INDIGNITY VOL. 3, NO. 39: Ronald Reagan held the hostages in Iran.


INDIGNITY VOL. 3, NO. 39: Ronald Reagan held the hostages in Iran.

How They Won One for the Gipper

THE NEW YORK Times reported today that the Texas politician Ben Barnes has confessed to accompanying former Texas Gov. John Connally on a secret tour of the Middle East in the summer of 1980, on which Connally asked an assortment of national leaders to tell Iran not to release the 52 American hostages who had been captured in the storming of the U.S. embassy in Tehran in 1979.

The plan, reportedly carried out in consultation with Ronald Reagan's presidential campaign director William Casey—who would go on to run the CIA under Reagan—was to ensure that Iran would hold the hostages past Election Day, to keep President Jimmy Carter from winning reelection. The Times described Connally's message:

Don’t release the hostages before the election. Mr. Reagan will win and give you a better deal.

The hostages were taken on November 4, 1979; the presidential election was on November 4, 1980. Seventy-seven more days after that, the hostages were released. As the Times recounted:

Iran did hold the hostages until after the election, which Mr. Reagan won, and did not release them until minutes after noon on Jan. 20, 1981, when Mr. Carter left office.

This was all extremely obvious in 1981. I was nine years old when I heard the news of the release and I remember asking my elementary school librarian why people weren't acknowledging that Iran had done this on Reagan's behalf. It seemed like it should have been a big deal that the Bad Guys who'd dominated the news for more than a year were so clearly on the side of the new president, yet it wasn't.

I don't remember what the librarian said back, but I stayed dissatisfied about it for the rest of my life—even more so when it turned out that the Reagan administration was trading arms to the Iranians to illegally raise money for right-wing death squads in Nicaragua. The United States government and media were very clear that Iran was our national enemy, and we were supporting Iraq in the Iran–Iraq war, yet behind the scenes Ronald Reagan was in league with the Iranians, and always had been.

The whole concept of "corruption" requires that there be some existing standard that could be corrupted. Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger secretly lobbied the South Vietnamese to sabotage peace talks in 1968 for the sake of helping Nixon win the election over Vice-President Hubert Humphrey, at the minor cost of guaranteeing the Vietnam War would continue indefinitely. In 1974, Nixon agreed to resign and make Gerald Ford president, in exchange for Ford pardoning Nixon for Watergate and any other crimes he might have done. In 1992, after losing his attempt at reelection, President George H. W. Bush pardoned Caspar Weinberger and five other Reagan officials for their participation in the Iran–Contra scandal, preventing his own role in the crimes from being aired at Weinberger's scheduled trial.

The Times story about Connally's effort to keep the hostages in Iran to support the Reagan campaign notes that Congress investigated one version of the bargain theory, that Casey had personally cut a deal with the Iranians in Madrid, and concluded that that specific version of events hadn't happened. The version that Barnes now says did happen never came up:

Michael F. Zeldin, a Democratic lawyer for the task force, and David H. Laufman, a Republican lawyer for the task force, both said in recent interviews that Mr. Connally never crossed their radar screen during the inquiry and so they had no basis to judge Mr. Barnes’s account.

Barnes came forward now, according to the Times, because Carter is in hospice care, and Barnes wanted to tell the story before Carter dies. “I just want history to reflect that Carter got a little bit of a bad deal about the hostages,” the Times quoted him as saying.

The hostages also got a bad deal out of it. Former Newsweek correspondent Elaine Shannon tweeted that after the release, Carter's aides learned the hostages "had been falsely told he hadn’t tried to free them."

Judging by Barnes' account, at least 17 percent of their captivity—the 77 days between Reagan's election and inauguration, to say nothing of the months between Connally's tour and the election—served only to burnish Reagan's standing at Carter's expense. They were directly held hostage for the sake of Ronald Reagan's public relations.

Due to a production error (we’re not gonna say whose, but their initials are Joe MacLeod), yesterday's edition of Indignity failed to include the Indignity Morning Podcast, which we are including below. We (not gonna say who, but their initials are Tom Scocca) also used the wrong volume number; it should have been Vol. 3, No. 38, not Vol. 2, No. 38, which was a very good discussion about automobile culture with special guest Alex Pareene, published in May of last year.

Indignity Morning Podcast No. 32: Happy Evacuation Day.
Listen now (5 min) | The Indignity Morning Podcast is also available via the Apple and Spotify platforms. PRODUCTION NOTE: We made it louder today.