By James Moore
The news conference was going to be dull and provide no real facts. The nature of those events rarely changed in Washington. News, in this case, was the fact that a report was being released on the Iran-Contra affair, an illegal government scheme constructed for selling weapons to Iran and then rerouting some of the cash to Contra rebels in Nicaragua; they were trying to overthrow a socialist rebellion by the Sandinistas. The U.S., as always, had little use for socialists who did not want to let American businesses and military run their countries. The Contras were political detritus from a previous dictator’s regime, Anastasio Somoza, whose family had ruled the country with oppression for decades.
I had begun frequent trips to Washington, D.C. in the 1980s to report for Houston TV News and offer live feeds to affiliates around the country. Because I had made two brief trips to Central America during the Nicaraguan Civil War, I was the natural choice to cover the public release of the Tower Commission’s final report on Iran-Contra. Texas Republican Senator John Tower had been named by President Reagan to examine the funneling of money to the Contras, which was illegal under a law passed by Congress. There also seemed to be indications some of the money from the sale of weapons was being used to purchase drugs, which reports claimed were shipped by the Contras and a CIA operative back to the U.S. for sale and profits.
The Contra guns-for-money-for-drugs scandal began to get considerable publicity in the last years of the Reagan presidency, and there were great political efforts to separate the White House from what had transpired. That is what led to a Republican-led commission investigating a Republican president’s policies and any potential involvement by his Republican cabinet or his Republican vice president. The findings were certain to be a whitewash and downplay the role of the American military’s clandestine fiddling in foreign policy, and the news conference was to be little more than a charade to enable claims of transparency. When dozens of cameras are set up on tiers in front of a dais, shouted questions can be ignored or easily answered with vague information that cannot be followed up because of other shouting journalists.
I hated the scene, and I always hated the scene every time I went to D.C. Nothing about it involved journalism or truth. I was not yet 40 and too young to be cynical but I had been active in the anti-Vietnam War protest movement during high school and college and I learned quickly the way things actually worked in our Democratic Republic. My perspective was central to my rationale for becoming a reporter and believing the facts might be known. Fortunately, I was able to get my hands on a copy of the Tower Report the night before the news conference and it turned out to be everything I expected, and even less. Nobody was going to get to the heart of the matter by reading the Tower Commission’s findings and yelling questions over the heads of correspondents and their TV crews was not exactly a way to elicit any form of honesty from the Senator.
The findings of the Republicans-Investigating-Republicans committee were mostly a criticism of process and those ephemeral “senior administration officials.” The secret arms sales to Iran were explained as an effort to gain the release of American hostages held by Hezbollah in Lebanon. The diversion of money from those sales to the Contras, an illegal act specifically outlawed by Congress, was acknowledged, but, predictably, it was blamed on a lack of proper oversight, coordination, communication, and a failure of the decision-making process within the National Security Council (NSC). The Reagan Administration was also faulted for poor management of the NSC but how was it supposed to run an operation it was trying to claim it did now know existed? Supercilious recommendations were made that called for better record-keeping, improved oversight mechanisms, and clearer lines of authority.
But what the hell was the actual truth? No reporters at the time had the full story because it was complicated to gather and required resources in Washington, Central America, Iran, Lebanon, and anywhere gun runners and drug pushers might gather. Unavoidable, eventually, was acknowledgement of the fact that the covert operations began with Reagan and his Vice President, George H.W. Bush. They did not want Congress ordering them around and had to act unilaterally to protect freedom, the excuse for all illegal political acts. Tower’s investigation concluded that Reagan was not “fully in the loop,” which might have described his entire presidency, but Bush was later confirmed by a second investigation to have been present for every one of the NSC briefings on the project. Bush had spent his career as both a real and putative CIA asset, though, and he was never going to take the fall because he wanted to succeed Reagan in the presidency.
A list of high-profile culpable types was quickly developed. Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger was indicted for perjury and obstruction of justice while John Poindexter, Reagan’s National Security Advisor, confronted charges of conspiracy, obstruction of Congress, and making false statements. Elliot Abrams, an Assistant Secretary of State, pleaded guilty to a pair of misdemeanor charges, and Oliver North, the Lieutenant Colonel who was the key operative to make the money and guns move, was found guilty of obstruction of justice, perjury, and taking an illegal gift of a security fence for his home. None of them had much reason to worry, though. Bush was likely to become president and, at some point, would pardon his consorts who had not won their appeals, which is exactly what happened. Just before leaving office after defeat by Bill Clinton, in December of 1992, Bush pardoned Abrams, Weinberger, and four others lesser-known bad actors.
It was considered common knowledge in Washington political circles that Bush had run the operation because Reagan was not a hands-on president and his VP had been a former director of the CIA. He had been the head of the agency for a year in the mid-70s and, according to an FBI memo from J. Edgar Hoover, had been briefed on the JFK assassination. Hoover described him as, “Mr. George Bush of Central Intelligence Agency,” even though he was running his Zapata Oil Company out of Houston during those years. Bush has long denied being a CIA asset. The Tower report seemed to me an act of impunity to simply cover up, not just criminal activity by the U.S. government, but Bush’s role in management of the operation. No one cared about justice or accountability; they wanted to problem to go away, which the Tower report facilitated.
When I went on the air to report from Washington what I had been able to discern, I described the report as, “A number two Mexican dinner with one taco missing,” because being flip was the only hope I had of managing my personal anger. I was remonstrated by my news director when I got off the air, who was overly sensitive to the city’s advertising and business community and how it might react to any diminishment of its hometown hero. The truth was, though, it was just another head fake that made it all appear as administrative mistakes that got wildly out of control. Like every reporter in that news conference room that day, I listed the commission’s findings and then moved onto another assignment on a flight the next morning. I was angry as hell, though, because once again the government we were all supposed to trust was hiding the ball.
There was nothing new about any of that, of course. Washington was very skilled at deception and had become legendary in that function with the Warren Commission’s probe of the JFK assassination, which was a coverup of one of history’s greatest crimes. LBJ, Kennedy’s VP and successor as president, who was at least partially complicit in the plot, later authorized the false flag event at the Gulf of Tonkin to justify an escalation of American involvement in Vietnam. He willingly sent the sons and daughters of the U.S. marching off to war wearing the boots of a well-told lie that Communism had to be stopped in S.E. Asia before it came to our shores. Richard Nixon’s administration had its own historic deceptions, too, which included 18 missing minutes from his office recorder that might have revealed the full truth about the Watergate burglary, and even the plot to kill Kennedy and CIA involvement. When the scandal forced Nixon’s resignation, he, without doubt, got his Vice President, Gerald Ford, to agree in advance to pardon him after his departure. To think otherwise is historically naive.
When George W. Bush became president he had inherited lying genetics from the old man. Regardless of what CBS News did to Dan Rather, everyone in Texas politics knew that the elder Bush got his son into the Texas National Guard to keep him out of combat in Vietnam. I spent ten years of my spare time investigating the allegation after Bush dodged my question about it during a gubernatorial debate with Ann Richards. Eventually, the Texas Lt. Governor during that era, Ben Barnes, admitted to putting the younger Bush’s name on a political list to get him into the guard, which had almost no chance of going into combat. No one ought to have been surprised when W. Bush and his administration put together cooked data and a series of escalating lies about Saddam Hussein and weapons of mass destruction, (WMD). W may not have known how to fly his jet in the Guard, but he seemed to have natural affinity for distortions of facts to fit his political ends. His invasion of Iraq was to avenge his father’s failure to take out Saddam in the Gulf War and to secure the oil reserves of the country for American interests.
When I am asked, which is surprisingly often, why I think people don’t vote as much as they should, I want to recite the above history lesson. Generations of Americans have learned to distrust their government. An increasing number of us has become convinced our votes simply do not matter, and, often, those cynics are correct. If you are a young person entering the military, trust is essential in your commanders and political leaders. After the lies setting up the Iraq invasion under W. Bush, why would any American kid want to become a soldier? They went into combat for economic causes and revenge, not to protect freedom or democratic values, while the sons of wealthy Iraqis flew off to discos in Paris. How do we get ourselves to again believe in a government that seems to find billions for bombs and weapons for Israel and Ukraine but cannot feed and educate the poor and disadvantaged children within our own borders?
Which brings me, finally, to Trump. He is an artifact of our time. When lying works for the government, he figures it ought to be just as effective for him, and it has gotten him what he wants: money, power, and attention. Even someone with a mind as simple as Donald Trump’s can observe a government that often acts outside of constitutional constraints, and there is little punishment, if any, for the perpetrators. Why bother to speak the truth when you can get what you want with a lie or a distortion and the public cannot seem to discern the difference between fact and fiction, or they just don’t want to bother trying. Trump is intelligent enough to know that if you want to win elections you simply tell people what they wish to hear and believe and then do whatever the hell you want once you are in power. It’s still working, too.
And it’s our fault.
This article was originally published in Texas to the World.
James Moore is the New York Times bestselling author of “Bush’s Brain: How Karl Rove Made George W. Bush Presidential,” three other books on Bush and former Texas Governor Rick Perry, as well as two novels, and a biography entitled, “Give Back the Light,” on a famed eye surgeon and inventor. His newest book will be released mid- 2023. Mr. Moore has been honored with an Emmy from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences for his documentary work and is a former TV news correspondent who has traveled extensively on every presidential campaign since 1976.
He has been a retained on-air political analyst for MSNBC and has appeared on Morning Edition on National Public Radio, NBC Nightly News, Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell, CBS Evening News, CNN, Real Time with Bill Maher, and Hardball with Chris Matthews, among numerous other programs. Mr. Moore’s written political and media analyses have been published at CNN, Boston Globe, L.A. Times, Guardian of London, Sunday Independent of London, Salon, Financial Times of London, Huffington Post, and numerous other outlets. He also appeared as an expert on presidential politics in the highest-grossing documentary film of all time, Fahrenheit 911, (not related to the film’s producer Michael Moore).
His other honors include the Dartmouth College National Media Award for Economic Understanding, the Edward R. Murrow Award from the Radio Television News Directors’ Association, the Individual Broadcast Achievement Award from the Texas Headliners Foundation, and a Gold Medal for Script Writing from the Houston International Film Festival. He was frequently named best reporter in Texas by the AP, UPI, and the Houston Press Club. The film produced from his book “Bush’s Brain” premiered at The Cannes Film Festival prior to a successful 30-city theater run in the U.S.
Mr. Moore has reported on the major stories and historical events of our time, which have ranged from Iran-Contra to the Waco standoff, the Oklahoma City bombing, the border immigration crisis, and other headlining events. His journalism has put him in Cuba, Central America, Mexico, Australia, Canada, the UK, and most of Europe, interviewing figures as diverse as Fidel Castro and Willie Nelson. He has been writing about Texas politics, culture, and history since 1975, and continues with political opinion pieces for CNN and regularly at his Substack newsletter: “Texas to the World.”
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