they didn’t include me, but, on the other hand, you wind up not dragged into the mess. The other hand to that is you can’t give the President proper advice.

In succeeding days, the main problem for Bush was how best to disentangle himself from the increasing furor. He was torn between three courses of action—backing Reagan all the way, saying nothing, and giving himself an alibi as having been “out of the loop.” Increasingly, he saw that his best bet was the last. He apparently made up his mind on December 20, 1986, at a briefing by Senator David Durenberger, the chairman, and Bernard McMahon, the staff director of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. By this time they had accumulated a good deal of data on the Iran-contra affairs, some of it unknown to Bush. In his diary for that day, he confided: “I told Boyden Gray [the White House counsel] afterward that it almost appears that there was a deliberate effort to keep me out of the decision process.”

In fact, Bush knew a good deal, if not everything. He had not been out of the loop; he had not been in all of it. After the diversion to the contras became the obsessive aspect of the affair, he was safe in protesting that he had not known about it, since it was the most closely held secret of the entire deal-making process. But not having been let in on the diversion was exceptional. He had not attended all the high-level meetings, but that was not the same as saying that he had not attended any—or enough—of them.

Once he found what he thought was the best way out of his dilemma, Bush pushed it too far. When he claimed that he did not know of the “serious doubts” about the Iran initiative by Shultz and Weinberger, they knew that something was seriously wrong. Even his reference to Durenberger’s briefing was cagily worded—it was, he wrote, “my first real chance to see the picture as a whole.”25 He may not have seen the picture as a whole before; few did; but he had undoubtedly seen enough of the picture to recognize it for what it was.

Once he adopted a defensive strategy, he began to emphasize how little power vice presidents had. Even on this score, he was caught in an embarrassing predicament, because he had boasted that he was not the usual vice-presidential nonentity. He lamented in his diary on January 1, 1987:

The irony is that everyone says that the Vice President has no power, and yet I am the one damaged…he’s not in on the decisions, etc.—and yet, having said that I have better access—I am diminished.

Bush talked to “Jimmy Baker” about his problem—wanting to help the President and wanting to stay out of trouble. Bush flirted with the idea of telling Reagan to admit that a mistake had been made. Baker advised him not to do it: “He thinks it will drag me into something that I have not been dragged into.”

Bush was mainly afraid of the rightwing press. He recorded that the first time he had been linked to the Iran-contra mess was by Ralph Hallo, “a horrible fellow, a right-wing guy from the Washington Times.” Hallo had merely wondered what Bush knew and when he knew it, but Bush thought he knew what was behind this stab in the dark: “In my view, the right-wingers are going to try to see if I’m going to try to separate from the President.” Finally, after days of wavering about his best course of action, Bush made up his mind on November 21, 1986:

In fact, frankly, I just don’t think you can go out and separate from Reagan in this thing, although some would like to see you do it. And although there would be some short-run affirmation of character, if I would go out and say well, I’ve thought of this and I can no longer remain silent. I must go out and say, “I think what’s happened is dispicable [sic] and never should have happened in the first place.” I’m not about to start that. I don’t believe it. I think that the President must know that he can have the Vice President for him and he must not think that he has to look over his shoulder. So, there’s where it is.

On November 24, Bush learned about the “diversion” from Meese. Afterward, twelve press calls came in asking Bush what he thought of the whole thing, what advice did he give? To which Bush characteristically told his diary: “Thank God, I’ve consistently said that I don’t discuss what I tell the President or if I support the President.” He was determined to answer “no comment” because “the President has asked us to shut up and that is exactly what is happening.”

November 25 was the day of Meese’s fatal press conference, in which he revealed the diversion. Bush had stayed up all night thinking of Meese’s bombshell about the diversion. Later that day, he advised Reagan that “Regan should go, Shultz should go.” Apparently Bush preferred Shultz to go instead of Poindexter, whom Bush did not blame. Bush later called Poindexter and North, who had been most responsible for managing the disaster, to say good-bye, because he considered them to be “patriots—both decent and honorable men. Both walking the plank.” This tribute apparently meant that Bush believed they were not primarily responsible for the scandal; they were walking the plank for someone else.

After this, Bush ruminated about his role and what the affair might do to his reputation. People, he knew, hoped that he would give advice to the President. “I do,” he told himself, “but often, he does not take it.” Then he comforted himself with these reflections:

Not sure where I fit in or don’t fit in. Most think it is a real downer. But, my view is that you’ve got to take the good with the bad. You can’t fine tune the opportunities. You can’t jump sideways. So, you’ve got to weather the storm. Establish what you do and when. Then, trying to weather the storm, people will say well, why didn’t you do something about it? People not recognizing always that Vice Presidents don’t always have chances to “do something” about anything, given the myth about Vice Presidents. Then, something like this comes along and comes the crunch.

With these commonplace thoughts, Bush prepared to run for president in 1988. No doubt his victory gave him reason to believe that he had done the right thing in 1986 and that remaining silent had paid off. Like Weinberger, he had found a rationale for avoiding the unpleasant duty of standing up for what he believed and making an effort to get Reagan to “do something about it.” His diary of those anguished days in November 1986 provides an unrivaled insight into his character and mentality.


In this drama, George Bush was like a bit player who suddenly had to improve his lines as he went along. Ronald Reagan was the star who seemed not to know what his role was.

Reagan’s performance as “The Man Who Didn’t Know” was played out before the “Tower Board,” which was first appointed to look into the Iran-contra affairs.26 When he was asked about the key decision in July 1985 to sell arms to Iran through Israel, he gave three different answers—yes, no, and he simply couldn’t remember. The Tower report paid off by treating Reagan very gently—his “management style,” not his political decisions, was at fault, and the chief villain of the piece for this audience turned out to be Chief of Staff Donald Regan, not his superior.

This portrayal of how Reagan avoided assuming responsibility seemed to be typical of his befuddlement. Yet this characterization was later spoiled by Reagan himself. In his autobiography, published in 1990, he told of the same incident in July 1985 in considerable detail without any hint of uncertainty or confusion.27

His autobiography also cleared up a misunderstanding of the top-level meeting on December 7, 1985—the one that had Shultz and Weinberger thinking they had stopped the sale of weapons to Iran. Instead, Reagan revealed that he had felt “inside” that the initiative with Iran should go on.28 Reagan was even more forthcoming about the second meeting on January 7, 1986, at which Shultz and Weinberger had again argued against the plan to woo Iran with arms. As Reagan put it, Weinberger and Shultz had “argued forcefully that I was wrong, but I just put my foot down.29

Reagan does not present himself as anyone’s puppet or pushover. In fact, Shultz and Weinberger later agreed that Reagan was quite capable of putting his foot down, of making the key decisions, at least on those matters which interested him—and nothing interested him more than the fate of the hostages in Lebanon, which was tied up with arms for Iran. “He is decisive,” Shultz said at the congressional hearings, “he steps up to things, and when once he had made up his mind about something that touched him deeply, he decides, he stays with it. And sometimes you wish he wouldn’t, but anyway, he does.” 30 Weinberger stated that Reagan “has his own judgments and his own ideas, and he’s going to listen to advice and he’s going to listen to recommendations, but he’s not always going to follow them.”31

It is undoubtedly true that Reagan had no head for details. He made decisions and airily left them to subordinates to carry out, without bothering himself about just how they were going about it. Poindexter, who dealt with him throughout 1986, testified that Reagan was “not a man for great detail.” Poindexter explained that Reagan was very decisive “on some issues,” depending on whether “he is confident and has a strong feeling about something.”32 Bush agreed that details were not Reagan’s metier—“It doesn’t work that way with this President.”33

Perhaps the clearest description of Reagan’s executive style was given by Donald Regan, who was in the best position to know:

Never did he issue a direct order, although I, at least, sometimes devoutly wished that he would. He listened, acquiesced, played his role, and waited for the next act to be written. From the point of view of my own experience and nature, this was an altogether baffling way of doing things.34

It may have been baffling, but it effectively shielded Reagan from revealing what went on in his mind before making decisions. If he sensed any difference of opinion among his chief cabinet officers, he preferred to keep his own counsel and then disclose it privately and almost furtively to one of his subordinates, particularly his national security adviser, who never questioned whatever he was told to do. McFarlane, who was his national security adviser from 1983 through 1985, gave this account of Reagan’s method:

Generally speaking the president would reach decisions only at the time of a meeting only if there was unanimity. Where there was disagreement it was his habit almost never to make the decision there but to wait and then convey it to me later on.35

Reagan made up for lack of interest in details by taking an inordinate interest in a very limited number of policies about which he had only a hazy idea of what they entailed in practice. One of these policies happened to concern the release of the American hostages; it was like a button that Poindexter, who knew from daily contact with him how obsessive he was about the hostages, could press to get him to agree to almost anything that included them as part of a deal. Yet, he could make himself believe—or pretend to believe—that there was no deal, even though Poindexter could exclaim in his presence: “How else could we get the hostages out?”

If we can believe Shultz, Reagan resisted the plain truth for months, despite every effort Shultz made to get him to see it. If as Shultz told him, “You have been deceived and lied to,”36 how could a president be deceived and lied to for so long and at such great cost? But Shultz may have put the blame in the wrong place. The reason Poindexter, Casey, and Company had such a hold over Reagan is that they told him what he wanted to hear. If Shultz is right, it is scary to think that a president could be surrounded by people who systematically and successfully deceived and lied to him.

Shultz offers one additional insight into why Reagan could make a speech which showed that, as Shultz put it, he “did not believe that what had happened had, in fact, happened.”

He would go over the “script” of an event, past or present, in his mind, and once that script was mastered, that was the truth—no fact, no argument, no plea for reconsideration, could change his mind.

In effect, the grade-B pictures actor was still a grade-B pictures actor as president. He followed a script, because that was what he had learned to do. His span of attention was so limited that—Shultz adds—“when I tried to get him to focus on demanding issues elsewhere in the world—Soviet relations, arms control, the Middle East—he could not concentrate.”37

Curiously, though Shultz blames Poindexter and Casey, and Weinberger blames McFarlane, both Shultz and Weinberger once forgot themselves sufficiently to make Reagan the prime mover. In the first article, I cited the words in Shultz’s book: “Ultimately, the guy behind it, who got it going, and the only guy who can stop it, was and is Ronald Reagan.” In his congressional testimony, Weinberger was asked who had made the best argument for selling arms to Iran. He answered quietly: “Perhaps the President.”38

There is no longer a mystery about who was responsible for the arms-for-hostage deals. It was the President of the United States.

This is the second part of a two-part article.

  1. 1

    Caspar Weinberger, Fighting for Peace (Warner, 1990), pp. 377, 383–384.

  2. 2

    Fighting for Peace, pp. 369, 383; Shultz, Turmoil and Triumph, p. 789.

  3. 3

    Walsh’s fourth interim report, Tab 38.

  4. 4

    Tab 47.

  5. 5

    Tab 48.

  6. 6

    Hill notes, November 10, 1986 (Tab 49).

  7. 7

    Tab 56.

  8. 8

    Hill notes (Tab 59).

  9. 9

    Weinberger diary, November 21, 1986 (Tab 61).

  10. 10

    Weinberger’s notes, November 21, 1986 (Tab 62).

  11. 11

    Hill notes, November 24, 1986 (Tab 69).

  12. 12

    One of Walsh’s tactics is bothersome. In his treatment of the meeting on November 24, 1986, Walsh complains about statements made by Poindexter and Meese that, Walsh says, Weinberger, Shultz, and others knew to be false but against which they did not object. This assertion of guilt by silence raises a troubling question. That Weinberger did not rise up at the meeting to disagree with or denounce Meese and Poindexter hardly seems to be a reason for making it part of a legal case against him. This line of attack rests on what Weinberger did not say rather than on what he did say. Yet Walsh goes from one to the other, as if they were equally malfeasant, and as if he were desperate to condemn Weinberger by any means, fair or flimsy.

  13. 13

    With Reagan, p. 260, from A Very Thin Line: The Iran-Contra Affairs (Hill and Wang, 1991), p. 322.

  14. 14

    A Very Thin Line, p. 322.

  15. 15

    A “proprietary” airline was one owned and controlled by the CIA but operated as if it were a straight commercial enterprise.

  16. 16

    A Hughes-Ryan amendment in 1974 required the president to “find” that a covert operation was “important to the national security of the United States.”

  17. 17

    Turmoil and Triumph, p. 809. Bush repeated this disclaimer of what he had heard from Shultz and Weinberger in his campaign autobiography, Looking Forward, published by Doubleday in 1987, adding, “I’d been deliberately excluded from key meetings involving details of the Iran operation” and had not a “real chance to see the picture as a whole” until briefed by Senator David Durenberger in December 1986 (pp. 238, 241–242).

  18. 18

    Hill notes, August 7, 1986 [Tab 2]. Shultz has a shorter version in his book, p. 809.

  19. 19

    Shultz later testified that “it was clear to me by the time we went out that the president, the vice president, the director of Central Intelligence [Casey], the attorney general [Meese], the chief of staff [Regan], the national security adviser [Poindexter] all had one opinion and I had a different one and Cap [Weinberger] shared it” (Report of the President’s Special Review Board [Tower Report], pp. B-63–64).

  20. 20

    Cited in Walsh’s fourth interim report, February 8, 1993, p. 21.

  21. 21

    Bush described this routine in his deposition to the Office of the Independent Counsel, January 11, 1988, released on January 15, 1993.

  22. 22

    Nir had already told Bush in July 1986 that “we are dealing with the most radical elements,” not alleged “moderates.” In a meeting with North in September 1986, the Iranian emissary, Bahramani, ostensibly Speaker Rafsanjani’s nephew, had represented himself as having come with the approval of the top Iranian leaders, not any “moderates.”

  23. 23

    Hill notes, November 10, 1986 (Tab 49).

  24. 24

    The date of this entry is somewhat confusing; it was made under the date of November 16, 1986, but mentions November 17 in the first line.

  25. 25

    Looking Forward, p. 238.

  26. 26

    It was formally called the Special Review Board, headed by former senator John Tower, with former secretary of state Edmund Muskie and former national security advisor Brent Scowcroft.

  27. 27

    Ronald Reagan, An American Life (Simon and Schuster, 1990), pp. 504–505.

  28. 28

    An American Life, pp. 510–513.

  29. 29

    An American Life, pp. 516–517.

  30. 30

    Congressional Hearings, Vol. 100-9, p. 63.

  31. 31

    Congressional Hearings, Vol. 100-10, p. 247.

  32. 32

    Congressional Hearings, Vol. 100-8, pp. 42, 66, 89, 289.

  33. 33

    Bush’s deposition to the Office of Independent Counsel, January 11, 1988, p. 76.

  34. 34

    Donald T. Regan, For the Record (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1988), p. 268.

  35. 35

    Congressional Hearings, Vol. B-16, p. 22.

  36. 36

    Turmoil and Triumph, p. 827.

  37. 37

    Turmoil and Triumph, p. 819.

  38. 38

    Congressional Hearings, Vol. 100-10, p. 247.