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Ronald Reagan: The Power of Conviction and the Success of his Presidency
Peter J. Wallison
Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 2004.
$16.95, xiii + 314 pages, ISBN 0-8133-9047-8 (paperback).

Kevin Matthews
George Mason University Fairfax, Virginia


On 5 October 1986, Sandinista soldiers spotted a C-123 cargo plane lumbering across the skies of Nicaragua. Correctly guessing that the plane was filled with supplies for Contra rebels, the soldiers shot it down, killing three Americans on board. A fourth member of the crew, Eugene Hasenfus, parachuted into the Nicaraguan jungle and was taken prisoner. Hasenfus soon admitted to his captors that he was working for the Central Intelligence Agency. The image of Hasenfus—disheveled, grim-faced, his hands tied behind his back—was flashed on television screens around the world, and marked the beginning of what would soon be called the Iran-Contra affair.

A month after Hasenfus was captured by the Sandinistas, Al-Shiraa, an obscure newspaper in Beirut, revealed that the Reagan administration was secretly selling weapons to Iran in exchange for American hostages held in Lebanon. Initial White House statements about both incidents, some made by Reagan himself, denied the allegations. Then, at a dramatic news conference on 25 November, the president along with his attorney general, Edwin Meese, admitted that the stories were true after all. Worse, some of the funds from the Iranian sales had been diverted to purchase arms for the Contras, a brazen violation of a congressional ban on aid to the Nicaraguan rebels. (1)

It was damaging enough to learn that Reagan's CIA had been caught supplying the Contras. Worse, still, was the disclosure that his National Security Council staff had broken the law by selling weapons to a government that Reagan himself had condemned as a terrorist state. Yet even these revelations paled in comparison with the goal that lay behind both actions. As Reagan's own chief domestic and economic policy adviser later wrote, this was nothing less than an attempt to create an "organization accountable to no one," an off-the-books, self-financing foreign policy run entirely out of the White House, with no congressional oversight, "yet all the time able to use the power and to invoke the glory of the United States in carrying out whatever activities it deemed appropriate." (2)

At the time and ever since, Iran-Contra has been compared to that other great political scandal, Watergate. Strangely, though, while Iran-Contra is closer in time, it seems further away in memory. Perhaps that is because no real heroes emerged from the 1980s scandal. Iran-Contra produced no Woodward and Bernstein, no Judge John J. Sirica, no Senator Sam Ervin, certainly no "Deep Throat." The one figure who struck a chord with the American public was Oliver J. North, a Marine lieutenant colonel who, as a member of the National Security Council, did so much to bring about the scandal.

What many Americans would rather now forget is that—after the traumas of the 1960s (the assassinations and Vietnam), followed by the disappointments of the 1970s (Watergate chief among them)—there was no stomach for yet another failed presidency. With few exceptions, members of Congress and the media avoided any talk of impeachment even when the full implications of Iran-Contra became clear. (3) Although it clouded the remainder of his time in the White House, Reagan served two full terms, the first president to do so since Dwight Eisenhower.

Iran-Contra is also at the center of Peter Wallison's account of Ronald Reagan's presidency. An attorney in the U.S. Treasury during the first part of the Reagan Administration, Wallison served as Counsel to the President from April 1986 until March of the following year. There, he witnessed the makings of one of the worst scandals in American history. But the reader will look in vain for any mention of Hasenfus in this book, as well as a number of other aspects of the scandal. The omissions are deliberate. In this telling of the story, Iran-Contra is dismissed as "at most a foreign policy blunder" [7], one that lasted no more than "four months" [168], and for which Reagan had no responsibility. Like many fellow conservatives, Wallison is quick to assign blame to others for the scandal's longevity, if not its origins, and he rounds up the usual suspects: Democrats [235] but, especially, the media, whose coverage of the scandal was "excessive—unprecedented before or since" [127]. If that last claim sounds faintly absurd, it is, and two words show why: Monica Lewinsky.

But, never mind. Wallison aims to do more than merely exonerate Reagan of Iran-Contra's high crimes and misdemeanors. Even before the death of America's 40th president last year, his admirers had embarked on a crusade (if one may still use that term) to place him not simply in the pantheon of America's greatest presidents, but as the greatest man ever to hold the office. There have been calls to replace Alexander Hamilton with Reagan on the $10 bill, to erect a statue of the former actor on Washington's Mall and, in some wilder fantasies, to add his profile to Mount Rushmore. For Wallison, even that is not enough. At this point, he confidently declares, christening the last quarter of the twentieth century "the Reagan Era" would not be too extravagant [14]. More than historical revisionism is at work here, and the purpose is highly relevant. Wallison draws a direct line of succession from Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush (skipping the elder Bush, who is conspicuous by his absence). If the younger Bush is Reagan's ideological heir, it is but a small step to ascribing to the "son" the attributes of the "father" and, in an afterword to his book, Wallison does exactly that.

For Reagan "was not like most people or virtually any other politician" [169]. He was "unique"—so unique that Wallison uses the word five times to describe his subject in a five-page preface—then repeats the word several times, several pages later, in case the reader misses the point [3-4,12, 35]. Repetition is not the least of sins committed in this book, leaving the reader to wonder if it is deliberate or a case of poor editing. The suspicion is that it is the former. Either way, hammering the reader over the head with the same message is far from convincing.

To make his case, Wallison claims that Reagan cannot be judged by the normal standards that are used to evaluate other presidencies, because he was "operating on a different plane" [17]. The man who emerges from these pages was unlike any of his predecessors "with the possible exception of Lincoln" [xi]—a claim sure to leave even some Reagan admirers squirming. Short shrift is also given to the work of earlier Reagan biographers—to Edmund Morris, which is understandable, but also to Lou Cannon, which is not. These assessments, based on a "conventional frame of reference" developed by presidential scholar Richard Neustadt are, Wallison argues, irrelevant [9, 23]. "There are," he says, "no modern templates or precedents against which to measure or assess Ronald Reagan on his own terms" [43].

Assessing Reagan on his own terms is, as it happens, not a bad idea. For too long, Reagan's detractors dismissed him, in Clark Clifford's memorable phrase, as the "amiable dunce." That was a mistake because, even as Reagan's supporters bristled at the remark, they were quick to use it whenever it suited them. If a presidential gaffe could not explained away—as occurred on 11 August 1984, when Reagan joked into a radio microphone that he had just signed legislation to "outlaw the Soviet Union forever" and would "begin bombing in five minutes"—his spokesmen deflected criticism with a defense that amounted to "Oh, that's just Ronnie." Wallison himself was ready to use this tactic when, as the Iran-Contra crisis deepened, it seemed that it would be better for the president of the United States "to be considered a fool than a liar" [218]. Leave aside the implications of that statement. Leave aside, too, the fact that Wallison could come up with no better alternative. The admission is jarring here, because one of this book's aims is to dispel the notion that Reagan was "intellectually challenged" [ix].

Wallison's account is shot through with contradictions like this, and never more so than when he assesses the Reagan record. Long before he entered the White House, Reagan had "a fully developed philosophy of government" [16], soon known as "Reaganism," a philosophy based on "support for private-sector economic growth and individual opportunity, and opposition to the growth of government and the bureaucratic state" [14]. Reagan put it a bit more memorably in his first inaugural address when he said that "government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem."

The problem with Reaganism was that it simply did not add up. Neither did one its main components, supply side economics. John Anderson, an opponent during the 1980 Republican presidential primaries, put it this way: "How," he asked, "is it possible to raise defense spending, cut income taxes, and balance the budget, all at the same time?" (4) The answer is that it was not (and is not) possible. David Stockman, Reagan's first budget director, had to face this fact early on. Stockman realized that Reagan's campaign promise to eliminate "waste, fraud, and mismanagement" was insufficient if the administration was going to balance the budget. Stockman, initially, saw this as a good thing, as it would allow the Reaganites to "starve the beast." The resulting budget crisis would give Republicans an opportunity to reduce or kill a whole host of federally financed programs: everything from highway construction, to farm aid, to Social Security benefits, to education, and student loans. The trouble was, once Reagan discovered how unpopular these cuts were, he quickly disavowed them. Although Stockman had predicted that powerful interest groups would share in the burden of reducing federal spending, he was soon forced to concede that the poor, the unemployed, the disabled, the "weak clients" as he called them, "can't play in this game." Their programs were cut; those most popular with the wealthy and the middle class remained largely intact.

As for the Reagan tax cuts, Stockman privately admitted that the plan "was always a Trojan horse" to "conceal a hoary old Republican doctrine: give the tax cuts to the top brackets, the wealthiest individuals and largest enterprises, and let the good effects 'trickle down.'" Before it was over, Reagan's economic program saddled the country with annual deficits in the hundreds of billions of dollars, forcing Stockman and his successors to resort to the "rosy scenario" and, most notoriously, the "magic asterisk"—accounting gimmicks that helped the budgets sail through Congress. By the time Reagan left office, the national debt had nearly tripled to $2.6 trillion. Annual interest payments alone rocketed from $69 billion in 1981 to $169 billion in 1989. Before Ronald Reagan entered the White House, the United States was the world's largest net creditor nation. Midway through his presidency it became the world's largest net debtor nation, where it has been stuck ever since.

Wallison holds Reagan accountable for none of this. While he is ready to blame Federal Reserve Board Chairman Paul Volcker for one of the country's worst economic slumps [48], he ignores the fact that it was Volcker who laid the foundation for the resulting recovery by bringing inflation under control. Without that and there would have been no economic expansion in the 1980s. As for the deficits, like supply siders then and since, Reagan was confident that his tax cuts would so stimulate the economy that this alone would draw down his stack of IOUs. They did nothing of the kind, but Wallison nonetheless claims that the Reagan deficits "left no discernible scar on the American economy" [6]. This conveniently ignores the fact that it took two massive tax hikes—one signed by George H.W. Bush, the other by Bill Clinton—to restore fiscal sanity to the federal government.

You might think that after this experience, once was enough. Instead, Reaganism came roaring back in 2001, aided and abetted by media that uncritically accept that the Republican Party is now based on Reagan's values of "cutting taxes and limiting the size of government." (5) But only the first half of this claim is true (and then mainly for the well-off). Republicans have been just as keen as Democrats at safeguarding programs near and dear to their supporters. If another stack of IOUs piles up, so what? As Vice President Dick Cheney famously pointed out: "Reagan proved deficits don't matter."

That kind of recklessness about the country's future is a Reagan legacy that Wallison does his best to ignore. He would rather concentrate on what he calls two principles at the center of the Reagan philosophy: "individual obedience to the law and individual acceptance of personal responsibility" [54]. Which leads back to Iran-Contra.

In Wallison's contradictory, not to say confused telling of this story, the main culprits in Iran-Contra were Reagan's "hands-off management style" along with his refusal to admit that he had "adopted the wrong policy" [xii]. He tries to excuse his client of responsibility for the resulting mess by arguing that Reagan never bothered with details (he was "operating on a different plane," after all). This, in turn, allowed Robert McFarlane, Reagan's national security adviser, his successor John Poindexter, and their subordinate Oliver North to pursue, first, the Iran initiative and then, second, the diversion of funds to the Contras [112, 171]. But Wallison's defense of Reagan simply does not stand up.

Even if Reagan was unwilling to face the truth, the opening to Tehran was from the beginning a "straight one-for-one swap" of arms for hostages. Wallison comes close to admitting as much when he concedes that Reagan's "continual worry" about the hostages "may have been responsible for the overzealousness of his aides in promoting the arms sales to Iran" [96, 250, 261, 299 n. 8]. Worse, because the sales were never reported to Congress, Reagan violated both the National Security Act and the Arms Export Control Act. Only a signed presidential "finding" that the transactions had to be kept secret in the interests of national security could override this requirement—a finding that had to be signed before the sales took place. (6) That did not happen, and administration lawyers came up with all sorts of novel theories to get Reagan out of this dilemma. For his part, Wallison considered arguing that the president had fulfilled his responsibilities by making a "mental finding," thus sidestepping the requirement that it be put in writing [245]. So much for individual obedience to the law.

An independent counsel's office, established to investigate Iran-Contra, was even harsher when it examined Reagan's responsibility for the diversion of funds to the Contras. According to the report's "executive summary," Reagan's order to McFarlane to "keep the Contras alive 'body and soul'" was "an invitation to break the law." (7) It is telling that Wallison all but ignores the Contra side of the Iran-Contra scandal, and he is particularly anxious to separate Reagan from any direct dealings with North [183, 233-234]. Even if the lieutenant colonel's claims that he frequently briefed the president were, to quote Reagan himself, "horseshit," the president was still responsible for his subordinate's actions [264]. Although the independent counsel did not find evidence that Reagan had violated any criminal statutes, his own "disregard" for the law "set the stage for the illegal activities of others." (8)

Wallison reserves some of his harshest criticism for North [200], but if anyone took the heat off Reagan during Iran-Contra it was him. Called to testify before the joint congressional committees investigating the scandal, North appeared in his Marine uniform, a chest full of medals. He was unapologetic, even when confronted about plans to create a covert foreign policy—plans that, practically speaking, subverted the Constitution's checks and balances. With a boyish grin, he told his questioners that he thought it was "a pretty neat idea." By the end of his four days of testimony, a majority of Americans had been swept up in "Olliemania." Apparently they thought that subverting the U.S. Constitution was "a pretty neat idea," too. The words would make a fitting inscription on any monument to "the Reagan Era."


1. For a detailed discussion of the Iran-Contra affair, see Johnson, Haynes. Sleepwalking Through History: America in the Reagan Years. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1991.

2. Anderson, Martin. Revolution: The Reagan Legacy. Stanford: Hoover Institution Press, 1990, pp. 402-03.

3. Johnson, Haynes. Sleepwalking Through History, pp. 333, 349-50. Also, see Hertsgaard, Mark. On Bended Knee: The Press and the Reagan Presidency. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1988, pp. 332-33.

4. See Greider, William. "The Education of David Stockman," The Atlantic Monthly, December 1981. The article is now available at : This and subsequent quotes about the early budget battles are taken from this source, unless otherwise indicated.

5. Balz, Dan and Mike Allen. "Sagging GOP Rebuilt in His Image," The Washington Post, 6 June 2004.

6. See Chapter 27, "President Reagan," pp. 445-72, Final Report of the Independent Counsel for Iran/Contra Matters, Vol. I: Investigations and Prosecutions, 4 August 1993, now available at

7. Ibid, "Executive Summary", pp. xiii-xxii.

8. Ibid.


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