Lawyers, Guns, and Money (with Jack Bryan)
The lessons of Iran-Contra
When news broke of the Iran-Contra scandal, I had just turned 14. In fact, Ronald Reagan’s first Oval Office address to the nation—in which he explained that his “purpose” in the imbroglio was “to send a signal that the United States was prepared to replace the animosity between [the US and Iran] with a new relationship”—took place on my fourteenth birthday.
I was too young, and too preoccupied by eighth grade concerns, to fully understand what was happening, or why it was important. But I remember paying some attention to the hearings the following summer, probably because Fawn Hall was involved. We were all down the shore with family we didn’t usually get to see, and my aunt—a sort of proto-Ginni Thomas type: opinionated, loud, staunchly conservative—was obsessed with the scandal. She wouldn’t shut up about it. In her view, Oliver North was a true American hero who was being railroaded by…she didn’t say “the Deep State,” but she may as well have. If my parents had opinions one way or the other, they kept quiet about them. Because my aunt was so all-in, I assumed she must be right. But after watching the hearings for not very long, I arrived at the opposite conclusion. North was an asshole, I decided; my aunt was fangirling over an arrogant criminal. Looking back now, I see that that summer was the beginning of my political awakening. Whatever my aunt was, I was the other thing.
The characters of Iran-Contra remain vivid in my memory, if only as names recited by news anchors the summer before my freshman year of high school: North, Hall, Poindexter, Weinberger, Secord. But the scandal itself remains murky, probably because it’s so dumb.
Let me try to distill it to two sentences: In order to continue funding the rightwing “Contras,” a fabricated movement of “freedom fighters” largely assembled by the CIA, in their fight against the leftist Sandinista government in Nicaragua, a country smaller than Alabama and with even less strategic importance, after Congress enacted legislation making it illegal to do so, the Reagan Administration raised the requisite funds by, first, having its covert intelligence agents participate in the illegal drug trade—the same drugs the First Lady was insisting we should just say “no” to—and, later, by selling weapons to the despotic government of Ayatollah Khomeini, one of the U.S.’s most villainous and visible enemies, in violation of its own embargo. Then, once this clusterfuck was made pubic, they tried to keep a lid on it.
“Most people’s understanding of Iran-Contra is the cover-up,” says Jack Bryan, the creator of the riveting new Iran-Contra podcast Lawyers, Guns, and Money and my guest on today’s PREVAIL podcast. “Because of that…it’s hard to find a narrative thread. But what it really was about was the Reagan Administration creating a secret illegal CIA of their own, to conduct operations over the world, and to run illegal wars, and in order to fund those wars, they ran drugs. Or they allowed people to run drugs in order to give them money to fund the wars, is perhaps a more appropriate way of saying it….The element of framing it as, ‘This was missiles for hostages’ was a way of diverting attention from what they were actually doing, and what was actually criminal.”
So much effort, so much time and energy, and for what? It is easy, from our vantage point in the here and now, to look back on all of this and think, “WTF were they thinking? If a few million Nicaraguans want to be Communists, so what?” To be fair, the world was a different place in the 1980s. The Soviet Union was still intact, still our greatest rival, and the threat of encroaching Communism was still much feared in Washington. Reagan was an O.G. Cold Warrior. His advisors were still operating like it was the Kennedy-Khrushchev era. How could they have known that the USSR would collapse before the beginning of my second semester in college?
More important is what the president and his supporters were willing to do: violate multiple laws, defy their own policies, lie egregiously to the American people while indignantly insisting their intentions were pure—and convince people like my aunt that they were in the right about something categorically wrong.
That part hasn’t changed, and, as Bryan points out, has an ominous analog in recent history. “It was a president trying to overthrow a government,” he says. “And so he went off the books. He used militia members, Miami Cubans, retired generals, to try to do it illegally. And that sounds a lot like January 6th.”
We all remember the keywords of the scandal known as Iran-Contra: Oliver North, Fawn Hall, potted plant, Nicaragua, Sandinista, “I don’t recall.” The Reagan Administration was covering SOMETHING up, but what were they up to, exactly? Jack Bryan, creator of the riveting new podcast “Lawyers, Guns, and Money,” talks to Greg Olear about Iran-Contra, the Vietnam War, the mythologizing of JFK, Nicaraguan politics of the 1980s, the CIA, what Donald Trump is like in person, and more. Plus: a little Cole Porter.
Listen to the podcast:
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Photo credit: President with Caspar Weinberger, George Shultz, Ed Meese, and Don Regan in The Oval Office Discussing The President’s Remarks on The Iran-Contra Affair, 11/25/1986.