Mar 1 1993

Iran/Contra: Sweep It Away

Robbie Conal poster of Oliver North (Speak)

Oliver North (Robbie Conal)

Most of the major media reacted to George Bush’s last-minute pardon of leading Iran/Contra figures with less than outrage. The conventional wisdom in media circles for years has been that the scandal is old news and it should just go away. Robert MacNeil of the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour (12/24/92) spoke for many in the media when he asked Tom Blanton of the National Security Archive:

Mr. Blanton, why does this issue remain important? Clearly, the public is bored with it. The polls all show that years ago they stopped being interested in it. Why not, as Mr. Bush describes in his pardon statement, why not bring in the healing power of the pardon and sweep it away and sweep the bitterness away?

Blanton pointed out that what polls actually show is that most voters did not believe that Bush was telling the truth about Iran/Contra, and that this was a factor in Bush’s electoral defeat. MacNeil then turned to his other guest, Richard Perle, a former assistant to pardon recipient Caspar Weinberger, and demonstrated what he considers asking tough questions of both sides: “Mr. Perle, I believe you would sympathize with the president and his desire to sweep the bitterness away with the pardon?”

Most news outlets have been so busy trying to “sweep away” the legacy of Iran/Contra that they never fully grappled with the scandal–and don’t understand what really happened or who was involved. The coverage of the pardons provided proof of this: The Chicago Tribune (12/26/92), trying to provide background on the arms-for-hostages deal, wrote, “There is no evidence that Bush had any knowledge about the other part of the affair: a covert weapons pipeline set up to aid the Nicaraguan Contras after Congress prohibited direct government assistance in 1984.”

In fact, Bush’s involvement with the Contra operation is well-documented. In 1986, then-Vice President Bush met with Felix Rodriguez, an ex-CIA operative who coordinated the illegal airlift of arms to the Contras from El Salvador; according to a memo written by his staff briefing Bush on the meeting, the two discussed “resupply of the contras.” Rodriguez was in frequent contact with Bush’s office; Oliver North wrote in his diary that Rodriguez was “talking too much about VP connection.”

There was almost no hint of this record in any of the coverage of either the pardons or Bush’s re-election campaign. In all the ’92 campaign coverage in the New York Times, the L.A. Times and the Washington Post, there was not a single story that quoted the “resupply of the contras” memo. (The L.A. Times, 5/16/92, did refer to it once in passing in a story about former Bush aide Donald Gregg, and the Washington Post mentioned it–6/20/92–in a theater review.) On the issue of illegal arms to the Contras, the leading US newspapers seem to have given Bush a pardon of their own.