The trend in presidential crises suggests some ugly truths about American politics and government

Reading Malcolm Byrnes’ Iran-Contra reminds me that since the 1970s the United States has endured a presidential crisis in every decade. Comparing these crises reveals some disturbing trends in our government and our so-called free press.

In the 1970s, Richard Nixon resigned rather than suffer the humiliation of impeachment for ordering the break-in of an office of the Democratic Party and then trying to cover it up. Several of his staffers and hired hands served time in jail. Note that Nixon’s fall had nothing to do with his illegal secret bombing of Cambodia.

Byrnes tracks the presidential crisis of the 1980s in excruciating detail, based on his reading of an enormous range of government documents and news reports. The Reagan Administration illegally arranged for the sales of weapons to the Iranians in exchange for American hostages being held in Lebanon. Administration operatives funneled the money to the Contras, a ragtag army trying to overthrow the government of Nicaragua, in concealed defiance of American law and the expressed wishes of Congress. When rumors and evidence of this illegal activity began to emerge, the White House engaged in a cover-up, which, like Nixon’s of Watergate’s, ultimately failed. The president knew everything from the very beginning. An impeachable offense, you would assume, but people liked Ronald Reagan and didn’t want to go through the slow-motion horror of Watergate again. Many people were indicted, some convicted, but no one served any time.

BTW, Byrne is unable to prove or disprove the rumor that Reagan confidants promised Iran weapons if it held onto 52 American hostages until after the 1980 presidential election. Meetings were held; no one knows or will say what was discussed in them.

The 1990s presidential crisis seems ludicrous in retrospect. The Republicans spent years investigating Bill Clinton, trying to find some sign of illegal activity. All they could come up with was that Slick Willie liked to chase skirts. The House of Representatives impeached Clinton for no act he committed that endangered the United States or subverted the law, our democratic ideals or the will of the people. What he did was lie about one of his affairs, which is like blaming someone for touching third base after hitting a home run. Isn’t lying an essential part of the sin of infidelity and not a new, impeachable, sin?

The presidential crisis of the first decade of the 21st century revolved around the Bush II’s reaction to 9/11: manufacturing a reason to go to war against Iraq and establishing a torture gulag around the globe. The mainstream news media and our political elite seem to have given the Bush Administration a pass on the Iraq War, spinning everything away from the most likely explanation for the misstatements uttered by the President, Vice President and others on the rationale for going to war. As a nation, we prefer to blame bad information instead of out-and-out deceit.

But there is no doubt that Bush II and his henchmen conceived of, approved and implemented our shameful and illegal torture program. Instead of prosecuting these criminals, the Obama Administration chose not to investigate or indict, but to do as much as possible to ensure that no future administration resorted to such Nazi-like barbarism.

The Republicans should have thanked Obama for burying their toxic dirty laundry, but instead they created the presidential crisis of the 2010s: the calling into question of the very legitimacy of the President. The Republicans have sowed hatred and distrust of our first African-American president by stoking rumors that he wasn’t born in the United States and is a practicing Muslim. They have further delegitimized the president by attempting to conduct their own foreign policy: arranging to have a foreign head of state address Congress without paying a visit to the President and writing an open letter to Iranian leaders. No president before Obama has ever had to endure accusations of being a socialist, a traitor, anti-Christian or un-American outside the campaign trail, perhaps because campaigns now seem to last the full four years of a presidential term.  Also new are criticisms of the President without proposing alternatives. Following the lead of their constituencies, many elected officials came to oppose the war in Viet Nam vociferously. By way of contrast, for eight years the Republicans have accused Obama of projecting weakness in foreign affairs without proposing to do anything differently.

Let’s review what we’ve learned. All these presidents, except perhaps Obama, were caught lying. Sometimes it mattered and sometimes it didn’t. My conclusion—lying isn’t a presidential crime, unless it’s done to facilitate or conceal something that is considered a crime.

And what constitutes criminal or potential criminal behavior by a president?

It’s not okay to play dirty political tricks, but it is okay to sell guns to our professed enemy and use the proceeds to contravene an explicit decision by Congress.

It’s not okay to have an affair with a consenting adult, but it is okay to torture dozens of people, many of whom are innocent.

No one seems to care how many people you bomb into the Stone Age, no matter the circumstances.

And it’s still not okay to be a black male in America.

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